The Philippines remained one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists, but it also became one of the more litigious as numerous criminal defamation lawsuits were filed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's husband and other political figures. A deteriorating political situation and increased security concerns in February led Arroyo to declare a state of emergency and prompted her government to take a series of repressive actions against the press.
The administration billed the state of emergency as a way to preempt a coup by dissident soldiers, communist groups, and political opponents. It quickly issued broad guidelines that barred reporting considered destabilizing, and it positioned troops around the Manila headquarters of the country's two largest television broadcasters, ABS-CBN and GMA-7.
Without a warrant, national police raided the facilities of The Daily Tribune in Manila, seizing editorial materials and padlocking its printing presses for one night. The paper, which was known for its critical news coverage of Arroyo's administration, had run a series of articles earlier in February that predicted and analyzed the government's possible motives for imposing a state of emergency.
After lifting martial law on March 3, the government filed sedition charges against the paper's publisher, Ninez Cacho-Olivares, and columnists Ike Seneres and Herman Tiu-Laurel. Cacho-Olivares told CPJ that the indictment did not specify the offending Daily Tribune articles or columns, and she later won a Supreme Court appeal on grounds that the constitution protected press freedom during times of national crisis.
Still, government officials and their close associates continued to harass the press, filing a string of criminal libel cases against several journalists at a time. On October 2, a court in the city of Barangay Santa Fe issued arrest warrants for Publisher Rudy Apolo and 10 staff members of the Asian Star Journal and Asia Star Balita based on a criminal defamation complaint filed by provincial Gov. Irineo Maliksi. The governor took issue with the papers' reporting on alleged corruption in a government rice purchase.
On October 16, the Manila Regional Trial Court issued arrest warrants for nine editorial staff members of the English-language daily Malaya in relation to a criminal libel suit filed by Jose Miguel Arroyo, the president's husband. The suit stemmed from a May 19, 2004, report alleging that Arroyo was involved in attempted vote-rigging in favor of his wife during the 2004 presidential election – charges he strongly denied.
Arroyo filed at least 10 different criminal libel lawsuits against 43 different journalists seeking damages totaling 70 million pesos (US$1.4 million). Penalties for criminal libel convictions in the Philippines also include imprisonment of six months to six years. In response to politicians' use of criminal libel suits, a coalition of more than 600 journalists and 30 local and foreign international media freedom organizations issued a joint petition calling for the decriminalization of libel.
At least three Philippine journalists were killed in retaliation for their reporting, bringing to 32 the total number of reporters killed for their work over the past 15 years, CPJ research shows.
President Arroyo, who has repeatedly vowed to better protect the press, established a national police unit in 2004 to track down journalists' killers. The unit has made some inroads, but government spokesmen have overstated its progress. In response to inquiries made by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, spokesman Ignacio Buyne issued a public statement in May claiming that roughly half of Philippine journalist murders had been solved. But by the government's definition, a case is considered "solved" merely when a suspect is identified and some type of court case filed – regardless of whether the case results in a conviction. Research by CPJ, which considers a case solved when killers and masterminds are convicted, shows that the impunity rate in the Philippines is well over 90 percent.
Progress was made in one high-profile case. On October 6, a judge in Cebu convicted three suspects in the March 2005 murder of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat, sentencing each to 30 to 40 years in prison. The three gunmen – Estanislao Bismanos, Gerry Cabayag, and Randy Grecia – pleaded guilty and testified that they had been hired to assassinate Garcia-Esperat in retaliation for her stories about corruption in Mindanao's Department of Agriculture.
As the verdict was announced, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales ordered the reinstatement of murder charges against the two agriculture officials suspected of masterminding the murder, finance officer Osmeña Montañer and accountant Estrella Sabay. Charges against the two officials had been dropped the previous year, but Gonzales said evidence presented in the case supported their reinstatement, The Associated Press reported.
Yet with other investigations progressing slowly, the culture of impunity remained firmly in place. In May, two gunmen on motorcycles shot radio commentator Fernando Batul six times as he drove to work at DZRH in Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island. His murder came a week after two hand grenades and a threatening letter were left at his home.
Police officer Aaron Madamay Golifardo was later arrested and charged with Batul's murder. In a May 11 broadcast, Batul had criticized Golifardo for allegedly showing a weapon during a disagreement with a waitress in a karaoke bar, according to news reports. Hearings in Golifardo's trial began in September. The other person on the motorcycle was not immediately identified. Batul, a former vice mayor, was also highly critical of city government, and his reporting often touched on alleged government corruption and nepotism.
The next month brought another pair of murders on another island – under strikingly similar circumstances. Two unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed radio broadcasters George and Maricel Vigo on the island of Mindanao while the couple were walking home from a public market. George Vigo was a contributor to the Bangkok-based, church news agency Union of Catholic Asian News. His wife, Maricel, hosted a radio program on local station DXND. The couple had earlier founded a tabloid called The Headliner, which sought to expose police and government corruption. That newspaper's office was mysteriously burned down in 2001.
Police painted the two journalists' deaths as a retaliatory act by the New People's Army (NPA), a militant Communist group. The couple, previously active in left-wing student groups, had cultivated contacts within the NPA as part of their reporting, according to colleagues. In 2003, George Vigo reported on the NPA for a BBC documentary titled "One Day of War," according to journalist Orlando Guzman, a friend who did reporting for the documentary.
CPJ continued to investigate the circumstances surrounding the July murder of radio broadcaster Armando Pace, who was killed while riding home from Radyo Ukay DXDS in Digos City on the island of Mindanao. Digos City Police Director Caesar Cabuhat said that Pace's killing could have been "a personal or work-related crime," according to news reports. One suspect was charged.
Killed in 2006 in the Philippines
Fernando Batul, DZRH and DYPR, May 22, 2006, Puerto Princesa
Batul, 37, a radio commentator with DZRH and DYPR radio, was shot six times by motorcycle-riding gunmen while he was driving to work in the provincial town of Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan.
Police officer Aaron Madamay Golifardo was charged in the murder two days later, after being identified by eyewitnesses, according to news reports. In a May 11 broadcast, Batul had criticized Golifardo for allegedly showing a weapon during a disagreement with a waitress in a karaoke bar, according to news reports. Hearings in Golifardo's trial began in September. The other person on the motorcycle was not immediately identified.
Batul, a former vice mayor, was also highly critical of city government, and his reporting often touched on alleged government corruption and nepotism. In April, two unexploded hand grenades and a threatening letter were left at Batul's home, according to news reports and CPJ sources. The letter demanded that Batul stop his critical radio broadcasts, and he later told National Bureau of Investigation officials that he thought local police were behind the threat. He also sent text messages and spoke with media colleagues about the threat, CPJ sources said.
Two local journalists who worked with Batul and who were investigating his murder told CPJ that they had been threatened. In June, they said, they fled Palawan due to concerns about their safety.
George Vigo, Union of Catholic Asian News, June 19, 2006, Mindanao
Maricel Vigo, DXND, June 19, 2006, Mindanao
Two unidentified gunmen shot radio journalists George and Maricel Vigo near their home on the southern island of Mindanao. The married couple were walking home from a public market when they were shot at around 5:15 p.m. by men on a motorcycle. They died on the way to the hospital.
George Vigo was a contributor to the Bangkok-based church news agency Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) and was active in a local nongovernmental organization that helped rehabilitate internally displaced people. Maricel Vigo hosted a radio program on local station DXND.
The couple's recent reporting and commentary was considered uncontroversial, according to colleagues and local media groups. But the two had long careers reporting on alleged government corruption and right-wing militias. Offices of a tabloid newspaper founded by the Vigos, The Headliner, were the target of an apparent arson attack in 2001.
The couple had previously been active in left-wing student groups and in recent years had cultivated contacts within the militant Communist rebel organization, the New People's Army (NPA), as part of their reporting, according to colleagues. In 2003, George Vigo reported on the NPA for a BBC documentary titled "One Day of War," according to journalist Orlando Guzman, a friend who did reporting for the documentary.
Some of George Vigo's colleagues believe that the couple's murder may be connected to a video CD he received from the NPA, which showed a raid on a police station, according to Guzman. He told several colleagues that he had been followed after receiving the video and had expressed fear that military or local officials would target him.
German Doria, the central Mindanao police chief, told reporters that an NPA member had been identified as one of the gunmen and that the killing appeared to be in retaliation for George Vigo's cooperation with the Philippine military. The Philippine government announced a heightened military campaign against the rebels in early June. An NPA spokesman, however, denied involvement in the killing, according to news reports.
Rolly Cañete, freelance, January 20, 2006, Pagadian City (motive unconfirmed)
Unidentified gunmen killed radio broadcaster and political publicist Cañete on a busy street in the southern city of Pagadian. International news reports said the attackers fled on a motorcycle.
Cañete was a block-time broadcaster on three radio stations. Two of the stations, DXPA and DXBZ, were controlled by Congressman Antonio Cerilles and his wife, provincial governor Aurora Cerilles, the reports said. Both politicians employed Cañete as their publicist and paid for his radio programs.
Cañete frequently criticized opponents of Cerilles on his daily radio programs, and police believe that his work for the politicians may have been a motive in his killing. Philippine National Police Chief Arturo C. Lomibao told reporters that charges were filed against two suspects.
Cañete leased airtime under a practice known as block-timing, in which commentators also solicit their own advertisers. A number of block-time broadcasters have been killed in recent years.
Orlando Tapios Mendoza, freelance, April 4, 2006, Tarlac (motive unconfirmed)
Mendoza, a part-time newspaper editor and columnist, was shot several times by unidentified men as he was returning home in Tarlac, 65 miles (110 kilometers) north of Manila. He was pronounced dead at the scene, according to local media reports.
Mendoza, 58, reported and edited for small local newspapers – the Tarlac Profile and Tarlac Patrol – and wrote several pieces on land disputes before his death, according to the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
Philippine National Police Chief Arturo Lomibao told reporters that "information on the killing of Orlando Mendoza points to the victim's involvement in land disputes as the motive for the crime."
Before Mendoza became a journalist in 1998, he was responsible for implementing the government's land reform program. Land ownership claims are often highly contested and result in animosity in the Philippines.
Armando Pace, DXDS, July 18, 2006, Digos City (motive unconfirmed)
Pace, 51, an outspoken block-time commentator on Radyo Ukay DXDS, was shot in the head and chest by two motorcycle-riding assailants while traveling home from work on a busy street in Digos City on the island of Mindanao. He died shortly after arriving at a local hospital.
On July 20, Digos City police arrested Joy Anticamara in the murder. Police said a young woman witnessed the shooting from 15 to 30 feet away and identified Anticamara in a lineup. Digos City Police Director Caesar Cabuhat said that Pace's killing could have been "a personal or work-related crime," according to news reports.
Police investigators also questioned Jesus Saraum, who allegedly owned the motorcycle used in the killing. Isidro Lapeña, Philippine National Police deputy director-general, said blood found on Saraum's motorcycle matched that of the victim.
Pace was known for stinging radio commentaries that often targeted local politicians. News reports noted that he had been the target of a number of libel lawsuits filed by politicians, business people, and others. Pace purchased airtime from DXDS under a practice known as block-timing, in which the commentators also solicit their own advertisers.
Ponciano Grande, DWJJ, December 7, 2006, Cabantuan City (motive unconfirmed)
Two unidentified gunmen killed Grande, 53, a former newspaper columnist and occasional co-host of a radio variety show, at his farm in Cabantuan City, central Luzon. The assailants shot Grande five times and chased his wife, Annie Luwag-Grande, but did not harm her, according to the online news site INQ7 and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
Grande, former director of the Nueva Ecija Press Club, wrote columns for the local weeklies The Recorder and Nueva Ecija Times until 2002, and had recently co-hosted a radio program with his wife on radio station DWJJ.
Grande had retired from writing columns in order to manage the family farm, INQ7 reported. Police were investigating the motive for the attack, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
Andres Acosta, DZJC, December 20, 2006, Batac (motive unconfirmed)
An unidentified attacker stabbed commentator Acosta in the town of Batac, 240 miles (390 kilometers) north of Manila. Stabbed in the head and body, Acosta collapsed on his motorcycle while trying to get to a hospital.
Batac Police Chief Bienvenido Rayco told local reporters that the killing might be work-related. "He had been receiving death threats," Rayco said, without giving further details. He also noted that Acosta had been a witness in a court case and could have been targeted in revenge. Another DZJC commentator, Roger Mariano, was killed in 2004.
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