58 people killed in a single attack, including 32 media workers. The failure to convict anyone in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre case both reflects and nourishes the culture of impunity, everywhere.
Speaking out on the issue of impunity, we often refer to the importance of bringing criminals to justice. But justice means more than that. This was reinforced at a recent meeting in Strasbourg on the protection of journalists: Bringing criminals to justice is necessary, when protection fails. But in the best of all worlds, we want to prevent these crimes and create a safe and enabling environment for journalists.
This is what IFEX is working for with its annual network-wide campaign to end impunity for crimes against free expression. Each year we focus on strengthening awareness of this pervasive problem and calling for justice in specific cases – not just to bring those responsible to account, but to help create conditions where people are free to seek and impart information, without fear. We see this as fundamental both to the right to freedom of expression, and to our ability to promote and defend all human rights.
On 2 November, we marked the inaugural UN International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. And in less than a week, we mark the fifth anniversary of an attack that has become an emblematic case of impunity. On 23 November 2009, a brutal, politically-motivated attack which became known as the Ampatuan Massacre took place in the Philippines, leaving 58 people dead – 32 of them journalists and media workers. Not one person has been convicted for any of these deaths. IFEX has launched a set of campaign actions to encourage global awareness and action.
Looking back, the IFEX network has been closely involved with this case since the beginning. In 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the killings and on the invitation of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, IFEX member the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) led a mission to the area that included representatives from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Australia’s Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance and the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA). Their findings were published in a deeply troubling report released the following month.
In an interview shortly after the massacre, the chief city prosecutor Ediberto Jamora got to the heart of the problem: “This is what happens when governments act outside the law, when people think they are above the law and there is the belief that misdeeds are unpunishable.”
Speaking out on the case was a dangerous move. After Jamora’s bodyguard was threatened Jamora also found himself on the receiving end of threats. These risks continue today for those fighting on behalf of the victims in the case. Since then, six individuals – three witnesses and three relatives of massacre victims – have been killed. Prosecutors working on the case face threats regularly.
One of the prosecutors, Prima Jesusa Quinsayas, was featured in IFEX’s 2012 campaign to end impunity. A number of her clients had been indirectly threatened with death, bribed to change their testimony. Witnesses had libel and other trumped-up charges brought against them and their homes were destroyed.
IFEX’s local member, the Manila-based Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), has worked tirelessly in collaboration with many others to report on the legal manipulation of court rules and the intimidation of witnesses behind the continued delay of the proceedings.
Local journalists continue to face challenges covering the trial. As recently as this past September security personnel and police officers barred members of the media from entering the proceedings without providing a warrant or an explanation.
All of which brings us to this, the fifth anniversary of the attack. CMFR are organising a “Million Candles Campaign” including a vigil in Manila on the evening of 23 November, and in support, IFEX is running a week-long digital campaign leading up to it.
You can, and should, be part of this campaign. The failure to convict anyone in this case both reflects and nourishes the culture of impunity, everywhere.
Starting on 18 November, we invite you to tweet out demands for justice, using #AmpatuanMassacre. But make no mistake – Tweet for Justice is a hashtag campaign with a difference.
Go to the IFEX campaign website, daytoendimpunity.org, to find our unique “digital wall”. The wall houses the images of the 32 journalists and media workers in the Philippines who perished in the attack. Their images are fading, but every time a tweet using #AmpatuanMassacre appears on the wall the images will momentarily brighten, signaling our intention to never let their memory fade.
Our message, and one we hope you will add your voice to: These crimes will not be forgotten.
On the evening of 23 November this digital wall will be projected for all to see during CMFR’s candlelight vigil in Manila.
We are inviting everyone to do the same as our colleagues in the Philippines. Host a vigil, anywhere in the world, by projecting the digital wall, live, and encourage people to send tweets of support that they will see appear on the wall within seconds.
Campaigning to end impunity is not just about sending people to jail. It says to those who would commit similar crimes around the world: You will be held accountable. You will not get away with it. And seeing justice served in one case helps this important message sink in, and bolsters our resolve to continue to advocate for an end to impunity, everywhere.