On June 1, Andal Ampatuan Sr. pled not guilty to planning the November 2009 massacre of 57 supporters traveling to file nomination papers for Ismael Mangudadatu, a political rival of the Ampatuan clan. Andal Sr. is the patriarch of the Ampatuan political family in the Philippine province of Maguindanao, served as its governor, and was an influential member of the Arroyo government, which left office earlier this year. One-hundred ninety six people still face massacre-related charges, but Ampatuan’s arraignment has finally come after demands for accountability on the part of the families of the victims. The Philippines’ culture of impunity for the political and economic elite is on trial if and when Ampatuan takes the stand.
Before the massacre, the Ampatuan clan had forged a close relationship with the Arroyo government and the military, which facilitated strong control over the province and its elections. The family brought Arroyo the vast majority of the province’s votes in 2004—100% in some towns, with votes for Arroyo exceeding the number of registered voters. In the Global Integrity Report: 2010, Gemma Mendoza chronicles the details leading to the massacre in which 30 journalists died.
The Philippine constitution protects freedom of the press but lacks any real protection from censorship or the barrel of a gun in practice. Despite the country treating freedom of expression as a fundamental right, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the Maguindanao massacre was the deadliest incident involving journalists ever recorded, accounting for 32 of the 71 international journalists who died in 2009 while reporting
Maguindanao province’s reputation, close ties to corruption, and high-profile leadership warranted the heavy contingent of reporters. The unexpected tragedy brought international attention to the media situation in the Philippines, and the local and national governments simply could not keep such a sensational matter quiet.
But as Ms. Mendoza notes in the Global Integrity Report: 2010, “the failure of the state to punish the guilty has perpetuated a culture of impunity that continues to render vulnerable not just journalists, but other sectors.” Many worry that the Ampatuans’ money and power will lead to a manipulated trial outcome. In a report issued by Philippine Law Journal Editor Al Parreño, 305 extra-judicial killings were documented from 2000 to 2010. Just 169 of the 305 incidents were filed with the prosecutor for investigation, 57% of the suspects were unidentified, and only four convictions were ever made. However, on June 8, the Philippine Court of Appeals froze assets tied to the Ampatuan family worth more than $23 million. The assets were suspected of being illegally acquired and involved government agencies and financial institutions. While far from a solution, this action does reduce the Ampatuan’s monetary ability to sway a potential judgment in the massacre case.
Bridging the gap between crime and punishment is challenged by the culture of impunity that exists in the Philippines. Even as President Arroyo cracked down on the Ampatuans after the massacre, these declarations rang hollow to some given the political favors the Ampatuans provided her in the 2004 and 2007 election cycles. The culture of impunity in the Philippines appears to run deep and wide, fostering a belief that symbolic action can ameliorate problems with little concern for implementing actual solutions. Making laws is one thing; enforcing them and protecting the rule of law in practice is quite another.
— Marc Moson