The Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte has announced the creation of a task force to investigate the unsolved killings of Filipino journalists.
The Presidential Task Force on Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of the Members of the Media is tasked with delivering “efficient, coherent, and comprehensive resolution of unsolved cases of violence in the form of killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave violations of the right to life, liberty and security of persons against the members of the press.”
Such a probe is sorely needed because killers of journalists in the Philippines almost always elude justice. According to data from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, only 14 of the 172 cases of murdered journalists filed in court after the Philippines’ People Power revolution in 1986 have ended in a conviction. Former President Benigno Aquino III vowed to put a stop to such killings and to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. But while at least 30 journalists were killed while Aquino was in office from 2010-2016, police recorded only one successful prosecution of a journalist’s killer during that time. Worse, not a single mastermind of these killings has been prosecuted and convicted.
But journalists have reason to be skeptical about the integrity of a Duterte government inquiry. Not just because Duterte has himself justified the “assassination” of journalists he deems “corrupt.” But also because the government has been cheerleading killings without consequence in its so-called “war on drugs,” which has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 Filipinos since July 1.
The government has consistently refused to investigate the circumstances of those deaths, which include an estimated 1,323 killings by police of suspected “drug pushers and users” as well as 1,067 killings linked to “unidentified gunmen” between July 1 and September 30. Instead, Duterte has praised the killings as proof of the “success” of the anti-drug campaign and urged police to “seize the momentum.”
The composition of the task force also raises questions about its commitment to a thorough and impartial probe. The taskforce chairman is Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, who has demonstrated a reprehensible contempt for rule of law by defending the killings linked to Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Aguirre has refused to respond to repeated calls for the Justice Department to launch an urgent and impartial investigation into those deaths and justified the mounting death toll by stating, “Desperate times call for desperate measures. So this is what the president is doing and we support it.”
The Philippines’ growing ranks of victims of extrajudicial killings deserve justice. But unless official attitudes shift 180 degrees, there’s no reason to believe the Duterte government will provide it anytime soon.