QUEZON CITY, Philippines - Their bodies were found strewn grotesquely about a huge grassy patch of land in a province they considered their home. The other corpses had to be dug out from the earth that devoured them, using a backhoe. Their shirts, smudged with blood, their faces, smashed and bloated.
A police investigator holds a pile of press IDs, removed from the necks of the dead journalists; each card is covered with filth, blood and dirt. Green life-size banana leaves are laid over the dead – one by one, piece by piece – as authorities offer the victims whatever dignity they can.
These are the images I can’t get out of my mind upon seeing the photos and videos of that fateful morning of November 23, 2009, a day when 57 people, mostly journalists, breathed their last.
It happened somewhere between the heart of darkness and the long road to Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao in the Southern Philippines. The victims were brutally murdered in broad daylight and their screams of mercy were drowned by the sounds of bullets from a private army of the Ampatuan clan.
Known allies of Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Ampatuans are considered the most powerful and wealthiest political family in Maguindanao.
The main suspect in the case is Andal Ampatuan Jr. who, according to authorities and witnesses led the mass killings of 57 members of a convoy of a rival clan. Of the 57, 32 are members of the media.
The rival clan is the Mangudadatu family, members of which were on their way to a provincial election office in the province to file the certificate of candidacy of Ismael Mangudadatu, a governatorial candidate for Maguindanao in the upcoming national and local elections next month.
Since the carnage happened in November last year, families of the victims, media organizations, human rights groups and government prosecutors have been busy bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Last week, however, the Philippine government dropped the charges against two members of the Ampatuan clan.
The main suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr. is still behind bars facing multiple charges but the dismissal of the charges against his brothers Zaldy and Akmad, marked a major setback in Filipinos’ quest for justice.
Journalists have been up in arms, protesting the Department of Justice’s order.
"Acting justice secretary Alberto Agra’s order to drop multiple murder charges against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan is proof that these principles do not, nay, have never existed under the Arroyo government, that this is governance not through the rule of law but through political expediency," said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
The National Press Club (NPC), another media organization, marched to the Department of Justice office in the Philippine capital of Manila to protest the decision.
NPC president Benny Antiporda, in an April 19 article on Dateline Philippines described the dropping of the charges as a “major black eye against press freedom.”
“This is literally what we call double dead. Our brothers in Mindanao where killed and even the justice that we seek is also killed,” Antiporda said in the article.
The NUJP, for its part, urged the Filipino people to protest this outrage.
“We cannot let this pass. Or we might as well totally forget that we are one country, one people,” the NUJP said in an e-mailed statement.
Members of the Philippine media are all in black shirts these days, protesting the government’s decision. The calls for justice are reverberating in the air.