EDITORIAL: Eleven years of drowning

A revolting storm of tyranny is brewing over our heads. Year by year, minute by minute, the tempest intensifies, picking up its strength from the government’s war on the media. It has taken hundreds in its notorious winds and drowned many truth-tellers with its floods.

The 2009 Ampatuan Massacre became one of the storm’s grandest landfalls, killing 58 individuals, including 32 media practitioners in an attack that jolted the entire world. No other case of election-related violence has been this upfront with savagery as civilians were mercilessly killed in broad daylight. It was the single deadliest event for journalists in history, and yet when reparation was sought, it took 11 years to come up with a scanty ruling. 

The deadly deluge from the media carnage swept through across the decade that came after it. Every year, the victims’ families waited and campaigned for justice, submerged in torrential agony. They have cried out for help, but the government only responded with deafening silence, as it still does.

Except this silence was unprecedented. The silence lasted through three presidents and six chief justices. It was a burden none of them wanted to shoulder.

This tardiness in resolving the Ampatuan Massacre confirmed what was already clear to media practitioners even before the tragedy — that our press freedom was of deteriorating health. The institutions that were meant to prevent the massacre from happening and serve justice when it happened could not be trusted anymore. The politically powerful Ampatuans had held the bureaucracy hostage, and the tides were turned to their favor. 

This is the sad reality of our justice system: When the honorably distinguished clans are put into question, the institution that supposedly acts in the name of fairness tips the scale in favor of the powerful. The Ampatuans were an unforgiving kind of menace, so much so that the clan’s influence brought far-reaching complications to court. 

Though delays in the bureaucracy eventually led to a guilty conviction, the ten painstaking years preceding it was a hecatomb for the slain victims’ families who had to live with the torment. 

Even the process of seeking justice for their fallen kin was not free from disdain. Crucial witnesses that revealed the Ampatuans’ crimes were killed one by one, and families of slain victims were threatened to drop the case. 

The series of events that happened after the massacre showed that if the Ampatuans were able to kill 58 in broad daylight, they can also threaten, afflict pain and even kill anyone who gets in their way of tyranny.

The Ampatuans’ display of violence was so heavy that even the victim’s surviving family members carried it through. Throughout the waiting period, they carried both their own suffering and that of their fallen kin.

What resulted after the long wait was a thorough verdict, but one that was not whole. Though 28 convictions were made, 76 suspects are still at large. The ruling endangered those it seeked to attain justice for, as the verdict drew red targets on their backs. Its final pronouncement of guilt for the Ampatuans and the missing protection clause for the witnesses and the family members set the stage for another form of threats and grave danger.

One year after this verdict was ruled, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization reclassified the Ampatuan Massacre as “ongoing or unresolved” after appeals from the slain victims’ families argued that the Court’s ruling was not resolved, but “far from it.” 

Although this landmark court ruling was a step forward in the battle against impunity, justice is still miles away. 

The government’s dilly-dallying on the Ampatuan Massacre has allowed a culture of impunity to permeate deep within our institutions, which is the same culture that has emboldened many elected officials to bend and break the law to solidify their political will. 

The current president, who many might accredit to having delivered justice, is not exempt from this culture. He is the same evil, but with a different mask. He holds the throne now, and the storm of tyranny will not be changing its course anytime soon. 

Just this year, President Duterte, the latest of the storm brewers, denied the franchise renewal of the country’s largest media organization in an awful powerplay that left ABS-CBN in a chokehold.

This single act proved deadly as millions of Filipinos in far-flung areas were left in the dark in the onslaught of a series of tropical cyclones. Super Typhoon Rolly, the world’s strongest landfalling tropical cyclone, was met with the president’s absence and his administration’s embarrassingly lax response. Only days later, Typhoon Ulysses wreaked havoc all over Luzon, to which the nation’s top official responded to with sex jokes and misogynist ranting. As he threw a tantrum on national television, more than 70 people met their unjust demise. 

These devastating events made bare an information gap, which ABS-CBN’s wavelengths used to fill. Citizens nationwide could have received updates from the network’s far-reaching radio and television services. Those ruined by the typhoons could have been warned to prepare for upcoming weather disturbances. It is during these times of calamity that the government should strengthen the media instead of incapacitating it. But because of unconstitutional reasons, millions of lives were needlessly endangered.

It is apparent that the rainclouds that loomed over Maguindanao 11 years ago are the same clouds that hover over our gloomy skies today. The injustice that killed the 58 in Maguindanao is also the same injustice that abandoned many Filipinos in the catastrophe of Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses. 

We are witnessing more and more people die because of the government’s deliberate negligence and incapability. The grievances of the Filipinos they have failed will haunt them even in their deaths. No matter how many afterlives they live through, it will never be enough to compensate for the struggles they have left their constituents to face. Their actions are beyond human to be even considered inhumane.

The fact that we even have to campaign for justice shows that the institutions mandated to protect us have been rotten to the core. The fact that it took this long to be served paltry justice reveals that the affluent have twisted our democracy to serve their interests.

We should not get used to the government’s hatred against the media. We cannot let the time come when the death of a media practitioner becomes normalized. We cannot let this criminal injustice force an invisible hand on our country. 

We have taken too many rain checks. Government behemoths like the Ampatuans and Duterte have committed too many unspeakable crimes. The kin of the fallen 58 have been drowning for so long. Thousands have already sunk to the bottom, and the government’s weight will drown many more. Simply voting them out will not be adequate reparation.

The Filipino has weathered too many storms to wait this one out. Millions more cannot pay the price of this brewing catastrophe while Malacañang is left unscathed. 

We can only achieve justice when the storm brewer in Malacanang is ousted. There is no other way around it. We cannot let the democracy that Duterte spoiled become his safe exit.

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