On November 23, 2009, the world was shocked to hear news of the killing of 58 civilians in the small town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province.
The 58 were part of the convoy, while some were only passersby, for a political candidate set to file his candidacy against former allies and the ruling clan whose name also is the name of the town where the massacre took place.
Among the dead, 32 were journalists who covered the event. The massacre became the worst case of election violence in the country. It is the single deadliest event for journalists in the world. It happened in a country where there was no war of aggression, in a country ranking regularly among the most dangerous place for journalists to live in the world despite being known as “the freest press in Asia” since the people fought and brought down a dictator in 1986.
But it takes political dynasties, it takes bureaucrats who work against the interests of the people, it takes a flawed justice system for the culture of impunity to foster. For it to take 10 years for a patently heinous crime to be decided at the first or lowest court it was filed.
It takes families like the Ampatuans who rule like gods and shower in money while ruling in one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines. Who, while being government executives at all levels from province down, were able to mobilize a private army and government heavy equipment to execute a massacre of 58 people and buy time to bury it in a shallow grave in the same town. It takes presidents like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who let Ampatuan friends and alleged president’s henchmen in the “Hello Garci” and 13-0 election controversies in the region for horrific events like Ampatuan massacre to take place.
Ten years and only tomorrow will we hear the first decisions on the Ampatuan massacre handed down.
An acquittal in the Ampatuan massacre case is a big blow to press freedom. A conviction is an initial victory against impunity in the Philippines and in the world.
Where there are tyrants and political dynasties rule and where they exist against the very tenets of democracy, press freedom is under siege and justice is elusive. Press freedom is very much under siege today with the continued killings, threats and legal harassment against journalists. Thirteen journalists have been killed under the current administration.
The massacre has been a collective nightmare that the Filipino people share and must not forget, must be healed from, until and when justice is won.
The conviction of the Ampatuans and their cohorts are not only for the victims and their families. It is for press freedom. It is for justice. It is for our hope that there ever be any form of justice attained within the system of this society.
Journalists, media workers and the Filipino people must continue to fight against the culture of impunity and the very conditions in society that perpetuate for such grievous crimes to ever happen.