By Francesca Regalado
Although it had already been consistently present on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual Global Impunity Index, the Philippines rose from sixth to third in 2010 following the single deadliest event for journalists in any peacetime democracy: the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, where 32 members of the press were killed by a private militia while covering a political convoy on its way to file for gubernatorial candidacy.
In total, 58 were killed that day, but none of the 200 individuals charged for the massacre have been convicted.
The Supreme Court of the Philippines defines extrajudicial killings as acts of violence due to the political affiliation of the victims, with the involvement of state agents.
The Asia Foundation reports that 390 people lost their lives in 305 incidences of extrajudicial killings from 2001 to 2010, during the almost decade-long presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
32 percent of victims were political activists, 15 percent were elected officials, and another 15 percent were journalists. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that victims now include environmental activists.
The body count is not unrelated to pervasive corruption: 43 percent of slain journalists since 1992 had covered the corruption beat.
Eugene Martin, director of the U.S. Institute for Peace Philippine Facilitation Project, cites “weak social and political institutions” and “ineffective justice system” for the culture of impunity, a legacy of the Marcos dictatorship.
Personal justice is facilitated by national fragmentation along regional and familial lines that stretch even to the government, dominated by elite families who preserve their power by means of election fraud and disposing of whistleblowers, watchdogs, and investigators.
During Martial Law, acts of violence against civilians committed by soldiers and policemen became commonplace. According to a 2011 USIP report, 28 percent of identified suspects belong to the military and police, 57 percent to private militias, and 12 percent to rebel groups.
For 40 years, the communist New People’s Army (NPA) has routinely executed individuals put on trial in its “people’s courts” and found “guilty,” actions that Human Rights Watch claims are in violation of international law.
Such insurgent groups necessitated Executive Order 546, which allowed the formation of the private militia responsible for the Maguindanao massacre on the grounds of defense against Islamist rebels. The executive order issued by President Arroyo has yet to be rescinded by her successor, Benigno C. Aquino III.
The first high-profile assassination in modern Philippine history was that of former Senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., father of incumbent President Aquino. The widely popular Senator Aquino had been a vocal opponent of the Marcos dictatorship, and was shot while disembarking a plane in 1983.
A 2015 editorial by The Philippine Star implied that the son should honor his father “by bringing down the level of political violence.” As President Aquino’s term nears its end in May 2016, a significant improvement in the Philippines’ culture of impunity has yet to be seen.
USIP’s Eugene Martin is skeptical of any short-term government action, as successive presidents continue to appoint former soldiers, instead of civilians, to head the Department of National Defense.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston stated in 2007 that the executive level remains “in a state of almost total denial” of the killings attributed to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.