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Q&A: Journalist who escaped 'Maguindanao massacre' tells stories of survival

By Asian Human Rights Commission
January 5, 2010

HONG KONG  Ė  The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is publishing below the full text of the interview made by a radio host with one of the three journalists who had escaped from the November 23, 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

In December 2009, the AHRC has invited the person (name withheld for security reasons) for a meeting in Hong Kong to discuss matters regarding cooperation on monitoring and documenting the progress of the case in court to ensure that those responsible are held to account in court.

During his stay, we have also organized several meeting for him with several individual journalists and group of journalists based in Hong Kong.

The interview below conducted by Ms. Serenade Woo, host of the radio programme "Yun Liu Chat Room" of the Radio Free Asia (RFA). Only spelling mistakes and few grammatical errors were corrected but the rest were restored in its full sense during the transcription of the interview.

The AHRC hopes this could give the public an idea as to how community journalists in the Philippines struggle and survive daily in their journalism profession.

**FULL TEXT OF THE INTERVIEW: **

Q: First of all, can you tell what was happened in Mindanao? Because, I believe so all our audience know nothing what was happened in Mindanao.

A: Particularly the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao province in the island of Mindanao on November 23, wherein among those killed were 30 journalist those slain journalist where suppose to cover the filing of candidacy of a candidate for governor of the province of Maguindanao together with the women members of the clan of Mangudadatu because one of the members of his family is running, the vice mayor of the small town in Maguindanao, which is Buluan is running for Governor of the province. While along their way, going to the Office of the Provincial Election officer, they were abducted by at least 100 armed militia men led by the Mayor of a certain town in Maguindanao, identified as Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., who led this suspects in executing the victims. After their execution they were buried in shallow mass graves, in an outskirt village in Ampatuan town also in Maguindanao. They use a backhoe equipment to dig up the graves they buried all those victims together with their vehicles. But unfortunately, because of the immediate response from the military and the family of Mangudadatus not all the victims were buried and the vehicles and they were immediately located by the authorities. And the suspects especially Mayor Ampatuan was arrested after 3 days. They was charged for 25 counts of murder and some of the members of Ampatuan clan were also charged and arrested after the government declared State of Emergency in the province and subsequently Martial Law was declared.

Q: Why do you think the suspect, the culprit is the Mayor of that province?

A: It's because, it was for the first time that somebody challenge the Ampatuans in the forth coming gubernatorial elections in the province. The election as dated on May next year, but the filing of candidacy was done in November, so somebody from their rival political clan had challenge the Ampatuans who are considered political kingpins of the area. And sad to say, those suspects armed men, who participated in the killing are members of the militia forces in the area and they served as private armed groups of the Ampatuans. They used these militia forces to kill political rival who belongs to the Mangudadatu family.

Q: Is that mean that you believe that there are some linkage between the provincial government and central government, Arroyo government?

A: I donít think so, in that way that the National government specially President Arroyo was in the cahoots with the Ampatuan in that massacre but, the national government could partly be blame on the incident because it tolerated the permission of the private armies in the area, specially serving as private armies for the Ampatuans and the government has been tolerant of the presence of these militia forces being use as private armies of the Ampatuans, its because the Ampatuans use to be close political allies of the president. Thatís why in the past this private armed groups in the area, are not being checked shall we say it was been tolerated

Q: I've been heard many people were killed in Philippines, since the former president of Philippines. What was happened in the Philippines, why many people were killed?

A: I would say in that particular province in Maguindanao, a lot of stories about summary execution, summary killings perpetrated by this Ampatuans in the past. Even before November 23 massacre, but sad to say because they have established Ampatuans were able establish a reign of terror in their place and everybody was afraid to challenge them or to exposed these incidents otherwise they were get killed so until this incident on November 23 that the public knew and proved that there is really such gruesome activities, killings perpetrated of this Ampatuans in that Maguindanao province. Because, maybe they had able to established that culture of impunity, because in the past nobody checked had them. Nobody had investigated them. Of all this killings they had done in the past.

Q: Why was that nobody investigated the case? Are you suggesting the central government are not doing their job?

A: Yeah, especially the authorities have been remised on their job. It is maybe because of the strong political connections of the Ampatuans before with the president and thatís why authorities become tolerant of all these things, of all these abuses, all these excesses, all of these wrong doings committed by the Ampatuans, they are considered as political warlords in that province of Maguindanao.

Q: I was told actually there is kind of witness protection in order to help the people to bring the culprit to the court to be prosecuted but the witness protection seems useless is that true?

A: In this case the Maguindanao massacre they were some witnesses overtaken to the custody of the witness protection program and so far the case is not yet on its trial so, we donít know yet what gonna happen on the witnesses during the trial but we learned that there are some witnesses who are in the custody of the witness protection right now,

Because in the early stage of the filing of the case many witnesses are afraid to come in the open because they are still afraid of the vengeance of the Ampatuans only the, several members of the Ampatuan clans have been arrested, have been jailed, have been detained there are some willing witnesses who came out and testify and give their statements to the authorities.

Q: Did they were killed later?

A: I hope it will not happen because a lot of witnesses as what Iíve learned a lot of witnesses who are considered as vital in the prosecution of the case because there are some witnesses who belong to the armed groups who kidnapped but they were not part of the another group who executed, they served as look outs during the execution of all the victims, so they are very vital in the prosecution.

Q: But the government offer that kind of that protection to the witness because some witnesses were threatened, harass or even killed in the previous time, its that correct?

A: Yeah, in this case they really know that the authorities, the prosecutors now influence clout of the suspects specially the Ampatuans they have to be more cautious in the prosecution of the case and to secure all the witnesses and the evidence.

Q: I know that you are so lucky to escape from that massacre in November, Can you tell something more what happen on that day, why suddenly you did not proceed to your interview on that day?

A: Actually, I was supposed to be part of the group of journalist, who will cover the filing of candidacy of that candidate for governor. But I had decided to back off thinking that my life would be in danger if I would proceed to Maguindanao. Because in the past we had differences of the Ampatuans and the security arrangement for us going there was very uncertain, because the military and the police did not provide for the group of Mangudadatus and group of journalist who will covering that event and that gave me some reservations about my safety if I would go to Maguindanao with the group.

Q: If you are saying that you found your safety protection offer by the military, by the government or by the police was not enough why do you think they need to offer that kind of protection for the journalist? Was it because they were number of cases or incidents were happened in the past?

A: We see a conspiracy of among the local military and police authorities in this case because you know some of those suspects, who flagged down who stopped the convoy of the victims were police officials. They were present when Mayor Ampatuan sees the vehicle and herded to an outskirt village where they are executed so we presumed that they had conspired with the Ampatuans in the killing of the victims.

Q: Right now how many people were killed in November massacre?

A: All in all 57 bodies were recovered among those killed were more than 30 journalists

Q: So far how many people were killed since the former president of the Philippines?

A: Do you mean the incumbent president? I would say specifically from the case of media killings all in all more than 100 journalist have been killed since 2000 that is according to the official record of the national union of journalist including the recent murdered journalist.

Q: Can you share some of your experience to our audience because I knew that you also under threat because you think your job to report the news?

A: Yeah, because I worked as a journalist in our community. In Mindanao, we shall call our self community journalist we are more prone to harassment, vulnerable to threats. It's because those people we expose of their involvement in illegal activities, wrongdoings in government are coming also from our place. We concentrate in that small place in our community where we meet each other maybe some other day so the threats and risk are there maybe because maybe we have an immediate contacts those we hit on the paper or those we hit on the radio

Q: Can you specifically let our audience to understand what kind of harassment that you received previously?

A: There are a lot of threats I experienced but the greater risk I received when I exposed the unexplained wealth of this Ampatuans in 2004, wherein I wrote about their huge mansions worth millions and star contrast their constituents are living in small shanties in front of their huge mansions. And it's very fortunate that the province of Maguindanao is considered the second poorest province in the Philippines. And those local officials are living in luxurious life. So, they have all these big mansions, luxury cars, and it seems that they are doing nothing to improve the living condition of their people.

Q: But what kind of threats did you receive? Threatening you, kill you.

A: They plan to liquidate me. But, it so happen that many of my friends had caution me and informed me about their plan and they warned me to take extra precaution, they even advice me to lie low from my work as a journalist.

Q: But you are still working in the media industry, why?

A: Maybe, because of my calling. In the Philippines, shall we say, it's like a challenging task if you are a community journalist. I've been in this work for about 20 years now.

Q: Do you have to worry about your family members? Are do they worried? Do they pursue you to leave this industry?

A: Yeah, they are worried than me. I'm quite worried but they are more worried than me family, most specially my mother. But you know if it's your time to die it's your time you can't go away with it.

Q: So, right now how you are going to protect yourself?

A: You know I just maintain a low profile status in our community. I have a lot of friends from the military, from police, from other law enforcement agencies, who are helping me.

Q: I was told a lot of journalist because of they are working in a dangerous zone or dangerous area so most of them they were armed when they go out to do their job. Is that true?

A: Itís a common practice in our place in Mindanao for local journalist to arm themselves. Because they think that their personal safety could not be100 percent entrusted to the authorities and the only way to protect themselves is to armed is to carry firearms and at the same time to deter any would be assassin to kill them.

Q: Do you have any friends that, they were assassinate because they did their job?

A: I have some colleagues who were murdered in the past because of their hard commentaries against the local officials in our place so there are a lot of my colleagues some of them are my personal friends who have been killed while in the line in pursuit of their journalistic work.

Q: To be honest I think you are very brave because you had some of your friends, personal friends they were killed but because they did they job but it not make you live that industry, you are very brave. I was shocked because I believe most of the journalist will not do the same thing if they are situated in that situation.

A: I'm not really that brave maybe I just know how to secure myself and how protect myself against any threats.

Q: And what kind of armed you protect yourself, that kind what kind the weapon you protect yourself?

A: Although carry all the time my two .45 caliber pistols but it's not enough to be confident or to be complacent you must also assess the real situation, if there is an eminent danger. So, thatís not an excuse if you have firearm. In our case we trained ourselves about marksmanship, in combat pistol handling. Local journalist they are being trained.

Remark: So, impressive. Please take care of yourself. Thank you so much!

The interview was done by Ms Serenade Woo, host of the programme called "Yun Liu Chat Room" of the Radio Free Asia (RFA). Ms Woo is also a staff member of the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) in Asia Pacific and member of the board member of Amnesty International - Hong Kong section.