Bodies of victims covered with banana leaves at massacre site

 

 

A thousand days have passed since 58 persons, including 32 journalists and media workers, were massacred in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province on November 23, 2009.  While the leaders of the powerful clan–the Ampatuans–and several members of police and paramilitary groups were arrested and charged in court, justice is apparently nowhere in sight.  One particular problem is a series of recantations, deaths and disappearances of witnesses.

During the first half of this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) together with the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) commissioned a group of scholars to examine the so-called ‘culture of impunity’ that animated the wanton killing of journalists.  Joining the group were media practitioners who wrote case studies of murdered journalists.  I was asked to look at the killings from a political economy perspective.  UNESCO and AIJC intends to compile all these writings into a book.  Through this blog post, I am sharing excerpts from the chapter I contributed.

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Over the past years, the murder of journalists and political activists in the Philippines have almost become routine given the huge number of victims.  Journalist Earl Parreno (2010) listed 305 incidents and 390 victims of extrajudicial killings from 2001 to 2010.  He cautions however that the real number of extrajudicial killings in the country escapes exact determination.  Of the reported total of 390 victims, 15 percent or 59, were journalists.

Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre montage

Thus if one focuses just on journalists as victims, the Philippines reportedly earned the reputation of being the second most dangerous country in the world, after Iraq, for media persons. In 2006, the international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) ranked the Philippines at the bottom 20 of the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) or at the 142nd place, the same rank as the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The dismal rating for the Philippines is largely due to the unresolved spate of murders and harassment of journalists.

ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan taken in custody

Given the frequency, the alarming number of victims, and the apparent inability of government authorities not only to stop the murders, but also to resolve pending criminal cases, the notion of a “culture of impunity” was repeatedly raised.  However, the concept ‘culture of impunity’ has yet to be fully elaborated.  Searching the Internet, I stumbled upon this definition:  [T]he term “culture of impunity” refers to a situation in which people in a society have come to believe that they can do whatever they want with impunity (which means believing they will not have to face any punishment or adverse consequence).  Retrieved February 15, 2012 from http://www.enotes.com/history/q-and-a/what-culture-impunity-how-does-relate-rule-law-135419.  It is clear a culture of impunity is a belief, a very strong one at that.  It is also clear that the people who behave with impunity, who believe they can do whatever they want, are criminals.

It is quite difficult to undertake an inquiry into the culture of impunity in the killing of Filipino journalists from a political economy perspective.  It stems largely from the rather unelaborated nature of the concept—culture of impunity—itself as well as the relative weakness of political economy in the study of intangibles such as beliefs and cultures.  If political economy is a study of the interaction of political institutions, the political environment, and the economic system, then perhaps our approach is to explain how such an interaction generates a general disregard of the law that emboldens criminals to behave without restraint or with impunity, if you will.  Having mentioned this difficulty, a less arduous task is to do a politico-economic analysis of the murder of Filipino journalists.  In this sense, political economy may be used to eventually help explain why a culture of impunity arises and why it stays in a society.

An understanding of the political economy of murdering journalists is not complete without a discussion of the industrial anatomy and modus operandi.  The political economy approach assumes that as in all other crimes, murder is an economic activity, an industry.  Costs and expenses are incurred but some gains accrue.  An industrial anatomy is thus the identification of all industry participants or actors, their motivations, and their profit-and-cost calculus.  They include masterminds of the murders, a middle layer of facilitators, and the bottom layer composed of assassins (and back-up gunmen), surveillance persons and lookouts. The modus operandi is a clinical discussion on how the murder of journalists is done.  The modus operandi is constructed both through logical analysis and case material and situates all the industry actors within the context of the murder.

A note of caution is that our data are about cases still being tried in court.  In this sense, our discussion is sub judice (under judgment) and risk possible contempt of court.  While conscious of these constraints, the approach is to take the position: “if the allegations were true, then this was how the crime was committed and these were the parties involved”.

 

Murdered radio commentator-environmentalist Gerry Ortega

 

The simplest industrial anatomy of the murder of journalist involves a mastermind and an assassin.  The mastermind has a “grievance” against the victim and he has adequate resources to hire and equip the assassin.  Usually, the mastermind is a local strongman who has accumulated power, wealth and influence through various means—including criminal activity.  This is possible through (either or both) weakness of the central state apparatus or toleration by central rulers.  The “grievance” arises when a journalist denounces, exposes or criticizes the mastermind of graft, participation in illegal activity and other sins of omission or commission. These activities of the journalist hurt the core interests of the mastermind so the former must be stopped. The elimination of the journalist thus represents a clear gain to the mastermind.

A more complex anatomy involves a middle layer that supposedly insulates the mastermind from the assassin(s).  The more complex organization is adopted so the masterminds can evade prosecution in the event that the assassins get arrested.  The assassins and lookouts are in the bottom layer of the industrial anatomy.  They participate in the crime for money and equipment (such as motorcycles for so-called tandem riding killers).  In a labor-surplus economy like the Philippines, it is not too difficult to recruit these “operators”.  Middlemen participate also for money by taking a cut of the operations costs that would be entrusted to them.  They may also do so because of personal relationships or debts of gratitude to the masterminds.  The singular objective of the mastermind is the death of a targeted journalist. Again, the death of the journalist is the ultimate gain of the mastermind.

The massacre of 32 journalists together with members and friends of the Mangudadatu political clan and some

(From left): ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Jr.

innocents” (who happened to stray into the crime scene), for a total of 58 victims, allegedly by the Ampatuans last November 23, 2009 represents the blackest mark of impunity in the country.  The only “offense” of the victims: for the Mangudadatus, it is to help file a certificate of candidacy in behalf of a relative, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, who planned to run against an Ampatuan.  How about the journalists?  For providing media coverage for the unprecedented political bid of the Mangudadatus. And for agreeing to act as “human shields” to help protect the Mangudadatus.  The idea was the presence of media persons will prevent the Ampatuans from harming the Mangudadatus.  This thought was proven wrong by the end of that fateful day.

Esmael Mangudadatu; his wife and 2 sisters were among the massacre victims

For the Ampatuans, the response to the situation was simple.  They have never been opposed in any election.  The Mangudadatu bid was sheer temerity.  Long accustomed to being in power in that part of the country, the Ampatuan clan leaders apparently decided that everybody in the Mangudadatu convoy must be killed to prevent the filing of Toto Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy.  No witness must be left alive.  It is for this reason that six persons who were not part of the Mangudadatu caravan but witnessed the massacre were also murdered.  The Ampatuans and their armed followers were all gunmen.  The Ampatuan clan leaders may have directed the operations and gave the order to fire.  However, they allegedly fired their own firearms and shot the victims.  In this sense, the Ampatuan clan leaders were both masterminds and gunmen even if they were not the only gunmen. The other gunmen were, after all, under their command. In this massacre, there were no middlemen.

Former COMELEC Commissioner Benjamin Abalos

However, if we locate the Ampatuans within the national political economy, they were actually at the middle of the political “food chain”.  They enjoy local power on the say-so of the powers-that-be in the Presidential Palace.  What must they deliver for Malakanyang and the middle layers?  Votes for the administration candidates and a percentage of the proceeds of the illicit activities in Maguindanao province and the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) (Lara 2009).  In 2007, Maguindanao delivered a 12-0 count in favor of the administration’s senatorial slate.  Together with two Ampatuans, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former Commission on Elections (COMELEC) chairman Benjamin Abalos, and other COMELEC officials face “electoral sabotage” charges.  Their participation in anti-insurgency campaigns is another bonus.  In this manner, the Ampatuans were supplied with arms and supplies from the Philippine Army and the Philippine National Police.  In short, the Ampatuan private army was financed and equipped by taxpayers’ money.

Armored vehicle of the Ampatuans styled as an official police vehicle

Mortar shells and other ammo found in Ampatuan property

 

As chief executive and commander-in-chief, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo bears the ultimate responsibility for the massacre.  She and her associates have coddled and profited from the Ampatuans’ activities for too long that they cannot evade their share of the blame.

Is the killing of journalists (and political activists) national state policy?  There seems to be circumstantial evidence that this seems to the case for political activists but not for journalists.  Local powers-that-be appear to be responsible for the murder of journalists.  The journalists concerned have a limited local ambit and the targets of their criticisms are in the locality.  In lthis vein, the most likely masterminds and beneficiaries of their death would be in the locality.  Nonetheless, local and national government authorities are not blameless.  That the murder of journalists (and political activists) over the past years happened is proof of the failure of local and national government authorities to prevent crime.

Government authorities have a mixed record in apprehending the killers of journalists.  Of the individual murders discussed in this chapter, only the alleged killer of environmentalist Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa, Palawan was arrested by police.  In the other cases, the suspects gave themselves up and confessed to their crimes.  In some instances, they pointed to other accomplices and identified the masterminds. The identification of masterminds after a middleman confesses illustrates dilemmas in recruitment.  It is expected that masterminds will recruit middlemen from within trusted circles.  However, they run the risk of being exposed if the middlemen are arrested or decide to confess voluntarily.  If masterminds recruit middlemen from outside, they will still need a layer of confreres to recruit these outsiders.  The risk in this case is whether these untested facilitators will deliver on their ‘contractual’ obligations or will just run away with the money.

Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

The scandalous scale of the Ampatuan massacre forced President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to abandon her erstwhile political allies and to order the deployment of adequate government troops and arrest leaders of the Ampatuan clan and members of their coterie.

It is on the punishment side where state performance is relatively dismal.  At best, it was the small fry or the lower level “operators” that got charged in court.  Masterminds are either able to post bail, downgrade charges, or stay at large even with pending arrest warrants.  As powerful locals, they have access to material resources and good legal services.  These developments also suggest that the masterminds enjoy the support of patrons, friends, and clients they have cultivated through the years.

On the whole, this suggests a nuanced balance of power between the central state and local power.  It is the Weberian ideal that the central state has a monopoly of armed violence and that even if the armed forces are decentralized, they will still follow the bidding of the central state and act according to the law.  In this picture, it is the central state that has the upper hand in relation to local power.  What happens when the central state is unable to ensure its monopoly over arms?  What if local powers have arms of their own?  What happens when the central state cannot raise enough material resources to meet its objectives?  What if local powers have resources they can share?

The result is a power- and resource-sharing arrangement the terms of which may differ from one locality to another.  The terms of reference of the GMA-Ampatuan arrangement may not be duplicated elsewhere.  The central state’s “weakness” on the punishment side may not be a weakness after all but rather an accommodation for needed allies at the local level.  Perhaps, the murder of individual journalists like Marlene Esperat can be tolerated.  But the message could be: Don’t do an Ampatuan massacre!  We will be so embarrassed we will be forced to act.

When a state compromises in this manner, it helps perpetuate not only a culture of impunity in murdering journalists (and political activists).  It also encourages disrespect of the law.  Ultimately, it weakens itself. In that sense, the killing of journalists may not be a state policy but it is a failure of the state.

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