Maguindanao massacre threatens press freedom in the Philippines

Manila -- 2009 will go down in history as the darkest year for the Philippine media with the killing of 57 people, including 30 journalists in southern Philippines on 23 November 2009 on what is notoriously labeled worldwide as the Maguindanao massacre. In my 46 years as a journalist, the massacre of 30 Filipino journalists in one tragic incident perpetrated by political warlords was the worst in the history of Philippine media! Not even in Iraq and Afghanistan this dastardly act happened where journalists are killed in the crossfire while covering the ongoing war. Only in the Philippines where press freedom is supposed to be given a premium.

The mass killing was brazenly done in broad daylight by hundreds of gunmen who fired their automatic M16 and M14 assault rifles at their defenseless victims like sitting ducks! Worst, to cover the heinous crime they committed, the perpetrators buried the victims outright in shallow mass graves, using a backhoe to dig the earth’s surface. The victims were not only buried hastily, but also the vehicles (more than 10) were also stashed underneath in a move to blot out all traces of physical evidence. However, one or two eye witnesses came out openly tell the gory tale to authorities.

Luckily, the victims were able to call their relatives using mobile phones that they were stopped by heavily armed men before they were shot like dogs.

The 57 bodies were dug from their shallow mass grave by policemen and soldiers who rushed to the scene of the crime following the massacre.

The killing was uncalled for. There is no iota of justification at all. The 30 Filipino journalists and 27 civilians who were killed in the town of Sharif Agwak, Maguindanao some 800 kilometers south of Manila was premeditated. This must be condemned by all peace loving people all over the world. Justice should be served. The victims’ families are crying for swift justice.

The powerful Ampatuan family ruled Maguindanao with iron fist since 2001 before the mass killings happened.

The massacre prompted Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to declare martial law in the province of Maguindanao only that enabled the police and the military to conduct search and arrest of the suspects. The series of raids made by government forces resulted in the seizure of over a thousand of high-powered weapons, including a bazooka and several machine guns buried some 500 meters the house of the Ampatuan.

At least 700 suspects were rounded up by the police and military a few days after the massacre. The number of suspects is so huge that the police have difficulty of finding a detention center exclusively for the Maguindanao murder suspects.

To my recollection, this is the biggest number of suspects accused of multiple murder and rebellion charges in Philippine history. It was for this reason that President Arroyo acted swiftly by declaring a state of emergency to restore law and order.

But when there was an intelligence report that armed followers of the Ampatuans were planning to stage a rebellion, the President imposed martial rule to nip in the bud a brewing full-blown armed uprising in Maguindanao after the Ampatuans were tagged as the suspects in the massacre.

Under the Philippine Constitution of 1987, the President has the power to declare martial law in the whole country or any part thereof when national security is at stake as in the case of the Maguindanao situation. So brutal was the killings that the victims’ bodies were badly mangled from bullet wounds. The private parts of the women victims were also shot.

Martial law was imposed only for a week or so. President Arroyo lifted after defense and military establishment determined that the armed rebellion fizzled out.

The massacre was an off-shoot of an intense political rivalry between two Filipino Muslim clans – the Ampatuan family and the Mangudadatu family in the forthcoming Philippine elections in May 2010. The Ampatuans’ resented the candidacy of the Mangudadatu who wanted to run for governor for the province of Maguindanao.

Maguindanao is one of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines. But despite being a poor province, the Ampatuans have wantonly displayed their wealth – building mansions, owning a fleet of luxury cars, among others – amidst a glaring poverty of their constituency.

The 30 journalists were there to cover the filing of the candidacy of Vice Mayor Mangudadatu for governor of Maguindanao in the forthcoming polls next May to challenge the powerful Amputuan clan. Apparently, the latter resented political duel for a fair and honest election.

The international media has joined the uproar and condemnation of the Maguindanao massacre. It was a nightmare that should not happen again. The trial of the accused will start early next year.

“Let justice be done though the heavens fall!”

See other stories on the Maguindanao massacre.

Asia, PoliticsBen Cal