Global media watchdogs press Philippine authorities to act on journalist’s 2011 murder

BenarNews staff
Global media watchdogs press Philippine authorities to act on journalist’s 2011 murder People light candles at a memorial to Philippine media workers killed in the line of duty, at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications in Quezon City, Metro Manila, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2023.
Gerard Carreon/BenarNews

Three international press freedom watchdogs said they gave Philippine police and justice officials new information Friday that they believe could lead to an arrest of a politician suspected in the murder of a Filipino broadcaster 13 years ago. 

Representatives from the Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said they met in Manila with Assistant Justice Secretary Jose Dominic F. Clavano IV and national police Chief Benjamin Acorda Jr. to discuss updates in the Gerry Ortega case.

“Gerry Ortega is not forgotten,” said Beh Lih Yi, the Asia program coordinator for New York-based CPJ. “His case is emblematic of the entrenched impunity when it comes to journalist killings in the Philippines.”

The media advocacy groups said they had information to share on the whereabouts of fugitive former Palawan Gov. Joel T. Reyes, the alleged mastermind behind Ortega’s killing. Ortega, a well-known environmentalist and a local broadcaster in the province, was gunned down shortly after signing off from his radio program on Jan. 24, 2011.

In a joint statement, the coalition said it had met with Philippine justice and national police officials “to provide new and actionable information that could lead to the arrest of the alleged mastermind behind the 2011 murder of radio journalist Gerry Ortega.”

Officials from the three Western-based groups also met with Clavano and Acorda “to discuss the slow progress in the case and expressed hope that the Philippine judicial system would finally bring justice to Ortega’s family,” their statement said. 

According to the media coalition, during Friday’s meeting the Philippine Department of Justice pledged to act on the case and implement a warrant for Reyes’ arrest.

Yi warned that until the case was solved, Ortega’s murder would continue to have a chilling effect on the Philippine press, which has been under attack for years from politicians and other groups including, most recently, ex-President Rodrigo Duterte.

“We believe he is still in the Philippines,” Yi told BenarNews in response to a question on where Reyes may be hiding. 

The police department, Justice department officials and Clavano’s office did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment. 

Joel Reyes, the former governor of Palawan province in the Philippines, is escorted by Thai police officers as he arrives at the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, Sept. 24, 2015. Thai police had arrested the former Philippines provincial governor and his brother Mario Junior Reyes, both wanted in their home country for the murder of Gerry Ortega, a journalist who had been campaigning against mining interests. [Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters file photo]

Ortega had reported about alleged corruption in the government of Reyes, and despite what the media consortium described as “damning evidence” linking him to the killing, the former governor remains at large. 

Reyes was arrested earlier but was freed after the Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled that the Regional Trial Court in Palawan had “no basis to continue with the trial as its findings against the accused were wrong.” 

The following year, in 2019, however, the decision was reversed and a re-arrest warrant was issued against Reyes.

“The coalition urged the DoJ, the PNP, and other law enforcement agencies to act upon this significant piece of information to arrest Reyes, who is facing a non-bailable charge of murder,” the groups said in their statement. 

“The coalition called on the Philippine government to exhaust all legal remedies to effect the immediate arrest of Reyes and compel him to face trial before the proper courts for the murder of Ortega,” they added.

Jos Bartman, lead investigator of the Amsterdam-based Free Press Unlimited, said they welcomed the Philippine authorities’ commitment to ensure that justice is delivered in the Ortega case. 

“Achieving justice in the case of Gerry Ortega could set an example around the globe and show that prosecuting masterminds of journalists' murder is not impossible,” Bartman said.

Cédric Alviani, director of RSF’s Asia-Pacific bureau, said the information they shared provided all the keys to finding and arresting Reyes. He did not disclose those findings to the press, however.

Patricia Ortega, the wife of slain Philippine radio broadcaster and environmental activist Gerry Ortega, shows a picture of her late husband at a pet shop in Puerto Princesa, Philippines, Feb. 16, 2011. [Noel Cellis/AFP file photo]

In 2022, the Southeast Asian nation ranked as the seventh most dangerous country for journalists on the Global Impunity Index, prepared by the Committee to Protect Journalists, alongside war-torn nations such as Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Since 1986, there have been 199 journalists killed in the Philippines, based on the data and monitoring from the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines.

In 2009, members of a powerful political clan and their associates killed 58 people, including 32 journalists, in an execution-style attack in southern Maguindanao province. 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, the chief executive and co-founder of Philippine online news publication Rappler had also had to weather several legal cases filed against her by the Duterte administration (2016-22).

Duterte, who is now the subject of an International Criminal Court investigation over thousands of execution-style deaths of alleged drug addicts and dealers during his six-year term, once famously warned that journalists were fair game. 

“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” Duterte said shortly after being elected in 2016.

Jason Gutierrez and Jeoffrey Maitem reported from Manila.


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