VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Media task force chief’s claim on conviction of accused in Maguindanao massacre lacks context

Read this fact check in Filipino

(UPDATED) The claim of Executive Director Joel Egco of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFOMS) about the conviction of the accused in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre needs context.

STATEMENT

Talking about the progress of the Philippines in protecting media workers, Egco cited the reports of international media groups Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders. In a Jan. 20 media interview, he said:

"[K]ung ang pag-uusapan lamang ay mga ranking-ranking sa mga international media watchdogs, mga impunity index, talagang nag-improve tayo … And the last we had was the support from the Committee to Protect Journalists last October 29. Sabi ng CPJ … hindi po ako nagyayabang, but scientific po kasi ang ginamit na basis natin dito … The Philippines was the biggest mover all over the world, ... the biggest mover last year; meaning, from No. 5, ... nag-stagnate tayo sa No. 5 for the past three years ata. Noong pumasok tayo No. 4, ta's naging No. 5 …”
(If we just talk about rankings of international media watchdogs, like impunity index, we really improved … And the last we had was the support from the Committee to Protect Journalists last October 29 … According to CPJ … I am not boasting, but we used a scientific basis here … The Philippines was the biggest mover all over the world ... the biggest mover last year; meaning, from No. 5... we stagnated for the past three years, I think. When we came in, (we were No. 4, and then No. 5 …”)

He further said:

“Sinasabi ko na iyan na mag-stagnate tayo sa (I have been saying that we’d stagnate at) No. 5 because of the Maguindanao massacre case. Kaya si Ampatuan massacre case, tinutukan natin iyan (so we focused on the Ampatuan massacre case) ... Kung matatandaan ninyo, sa Aristocrat (If you remember, at Aristocrat), I made a promise there .... kung hindi na-convict iyan (if they won’t be convicted), by this year (2019) magre-resign ako (I will resign)… Salamat na lang at na-convict nga ito (Thanks, they were convicted) ..."

Source: Melo Acuna official YouTube channel, COFFEE CHAT with Undersecretary Joel Marquiza Sy Egco on Media Concerns, Jan. 20, 2021, watch from 5:08 to 6:35

CPJ’s Global Impunity Index ranks countries based on the number of unsolved murders of journalists as a percentage of the population.

FACT

The decision handed down by a lower court is not yet final. Some of the main accused have appealed their guilty verdict.

A number of Philippine media groups, the families of victims, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) still categorize the Maguindanao massacre as an “ongoing” or “unresolved” case.

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In September 2020, UNESCO changed its initial decision in classifying the incident as “resolved” in response to an appeal from the families, local media groups such as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), Freedom for Media, Freedom for All (FMFA), and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), and other media workers.

The groups, in a unity statement sent to UNESCO, said the conviction of the 43 accused in the massacre, including the mastermind, former mayor Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. of Datu Unsay town, can still be appealed. Ampatuan Jr., his brother Zaldy, former governor of the then Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and their brother Anwar Sr. and Anwar Sr.’s two sons have asked the Court of Appeals and the trial court to overturn their convictions, respectively.

In an article, the CPJ, a New York-based international media watchdog, said the Philippine government made a “premature” claim in light of UNESCO’s reclassification despite the existence of “partial impunity” in the country.

PTFOMS, a multi-agency task force formed to investigate and help resolve cases or complaints involving media workers, opposed the reclassification, saying some organizations were “misrepresenting” the families and friends of the victims and “irresponsibly influenced” UNESCO.

While the Philippines’ media impunity ranking improved following the convictions in the Maguindanao massacre case, CPJ echoed the sentiments of local media groups about the possibility of acquittal of the accused and retaliation by the remaining suspects at large against the families of the victims. To date, 75 suspects are still at large, according to a panel of prosecutors of the Department of Justice.

In its 2020 Global Impunity Index, CPJ ranked the Philippines as the seventh worst country in the world, not fifth. While the committee did state that the country was the "biggest mover" in the latest rankings (from fifth worst in 2019), as Egco claimed, it said this is because the deaths of 32 media workers in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre "no longer fall" within the 10-year time frame for calculating the index (Sept. 1, 2010 to Aug. 31, 2020).

CPJ also said the "landmark convictions" in late 2019 prompted it to "adjust the status" of the Ampatuan cases to "partial impunity" from "full impunity."

Partial impunity refers to cases in which "some but not all suspects have been convicted," CPJ said. Such cases are not included in the index. Thus, the Ampatuan cases would "no longer have figured into the index calculation regardless of time frame."

After 10 years of trial, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 handed the guilty verdict in December 2019 against 28 principal accused, including Ampatuan Jr., and 15 accessories for the murder of 57 people, of which 31 were media workers.

The 58th victim, photojournalist Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, is still missing. Media groups have long been pushing for his inclusion in the official list of the massacre victims, but the court refused to do so because his cadaver has not been found. (See Justice is served in the decade-long Maguindanao massacre case, except for one - Vera Files)

Meanwhile, the case against the Ampatuan patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., also one of the alleged main suspects, was dismissed following his death four years before the case promulgation. The court also acquitted more than 50 individuals, mostly police officers, for lack of evidence of their involvement in the carnage.

The incident, which has been considered as the world’ssingle deadliest attack” on the media and the worst election-related violence in the country, happened in broad daylight in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2009.

The journalists were in a convoy of vehicles to cover the wife and supporters of then Buluan vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu in filing on his behalf his certificate of candidacy for the gubernatorial seat of Maguindanao. Along the way, however, they were blocked and subsequently killed. Some were buried in a mass grave while others were left sprawled on the ground by the Ampatuan-led armed groups and several police officers.

Meantime, during the same interview, Egco cited a wrong figure in bragging about the overwhelming number of votes for House Bill 8140 or the Media Workers Welfare Act, which aims to provide job security, proper compensation, and benefits for media workers. Based on a tally posted in the House of Representatives’ website, only 218 members, not 280 as the undersecretary claimed, voted on Jan. 18 in favor of HB 8140, an initiative of Egco’s office.

UPDATE: In an "open letter" published on Feb. 9 in the state-run Philippine News Agency, Egco stood by his claims. Read his full response here.


Editor’s note: VERA Files is among the petitioners in the case status of the Maguindanao massacre to UNESCO.


Sources

Melo Acuna official YouTube channel, COFFEE CHAT with Undersecretary Joel Marquiza Sy Egco on Media Concerns, Jan. 20, 2021

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Unesco retains "unresolved" classification of Ampatuan massacre after appeal by groups, individuals, Oct. 7, 2020

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Appeal to UNESCO regarding the classification of the Ampatuan massacre case as "resolved", Sept. 18, 2020

Ampatuans appeal their convictions

Committee to Protect Journalists on Twitter, @UNESCO and the Philippines have classified the Maguindanao massacre ..., Nov. 7, 2020

Committee to Protect Journalists, Getting Away with Murder, Oct. 28, 2020

Presidential Task Force on Media Security, PTFoMS Press Release:, Dec. 19, 2020

Official Gazette, Administrative Order No. 1, Series of 2016, Oct. 11, 2016

Supreme Court, PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES VS. DATU ANDAL “UNSAY” AMPATUAN, JR., ET AL., Accessed Jan. 25, 2021

Ampatuan Sr. is dead

Facts about the Maguindanao massacre

76 suspects still at large

Facebook direct message with lawyer Nena Santos, Jan. 26 to 28, 2021

Media Workers Welfare Bill


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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