MANILA — A blurry photo and a resemblance to an elderly woman with white hair was all it took for cops and soldiers to arrest Davao-based columnist Fidelina Margarita Valle while she was about to board her flight in Cagayan de Oro on June 9, 2019.
Mistaken for suspected communist rebel Elsa Renton who was accused of multiple murder and multiple frustrated murder, Valle was released on the same day after an informant confirmed that the authorities caught the wrong person.
Before her release, Valle, a columnist for independent media outfit Davao Today, was held incommunicado for 12 hours and taken from the Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental to detention in in Iligan City and Pagadian City, in what the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) described as an “abduction.”
She filed kidnapping and serious illegal detention, arbitrary detention, violation of the Anti-Torture Act and administrative charges against several police officers, including then PNP chief Oscar Albayalde, but her quest for accountability resulted in the Office of the Ombudsman finding only 2 cops guilty of simple neglect of duty, penalized with a 3-month suspension.
All other charges as well as the those against 15 others were dismissed.
In a ruling dated June 24, 2021 but released only on Thursday, the Ombudsman stood by its August 10, 2020 decision, saying Valle failed to present newly discovered evidence in her bid to raise the penalty against Police Col. Tom Tuzon and Police Capt. Moh Madzie-Aziz Mukaram.
The August 2020 decision said the 2 cops did not act in bad faith when they arrested Valle and that “Oplan Pagtugis” enjoyed the “presumption of regularity.”
The Ombudsman also rejected the cops’ attempt to junk the administrative charge, with the Ombudsman saying they were not deprived of due process and that there is substantial evidence for simple neglect of duty.
The ruling did not sit well with Valle. She and her lawyer from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) plan to take her fight to the Supreme Court (SC).
“Lies. Maneuverings. Paulit-ulit na bumabalik sa akin 'yong mga excuses ng mga pulis at military,” she said in an online press conference Thursday.
“I knew since the time I learned about the dirty workings of government systems and everything that drives it, and I’ve been aware that government officials, especially the so-called authorities can easily get away with crime by using legal jargons and vague reasoning that escapes ‘ordinary’ understanding. ‘Simple’ neglect of duty, as they call it, now easily excuses command responsibility and accountability, and therefore, only the small fry are made responsible, while the big, fat asses go scot-free!” she said.
Both the NUJP and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television - Philippines found the ruling unacceptable.
“It is unfortunate that the Office of the Ombudsman considers the wrongful arrest of Davao City journalist Margarita Valle in 2019 and the police holding her incommunicado for hours in a police station 200 kilometers away from the Laguindingan Airport is just simple neglect of duty,” NUJP chair Jonathan de Santos said.
“That her arrest, where she was not given a chance to scrutinize the warrant that was supposedly for her and where she was not allowed to get in touch with a lawyer, was just a case of carelessness or indifference,” he added.
In a statement, IAWRT-Philippines called the arrest an attack not only against Valle but also against her profession and duty as truth-teller.
“We implore reason and sense of justice from those who swore to uphold it,” said IAWRT-Philippines Chair Lynda Garcia.
Both De Santos and Garcia called on authorities to do their own research or check “Google” at the very least, to ensure the correct identity of the person they are arresting.
“That it happens that a journalist is arrested based on a tip from a single informant is concerning,” De Santos said.
“That the Office of the Ombudsman said that the arrest was legal and that the officers "honestly believed" that she was the Elsa Renton they were looking for is likewise worrying.”
But the attack on Valle did not end with her arrest.
Even in their motion for reconsideration, police insisted both Valle and Renton “are connected to the CPP-NPA” (Communist Party of the Philippines - New Peoples’ Army).
“Nakakaubos ng pasensya,” Valle said of the police’s insistence.
She admitted, she still struggles, to this day, to move on from the incident that has marred her being and stunted her writing.
“It is hard enough, as it is, to detach my mind from the ‘personal,’ emotional part of this development, in this so-called mistaken-identity brouhaha, and yet, like it or not, I must confront it head-on, just to ‘survive,’ if not to claim back my equilibrium that has long been destroyed and so difficult to take back,” she said.
“Two years have passed, and though my heart, head and hands long to go back to take on writing, all I can muster each and every day is do mundane tasks as household chores, pretending that I am ‘okay’ so far. I have wanted to believe that nothing’s changed, that I am doing ‘well,’ but deep inside, I am far from my true self. I admit, I hated every moment that a blank wall stares at me each time I attempt at writing my ‘usual’ stuff. Because it’s just hard, blanko lang talaga,” she added.
Her children, she said, have also been affected.
“Hindi man nila sinasabi sa akin pero talagang nararamdaman ko at 'yun ang gusto kong anu-hin talaga, mabigyang solusyon. Ayoko naman mangyari sa pamilya ko, sa mga anak ko na palagi na lang merong nararamdaman kaya lang hindi nila masabi sa akin,” she said.
Her son Rius joined her in the presser, expressing support for her bid to put those responsible for her arrest behind bars.
“Kailangan may managot… Kasi sa rami ng mga cases of human rights violations, State-perpetrated human rights violations, wala pa e, walang nananagot. Kung meron man, talagang one in a million. We want justice,” he said.
Her lawyer is more optimistic.
“Hopeful kami na dito sa gagawin nating appeal sa Supreme Court, makita ng Supreme Court, ma-appreciate ng Supreme Court ang ebidensya na ipi-presenta namin,” NUPL’s Kathy Panguban said.
“Every case and every appeal that we raise before the courts, nandun palagi ‘yung hope na makita ng mga magistrates natin, ng husgado, 'yung esensya ng mga ebidensya na pinipresenta natin at ‘yung epekto nito sa kabuuang pagtingin sa justice system natin,” she added.
Valle said that despite the effects of the illegal arrest on her personal life, she will continue fighting for the sake of fellow journalists who may end up in the same situation.
NUJP Vice Chair Kath Cortez noted that several other journalists in Mindanao have been red-tagged in posters and Facebook posts, following Valle’s arrest.
Among them are MindaNews writer and Inquirer correspondent Froilan Gallardo, Mindanao Goldstar Daily associate editor Cong Corrales, and SunStar-Cagayan de Oro editor Pamela Jay Orias.
The attacks, she said, extended to alternative media like Davao Today, where Valle writes a column.
“Hindi nagtapos kay Ate Ging at hindi rin nagtapos dun sa arrest niya ‘yung attack sa kanya. Kumbaga, nag-escalate pa nga e,” Cortez said.
In February 2020, authorities arrested 21-year-old Tacloban-based journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio at the staff house of her publication, Eastern Vista, and she remains detained on charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
In December 2020, police arrested Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem for the same charges based on a search warrant, which would later be voided by a Mandaluyong City court for being vague.
“The affront against my person on June 9, 2019 was a clear attempt at harassing and intimidating what I stand for, and that is to do my profession as a journalist, who is not merely documenting but bringing the voices of those in the fringes of society, and those who have been silenced with threats and intimidation,” she said.
“That flimsy excuse of saying that I was just another case of ‘mistaken identity’ can also happen to any journalists in the field who are just doing their jobs. We cannot let it happen again, perhaps in our little ways, and we must be vigilant as ever, against attempts at gagging the press like what this administration has been and is currently doing,” she added.