Outside the tightly guarded room in a police camp that had been locked down for the event, journalists and victims’ families listened, rapt and teary-eyed as the judgment was aired live on TV and radio. All around the country, Filipinos watched with relief — and disbelief.
For a decade, justice had eluded the victims of the massacre in Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines. On Nov. 23, 2009, some 200 armed men led by several members of the powerful local clan known as the Ampatuans attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying journalists, lawyers and the wife of a politician who had recently announced he would contest the governorship then held by the group’s patriarch.
When the deed was done, the killers buried the bodies and the vehicles in two vast pits dug with the help of an excavator normally used by the provincial government for digging ditches and building roads.
It took a group of determined lawyers, the perseverance of the victims’ families and the courage of witnesses — three of whom were murdered during the trial — to get past the horror and demand justice. An independent-minded judge brushed aside threats on her life. Press groups monitored the trial, supported families and last week pleaded with the Supreme Court that the judgment be aired live for the world to see.
The verdict is a triumph of Philippine justice, one definitely worth celebrating. It’s rare for the masterminds of journalists’ murders to face trial, so this case marks a milestone in a country where 145 journalists have been killed since the early 1990s. It also provides a glimmer of hope, especially to journalists and human rights workers who have borne the brunt of President Rodrigo Duterte’s assault on democratic norms.
Since he assumed office three-and-a-half years ago, Duterte has insulted and intimidated journalists and denigrated human rights activists. Once, when asked about media killings, he said, “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” Morale in the press today is low, with journalists struggling against presidential harassment and overly cautious press proprietors fearful of Duterte’s ire. Today, for the first time in years, journalists beaten down by the pummeling of a populist president had reason to celebrate.
After all, this was a judgment that beat the odds. Philippine courts are widely seen as corrupt and compromised. Trials are long and costly. Lawyers say it takes six to 10 years to try a criminal case, but some cases languish for as long 15 to 20. Not only that, only 3 of 10 cases brought by government prosecutors result in a conviction.
The Ampatuan family monopolized public office in Maguinadanao. The clan patriarch was governor, and various clan members held the mayoralties of nearly all the towns. They controlled a 2,000-strong private militia and had friends in high places, including then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for whom they had delivered votes. This was why they thought they could get away with what the Committee to Protect Journalists called the single deadliest attack on journalists in nearly 30 years.
Had the stars not aligned — had the judge been scared or corrupted, had the witnesses been too frightened to speak, had the case withered from the lack of public attention — today may not have been so joyous.
The Ampatuans are expected to appeal their case to the Supreme Court, and many more years will pass before a final judgment. Eighty of the 197 massacre suspects are still at large and pose a danger to the victims’ families. Private militias still roam Maguindanao and other provinces. Many police officers are on the payroll of political bosses such as the Ampatuans, who dispatched police officers under their control to the scene of the massacre.
And, yes, the justice system remains deeply dysfunctional — so much so that Duterte, in initiating a bloody war on drugs, has urged citizens to take the law into their own hands. The system is so corrupt, he argues, that vigilante justice is better than no justice at all.
But today is a real moment of grace. “Now no one can claim that he is politically powerful and above the law,” Soledad Mawis, the dean of the college of law of Lyceum University, said on national TV.
“This is a hopeful sign, after a dismal period when we thought our justice system is broken,” said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, director of a media watchdog. “Those of us who have been advocating for justice for this long period are quite satisfied that justice has been won. But the work is not over, we just have to keep going.”