Four years ago today, gunman Gerry Cabayag barged into the house of Mindanao journalist Marlene Garcia Esperat. He was not deterred by the presence of his target’s children. It took just one bullet of a .45 caliber pistol to take her life, and prevent her from exposing all she knew of what would later become the P728-million fertilizer fund scam of the Arroyo government.
New York-based press freedom advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Monday condemned Esperat’s unsolved murder. CPJ impunity campaign coordinator Elisabeth Witchel said Esperat’s case is symbolic of the struggle against impunity in the killing of journalists worldwide.
In October 2006, Cabayag, who confessed to the crime, plus his lookouts—Randy Grecia and Enstanislao Bismanos—were sentenced by a Cebu City court to life imprisonment. But to the disappointment of local and international media groups, the two local Department of Agriculture (DA) officials who allegedly masterminded Esperat’s murder have not been brought to justice.
In calling attention to Esperat’s murder and the continuing impunity in the killing of journalists in the Philippines, the CPJ released in Manila its second Global Impunity Index a day before the death anniversary of Esperat.
“After five years, the prosecution is still at square one in the legal proceedings due to the unending maneuvering of the suspected masterminds--two local Department of Agriculture officials--in the murder,” CPJ southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said during the press conference on Monday.
With 24 unsolved murders of journalists in the past decade, the Philippines ranked as the 6th most dangerous place for journalists worldwide. But what is very alarming about the Philippines, Crispin said, is that it is the most dangerous among countries that are considered “peacetime democracies.” The first five in the rankings—Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Colombia—are all suffering from internal strife.
The alleged masterminds—Region XII Department of Agriculture finance officer Osmena Montañer and accountant Estrella Sabay—were tagged by suspect-turned-witness and former military intelligence officer Rowie Barua.
Before she joined the media, Esperat served as the local DA resident Ombudsman. Her position allowed her to probe corrupt practices in the department. In her reports, Esperat had referred to Montañer and Sabay as “corrupt” DA officials.
But despite the silencing of Esperat, the fertilizer fund mess continues to hound the Arroyo government, with various government agencies trying to determine who are responsible for the anomaly.
Esperat believed Bolante, and DA Secretary Arturo Yap, are responsible for the fertilizer fund mess. In a case before the Ombudsman filed in 2004, Esperat accused them of buying overpriced fertilizer and using the proceeds to support the 2004 presidential campaign of President Gloria Arroyo.
The opposition has been using the fertilizer fund scam against the administration.
But while those responsible for the fertilizer fund mess are being pursued, Esperat’s case remains unresolved. Montañer and Sabay have remained untouchables despite earlier arrest warrants issued against them.
Lawyer Nena Santos, private counsel of the Esperat family, believes that there is an unseen hand working to keep out the suspected masterminds from being tried in court.
“The authority of the Court and respect to fair trial are put to the greatest test when influential high government officials are the accused. Even when they are tried, they have resources and connections to reduce the trial to a farce”, Santos said.
The first murder case filed on April 15, 2005 against Montañer and Sabay was dismissed by the Tacurong City Regional Trial Court (RTC), but this did not discourage media groups and supporters. On Oct. 20, 2008, a new murder case was filed against the two.
In February 2009, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists—an organization created to support victims of violence against the press—also stepped in. It petitioned to transfer Esperat’s case from Tacurong City RTC to the Cebu City RTC, which earlier convicted Esperat’s assassins.
CPJ’s Crispin supports the move. He believes that transferring the case is the only way for the Esperat case to prosper.
“The reality on the ground is that local judges remain reluctant to pursue cases that involve influential public figures,” Crispin said.