On August 18, 2011, I gave the fifth annual Teodoro Benigno Memorial Lecture at the invitation of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. FOCAP is an organisation that since its inception has exemplified the highest ideals of courageous, compassionate and committed journalism, and it was a tremendous privilege to be able to come to Manila to speak to Filipino journalism students and working journalists, and to meet one of the founding members of FOCAP, the legendary Gabby Tabunar, a veteran journalist who was the CBS News bureau chief in the Philippines for many years. It was a particular honour to be asked to give a lecture in memory of Teodoro Benigno, the FOCAP founder and longtime Manila bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, who died in 2005 after an incredible journalistic career, and to have the opportunity to meet some of his family and friends.
FOCAP was formed by Benigno, Tabunar and five other brave journalists in 1974 with the explicit intention of defying attempts by authoritarian ruler Ferdinand Marcos to intimidate, control and co-opt the media in the Philippines. At great personal risk, they stood up to a dictator who routinely intimidated and persecuted those who defied him, and they demonstrated to him that they would not be bullied or coerced into burying the truth. Benigno’s description of the events that gave birth to FOCAP can be read on its website here. As he wrote, nearly 40 years after its founding, FOCAP remains “still as prestigious, still as relevant, the only foreign media group functioning in the Philippines”. His account of how he confronted attempted intimidation is particularly worth reading:
Time came when the gorillas of Col. Rolando Abadilla, the big boss of Metrocom, set up a quadrille in Ferguson Plaza, just beside the VIP Bldg. housing the AFP. They came in military jeeps. They made themselves visible, reckoning probably their presence would scare the by golly out of us in the AFP Manila Bureau. They would harass us by telephone and ask – in ominous tones – whether Batman (myself) or Robin (Bobby Coloma, who was my senior editor) were around. And when we answered, we were told to be very careful, “Some of you may get hurt.”
This was too much. I decided to call their bluff. Our group went down, confronted the Metrocom driver of one jeep, and told him bluntly: “You better tell your boss, Colonel Abadilla, to stop all this nonsense. He doesn’t scare us at all. Where is he? Is he here? We’d like to talk to him right now.” They all left in a hurry, wondering possibly where we got our gall. Filipinos then were supposed to cower.
The honest and principled reporting of the journalists who stood together in FOCAP had an immense impact: not only did they tell the world what was happening in the Philippines but they helped show the Philippine people that dictators can be defied, and brute force need not always win. In 1986, in a profoundly inspiring act of collective courage, the people of the Philippines stood up and, through the power of peaceful protest, they forced Ferdinand Marcos to flee the country. It was FOCAP that coined the “People Power” description for the events of 1986. The brave defiance of the Philippine people in the face of efforts to deny them their freedoms and their human rights resonated around the world: as a schoolboy in Scotland I watched events in Manila on television and what I saw helped inspire me to become a journalist.
My lecture in memory of Teodoro Benigno was on the subject of media safety, and I discussed my experiences as a journalist in combat zones and my time as bureau chief for Reuters in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, by far the most extreme and dangerous environment in which I have ever had to operate.
But one terrible statistic little known outside the journalism profession is that while Iraq has been a viciously dangerous place for reporters over the past decade, another country frequently reports an even higher annual death toll among media workers. The Philippines is consistently rated among the most deadly places to be a journalist. Unlike in Iraq and other war zones, those who are killed and wounded in the Philippines are not, usually, caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s war. They are personally and specifically targeted by powerful and corrupt figures who do not appreciate journalistic scrutiny of their shadowy activities. And tragically, despite the bravery of the Philippine people throwing off the yoke of dictatorship in 1986, the country remains a place where many of those in powerful positions are deeply corrupt and criminal and are able to flout the law and common human decency with impunity because the rule of law has become so weak and compromised.
One incident above all in the modern history of the Philippines illustrates the heartbreaking consequences of what happens when high-level corruption and criminality go unchecked, the rule of law is corroded and debased, and the powerful are allowed to prey on those weaker than themselves in society with impunity: the massacre of 58 people on the morning of November 23, 2009, in Maguindanao province on the troubled island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Maguindanao had been controlled by the powerful and feared Ampatuan clan for a decade, and the family’s feud with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) insurgent militia was one of many factors fuelling a cycle of violence on Mindanao and preventing peace deals from being reached. The Ampatuans came to regard Maguindanao as their personal fiefdom, and when provincial governor Andal Ampatuan Sr was approaching the end of his maximum two terms in office, he assumed he could pass on the position to his son Andal Jr. When Esmael Mangudadatu, vice mayor of the town of Buluan, declared his intentions to stand against Andal Jr in the election for the governorship. the Ampatuan clan was affronted and outraged.
In order to qualify to stand as a candidate in the gubernatorial elections for Maguindanao, Mangudadatu had to file official papers at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in the provincial town of Shariff Aguak. Well aware that the Ampatuans were irate and might use violence to send a message to others that they did not accept democratic challenges to their supremacy, he invited a large number of journalists to join a convoy of vehicles travelling to Shariff Aguak to file the paperwork. What happened next is described in the Wikipedia entry on the massacre:
A local report stated that at about 9:00 AM, a convoy of six vehicles carrying journalists, lawyers, and relatives of Vice Mayor Mangudadatu left Buluan to file his COC at the Comelec office in Shariff Aguak. The convoy was composed of six vehicles: four Toyota Grandia vans (one grey, one green, and two white) owned by the Mangudadatu family; and two media vehicles – a Pajero owned by DZRH broadcast journalist Henry Araneta and a Mitsubishi L-300 van owned by UNTV. There was a seventh vehicle, a Grandia boarded by mediamen, but it lagged behind and decided to turn around once the passengers sensed what was happening. There were two other vehicles that were not part of the convoy but happened to be traveling on the same highway: a red Toyota Vios and a light blue Toyota Tamaraw FX. The Vios had five passengers: Eduardo Lechonsito, a government employee who was bound for a hospital in Cotabato City after suffering a mild stroke Monday morning. He was with his wife Cecille, co-workers Mercy Palabrica and Daryll delos Reyes, and driver Wilhelm Palabrica. The FX was driven by Anthony Ridao, employee of the National Statistics Coordination Board, and son of Cotabato City councilor Marino Ridao.
Before reaching its destination…, the convoy was stopped by 100 armed men, who abducted and later killed most or all of its members. There is evidence that at least five of the female victims, four of them journalists, were raped before being killed, while “practically all” of the women had been shot in their genitals and beheaded. Mangudadatu’s youngest sister and aunt were both pregnant at the time of their murders.
In a text message sent by Mangudadatu’s wife to him, she identified the people that blocked their way as the men of Ampatuan Jr, and that he himself slapped her. The female victims were shot in their genitals, according to Secretary of Justice Agnes Devanadera. According to Mangudadatu, his wife’s “private parts were slashed four times, after which they fired a bullet into it.” In addition, he said that “They speared both of her eyes, shot both her breasts, cut off her feet, fired into her mouth.”
Those who perpetrated the massacre had prepared carefully for their crime: they dug mass graves two days before using a backhoe belonging to the Maguindanao provincial government. Unfortunately for them, the backhoe was even emblazoned with the name of Andal Ampatuan Sr, and during the attempt to bury the victims and even some of their vehicles following the massacre, a helicopter spotted what was happening and the crime was discovered. It was one of the worst acts of political violence in the history of the Philippines. It was also the deadliest single incident for journalists anywhere in the world in recorded history: 34 journalists were among those killed.
Nearly 200 people have been charged with murder over the massacre, among them Andal Ampatuan Sr and Andal Ampatuan Jr. In June this year, Andal Sr was arraigned in a special court inside a maximum-security prison in Manila; he pleaded not guilty. The proceedings against the accused are moving extremely slowly, and many of those suspected of involvement are still at large. The Ampatuan clan remains immensely powerful and many Filipinos doubt that the family will ever be held fully accountable for its crimes.
And yet, for the Philippines to achieve its potential as a nation, it is essential that the people press their political leaders to reassert the rule of law, crack down on crime and corruption, and end the culture of impunity. President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, who won a landslide election victory in 2010 as public outrage mounted over the discredited outgoing administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is the son of two icons of democracy in the Philippines: his father Benigno Aquino Jr, a leading opponent of Marcos who was jailed for seven years by the dictator and then assassinated at Manila’s international airport in 1983, and Corazon Aquino who succeeded Marcos as president after the 1968 People Power revolution. The people of the Philippines had high hopes in Noynoy Aquino because of his illustrious parents and his promises to clean up politics and tackle crime and corruption. But he has yet to match his good intentions with real action to tackle the many urgent problems facing his country. That needs to change. If the Philippines has become a country where powerful warlords can order the massacre of dozens of people with impunity, then it has essentially become a failed state, and the bravery and sacrifices of the founders of FOCAP and of the Philippine people who showed such courage in 1986 will have been betrayed. That cannot be allowed to happen.
As a detailed November 2010 report on the Ampatuan clan and the culture of impunity and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines by Human Rights Watch argues:
In his successful campaign for the presidency… Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III vowed to abolish the private armies that flourished under President Arroyo, who authorized the arming of Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) and Police Auxiliary Units, and allowed local government units to enter contractual arrangements with the military for barely trained militia forces called Special CAFGUs. Aquino also promised to hold accountable the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre, and seek justice for the hundreds of other victims of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. Aquino should fulfill these promises by taking immediate action to disarm and disband all militias, including state- sanctioned paramilitary forces, in Maguindanao and throughout the country. He should also institute tougher controls on local government procurement of weapons, and prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses, regardless of position or rank.
Broad and lasting change will not come easily. Suspicious of police collusion, few victims or witnesses of crimes by government officials trust the country’s haphazard witness protection program. Many of the Ampatuans’ victims have never reported the abuses they have suffered at the hands of the family, which has long relied on threats and other forms of intimidation to build and maintain its power. Indeed, several victims and witnesses declined to be interviewed by Human Rights Watch, despite undertakings to protect their identities, because they feared retaliation by the family and its private army…
The Philippine government should urgently take measures to end serious human rights violations by “private armies” throughout the country, including the involvement of militias, paramilitary forces, police, and military personnel. It should investigate and prosecute all those responsible.
In the spring of 2011, while working for Reuters, I gained access to the full Cablegate database of secret U.S. embassy communications leaked by U.S. soldier Bradley Manning in Iraq. I used the insights from the cables to write an extensive article on Thailand, a country where telling the truth about some of the most important political issues relevant to the nation’s future remains a criminal offence. In another depressing example of how powerful figures and regimes around the world are able to intimidate even the world’s largest media organisations and prevent the truth from being told, Reuters declined to publish my work because of the risks to their staff and their revenues in Thailand. I do not believe journalists should allow ourselves to be bullied into shying away from the truth, and the example of Teodoro Benigno and his fellow founders of FOCAP shows what can be achieved when we refuse to be silenced. I took the decision to resign from Reuters in June in order to make the article and the WikiLeaks cables on Thailand freely available online. The article has become part of much-needed debate among Thais about their future, and I have been proud to have been part of that debate, on Twitter and Facebook.
To help the people of the Philippines in their struggle to end the warlordism, impunity and corruption that threatens the progress and prosperity of their proud nation, I am today sharing all the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables relevant to the Ampatuan clan and the Maguindanao massacre. The archive of Ampatuan-related cables is below. I have redacted the names of those who could be put in danger by their comments to U.S. diplomats in the cables, and have also redacted the names of some of those involved in the sensitive peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF. Redactions are signified by Xs in the text. Over coming weeks and months I will be sharing more cables relevant to the Philippines. They will be posted here on my website, and I will also be discussing the Philippine cables on Twitter using the hashtag #philstory. I would invite all of you to discuss and comment on them too, and invite Philippine media and citizens to use the cables as a resource to press for positive change in their country. A generation ago, Teodoro Benigno and FOCAP did their nation a great service with their bravery and their principled reporting. I hope that publishing the cables helps the courageous Filipino journalists of today continue their legacy and fight to give their country the government it deserves.