On March 1, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) along with leading international press freedom coalition held a press conference urging for the immediate resolution and justice to decade-old case of slain Palawan-based journalist Gerry Ortega.

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which led the Safer World for the Truth initiative include the state of investigation in Ortega murder case.

They emphasized that justice delayed is justice denied.

Ortega was gunned down in 2011. He was a prominent broadcaster and environmentalist known for his involvement in advocacy campaigns including opposition to mining projects in Palawan. He also produced critical reports about politics and corruption including former Palawan governor Joel T. Reyes.

Rodolfo Edrad, a former security aide of Reyes, confessed that Reyes is the mastermind behind Ortega’s murder.

For more than a decade, Reyes even managed to run in the 2022 elections for his old post as governor in the province. He was never arrested despite having been issued two arrest warrants from the local and higher court since July 14 2021 and July 16 last year.

Pushing Marcos Jr. govt to act

“It’s not the first time that we received reports that he (Reyes) is in plain sight, that he is recognized. We would like to take opportunity to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Philippine National Police (PNP) to act upon it,” said FPU research coordinator Jos Midas Bartman.

The press freedom organizations met with the DOJ and PNP to submit the result of their findings including the whereabouts of Reyes.

Bartman confirmed Reyes to have been roaming around freely in the country.

“Not long ago, we received information from our partners that there were reliable sources that were cross-checked that could say something about the location of the alleged mastermind. The information was of such nature that we deem to travel to Manila and bring the information to [these agencies],” Bartman added.

According to the report from Safer World for Truth, the prolonged legal battle has exacerbated safety risks for Ortega’s family and case witnesses. This includes the suspicious death of a key witness and the threat to the self-confessed middleman, Edrad, after refusing a bribe offer from two individuals hired by Reyes that sought for him to recant his statement about Reyes being the mastermind in the decade-old murder case.

“This is the push we give for them to show that they are serious about press freedom,” said CPJ Asia Program coordinator Beh Li Yi.

NUJP secretary general Len Olea said DOJ Asec. Mico Clavano have an assurance to check on the Reyes’ arrest warrant in the Palawan court.

“Asec. Clavano told us that steps will be taken in a few months so we’re expecting for concrete actions,” Olea added.

Actual govt response to media freedom

“It is true that the Philippines is a democratic country, there is press freedom to a certain extent but journalists are being attacked. How can you do your work properly when you might get shot anytime for any reason, this is not acceptable,” said RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani.

NUJP stressed that Ortega’s killings and other journalists have aggravated the climate of impunity in the country adding that the chilling effect is very real among Filipino journalists especially under the current administration.

“The families of the victims also experience the anguish and anxiety so long that the masterminds and the perpetrators of these killings are not brought to justice. On a larger scale, we also feel anxious about these killings,” NUJP secretary-general Len Olea averred.

NUJP reiterated the findings of UN special rapporteur Irene Khan who conducted an investigation into the state of free expression during her recent visit to the country. Olea seconded the UN expert’s findings that the actions taken by the government have been insufficient in addressing the issues surrounding human rights and free expression.

“Khan also disputed claims by the Presidential Task Force on Media Safety (PTFoMS) that convictions of killings of journalists are improving,” Olea added.

Last January 24, various media organizations and press freedom advocates slammed PTFoMS after releasing a statement implying that the Philippines has a free and vibrant media community.

The groups reiterated the ongoing harassment and threat to media freedom including the website blocking to Pinoy Weekly and Bulatlat, continuing legal battle to women journalists Lady Ann Salem, Anne Krueger and Frenchie Mae Cumpio who is still languishing behind bars.

While the international press freedom groups noted the Marcos Jr. administration’s attempt to exhibit a more favorable response to media freedom compared to former Duterte administration, they acknowledged the rampant and continued disinformation campaign that targets critical journalists and media outfits under the current administration.

“The Philippines is one of the few functional democracies in Southeast Asia. We wish the Philippines can actually lead the example. Nothing would please me more than coming back here in one year to acknowledge some progress on the case. To acknowledge that the mastermind of the crime has been arrested. To acknowledge that the safety situation has increased,” said Alviani.

Probing other journo killings

“There is absolutely a possibility,” Bartman said.

He reiterated Safer World for the Truth investigate certain cases around that globe that have shocked the journalism community to certain degree, including Ortega’s case.

“We are also looking very closely into other cases of journalists who have been killed, Percy Lapid last year, Juan Jumalon. CPJ was on a mission last year to the Philippines to assess the state of investigations in Percy Lapid’s case and we continue to call for justice,” Yi shared.

NUJP noted that Ortega was the 142nd journalist to be killed since 1986. Four journalists have been killed under the current Marcos administration.

The group added that out of 900 journalists killed in over a decade, 80% cases remained unresolved with only 20% of the cases with their perpetrators proceed with the rule of law.

The Philippines currently holds the 132nd rank out of 180 in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index report. The country also ranked eight among the worst countries for prosecuting killers of journalists in CPJ’s 2023 Global Impunity Index.


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