by Andrea Jobelle Adan
Relatives, journalists and those who care and remember grip their torches tightly, each bearing the name of one of the 32 media practitioners silenced by the worst election-related violence the country has ever seen.
The flames catch in their glassy eyes, made weary by watching six years pass without justice, troubled by the fact that impunity lives on while their numbers are dwindling.
Media coverage almost dwarfed the evening prayer rally held on November 23 to demand justice for the death of the 32 media workers included in the Ampatuan Maguindanao massacre, the single deadliest attack against media, according to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Ed Lingao, veteran journalist and current TV5 Aksyon Tonite host, believes that the massacre and media killings will have more effect on the quality of news than on the influx of journalists.
“Between a story that may cost you a libel suit or your life, and the story that will get you ratings, what will they choose?” Lingao said.
The protest action was conducted by several relatives of the massacre along with the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. A short Mass was also led by activist priest Robert Reyes.
After most torches have already gone out, Bulatlat writer Ronalyn Olea, spoke her concerns that resonated with Lingao’s. Her face was a mask of worry as she spoke of the “climate of fear” this massacre and its lack of justice was creating for practicing journalists like herself.
Six years after the massacre that resulted in 57 deaths, no single verdict has been issued against any of the accused while the alleged mastermind, Andal Ampatuan Sr., had already died from liver cancer complications.
The case’s delay was evident. Students and bystanders briefly looked on, most with expressions that asked, what was this about again?
All the while, thirty-five more journalists have died since.
“Minsan sinasacrifice mo buhay mo diba pag nagcocover ka… makikita mo na parang wala ring halaga yung buhay ng isang journalist sa paningin ng gobyerno (Sometimes you may have to sacrifice your life when you cover, and you see that a journalist’s life is worthless to the eyes of the government),” said Luis Liwanag, veteran freelance photojournalist.
The country now ranks fourth in terms of impunity in media-related killings, according to CPJ’s Global Impunity Index for 2015.
“Habang hindi napaparusahan ang pumapatay eh patuloy itong kultura ng impunity sa ating bayan (The country’s culture of impunity grows as long as the murderers do not get punished),” said Harry Roque, lead counsel for 15 of the massacre victims.
Roque said they were hoping that before President Aquino is replaced, a promulgation against the two Ampatuan brothers would occur.
This is according to their initiative, the “first in first out” method that allows Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes to separately promulgate judgment on the accused. This speeds the process that would have otherwise needed the presentation of all evidence against all the 197 accused.
President Aquino once promised that a verdict will be sent out before his term ends. But with the current progress – or lack of it, as many would point out – people are beginning to question his commitment in getting this promise fulfilled.
“I suppose everybody would agree that we expected more of PNoy kasi he came in in 2010 with the declaration that he will speed up the process,” Lingao said.
This delay of justice ensures the perpetuation of the culture of impunity while denying the families of the victims closure and peace of mind.
“Mama, pag lagi ba naghihearing, nabubuhay, mabubuhay ba si Papa? (Mama, will all the hearings bring Papa back to life?)” Erlyn Umpad, widow of a victim of the Ampatuan Massacre, recalled her child asking as she was off for yet another hearing.
Erlyn Umpad’s anguish is evident as she explains how her family, now missing a father, copes with the fact that six years and countless hearings later, justice remains elusive.
But the fight continues.
“Para din ito sa mga future journalists. Kasi kung hindi naman natin ito gagawin… kung hindi mareresolve ‘tong Ampatuan [massacre], mauulit at mauulit yan, (This is also for future journalists, because if we don’t do this, if the Ampatuan massacre does not get resolved, it is bound to happen again),” Olea said.