The recent global mobilisation of IFJ member unions and its allies in IFEX may yet have a long way to go if it is to bring an end to impunity. However, in a single day, it succeeded in raising awareness the world over about the inertia of governments in putting serious efforts to hunt killers of journalists and put them behind bars, and the lack of will by international institutions to enforce the wide range instruments they enacted and they seem incapable of enforcing.
I attended and spoke at the meeting in London jointly organised with the Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines held at Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre. Speakers included CHRP chair Mark Dean but also Stefan Antor, a judge formerly of the EU-Philippines Justice Support Programme (EPJUST) and most importantly Carlos Zarate a Filipino lawyer and journalist (see picture below).
The strength of the meeting is that it did not spend much time unravelling the circumstances of the Ampatuan Town massacre but focussed on what has been happening in the ensuing two years at the level of government, police, prosecution and justice system which is at the heart of the unabated culture of impunity.
Stefan Antor, who participated in the 18-month €3.9m EPJUST project highlighted what he found when he set out to analyse on the ground the institutional capabilities of the criminal justice system and the reforms needed to create a fair and transparent system. Impunity occurs when there is the absence of political will to back the investigations, when judges are weak or corrupt, when the police or investigating authorities are incompetent, when they are meagre resources assigned to those responsible for providing security and enforcing the law; and when official negligence and corruption is rife.
In the case of these particular trials, the families of the killed journalists have to fight almost daily attempts to stall and subvert the course of justice, ranging from the delays introduced by the defence lawyers by seeking to remove judges and prosecutors, to alleged offers of bribes to the families and intimidation, and daily violence against witnesses.
On top of this, the system has its own flaws – it normally takes 6 to 8 years for the trial of a normal murder to come to an end; the slow pace of the police in arresting the perpetrators (in the first year only 12 suspects were arraigned and even today some 100 remain at large); the overreliance on witnesses rather than forensic; the weakness of the penal code, etc.
Carlos Zarate explained how the massacre was a tragedy waiting to happen, in view of the support given by former President Arroyo to the Ampatuan family, arming them and allowing them to maintain powerful militias, and to amass considerable wealth in return for political support which delivered for her an incredible 12-0 win for her senatorial slate in Maguindanao. He also unravelled foreign intervention and patronage which allowed warlordism to flourish.
The recent arrest of former President Arroyo may just be the break waited for and is a source of great optimism by the families who have just filed a $15 million-damage suit against her in connection with the massacre.
Despite extra-judicial killings still continuing under President Aquino, campaigners, including the families, the trade unions and civil society at large, are full of optimism. They are committed to working together, despite the indomitable obstacles they face, to combat injustice and bring an end to impunity.