CMFR FACT-FINDING TEAM REPORT ON ATTACKS AND THREATS AGAINST JOURNALISTS AND MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS IN REGION XII (SOCCSKSARGEN, MINDANAO)

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)  organized a fact finding team to look into cases of violent attacks against media workers and media organizations in the South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat,  Sarangani and General Santos provinces (SOCCSKSARGEN–Region XII),

CMFR’s team, composed of Penzer Baterna, alerts officer and Melanie Pinlac, a lawyer and legal consultant for the project traveled the above provinces from August 6 to 10, 2019. 

CMFR invited National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) to join the team.  There were no available members of NUJP on those dates. Pinlac and Baterna were able to interview with a member of PPI about the surge of violence and the situation of journalists and media organizations in General Santos City.

Background

In July 2019, CMFR noted two incidents of attacks against journalists and media organizations in Region XII which were allegedly connected to their reports on the financial scandal involving the Kabus Padatoon (“poor will be rich”) Community Ministry International Inc. (KAPA). The ministry is a Surigao del Sur-based quasi-religious group which President Rodrigo Duterte shut down due to its allegedly illegal investment schemes. The announcement happened in Pastor Apollo Quiboloy’s television program “Give Us This Day,” which airs in SMNI, the pastor’s television network. Quiboloy is the founder and leader of Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

KAPA was founded in 2015 in Surigao but was registered with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a religious corporation only on 3 March 2017. The ministry was co-founded by Pastor Joel Apolinario, who serves as the organization’s president.

The SEC found KAPA soliciting donations from the public in exchange for a lifetime monthly “blessing” equivalent to 30 percent of their donation.

The Certificate of Incorporation granted to KAPA state that it is “not authorized to undertake business requiring secondary license from SEC” including “soliciting investments in the form of securities.” The SEC flagged advisories against its scheme as early as March 2017.

Despite the advisories, KAPA grew and reached neighboring provinces including Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Kidapawan and General Santos City. As of press time, media reports noted that the organization had around 50,000 members.

With more and more people investing money to the ministry, SEC issued another advisory against KAPA on 4 October 2018.

The Soccsksargen media reported the advisories. Radio commentators also started criticizing KAPA. Some of the critical media include Brigada in Kidapawan and Bombo Radyo in Gensan.

KAPA began to purchase blocktime slots in different radio stations in the region spread the word about their organization. Airtime were also used to counter allegations of critics as well as to lash out critical media organizations.

When the President ordered its closure, the issue gained national prominence. Days later, attacks on media organizations critical of KAPA were reported to CMFR and NUJP.   

Two cases reported included the shooting of the Bombo Radyo station in General Santos City and the killing of Eduardo Dizon, anchor for dxKE Brigada in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato.

On 03 July 2019, an unidentified man fired shots at Bombo Radyo station in General Santos City. No one was hurt in the incident, but three of the rounds fired by the suspect damaged the station building. Station Manager Jonathan Macailing said that the shooting could be due to its reports on the KAPA issue. The radio station has had programs with commentators expressing criticism of KAPA and has been receiving threats via SMS in this connection.

In North Cotabato, on 10 July 2019, two gunmen aboard a motorcycle fired several shots at the vehicle of broadcaster Eduardo Dizon. Dizon managed to drive his car to the side of the road but eventually died from five gunshot wounds.

Dizon had been vocal against KAPA before he was killed. According to local media reports, the broadcaster and other members of the radio station had received death threats from Bong Encarnacion, a broadcaster, who is also a KAPA supporter. Encarnacion’s real name is Dante Tabosares.  

Prior to the July 2019 incidents, KAPA also filed an online libel complaint against Bombo Radyo in General Santos City and its managers for reporting a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) advisory warning people against investing in KAPA. The Prosecutor’s Office of Sarangani dismissed the case on 26 April 2019 due to lack of probable cause.

THE KILLING OF EDUARDO DIZON

On 6 August 2019, the team learned that witnesses had identified the lookout and likely gunman in the killing of Dizon through footage from the CCTV of the pharmacy on the ground floor of the Brigada Kidapawan Building. They apparently went into the pharmacy to wait for Dizon to leave the station.

Dizon had arrived at the station office for his daily program aboard his white Mitsubishi G4 Mirage around 3:00 p.m. last 10 July 2019. His entertainment program “Brigada Couple’s Lane” was aired from 8 to 10 p.m. daily. He also had a commentary and news program, “Banat Brigada” and “Tira Brigada,” aired from Mondays to Saturdays at 6:00 to 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 to 9:30 a.m. respectively. The Brigada pharmacy is at the ground floor of Brigada Kidapawan’s building. The radio station is located on the second floor.

When Dizon left the station after his program, the lookout and suspected shooter followed his car on board a motorcycle.

 A few minutes after, Dizon was shot at the diversion road along the National Highway and Sinuat Street.

One of the men is alleged to be the close-in security escort of radio broadcaster Dante Tabosares, also known as Bong Encarnacion.  Tabosares is the Kidapawan KAPA-Media Team Coordinator. Tabosares had challenged Dizon to a duel prior to his murder. The Dizons reported the threat to the police on 04 July 2019. 

A witness who was on a motorcycle driving down the diversion road with his wife and son saw two men  on another motorcycle closing in on a white car traversing the national highway. The backrider pulled out a gun, and fired twice at the driver’s side. The motorcycle-riding men then fled towards Makilala town.

The witness call the attention of the policemen in an outpost also along the highway. He only found out that the victim was Eduardo Dizon the next day.

On 18 July 2019, the witness said that the police showed him CCTV footage from the pharmacy. He identified the gunman as the person caught on camera passing in front of the pharmacy around 10:31 p.m.

The next day, the police showed him photos of possible suspects in the killing of Dizon.  He picked photo number 5.

A complaint for murder was subsequently filed against The person in the photo and the two motorcyle riding men before the Kidapawan City Prosecution Office. Regional Prosecutor Calica said that the Kidapawan City Prosecution Office inhibited itself from conducting the preliminary investigation. Calica was then transferred to the Cotabato Prosecutor’s Office. 

CMFR went to Kidapawan City on 9 August 2019 to interview representatives of the city prosecution office and the police, and the widow of Dizon.

The team was able to speak with Kidapawan’s Assistant City Prosecutor Eugene Seron. Seron was a member of Task Force Dizon.  He did not reveal the names of suspects to avoid pre-empting the serving of subpoenas and to deter the flight of the suspects.

CMFR also interviewed a member of the administrative staff of Brigada News in Kidapawan City. Initially, the team was to meet with widow Madonna Dizon who was the station manager of Brigada News.  However, CMFR was belatedly informed that the widow and the station staff had chosen not to discuss the incident since a murder complaint had already been filed.

The administration officer did confirm that, except for some insulting messages, Dizon had not received any serious threats aside from the challenge by Encarnacion to a duel. 

The team also went to the regional headquarters of the Brigada Group of Companies in General Santos City. However, no one was available for an interview.

The  CMFR team went to the provincial and city police offices but was told that they were not allowed to discuss an ongoing case.

The team was told that a Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFOMS) official had asked the city police and Brigada News to stop them from providing any information to anyone to avoid any misinterpretation of the case.

On 15 August 2019, the CMFR team was informed that one of the suspects had decided to execute an affidavit naming the masterminds and other suspects in the killing of Dizon. A supplementary complaint was filed on the same day.

STRAFING OF BOMBO RADYO GENSAN

On 7 August 2019, the team went to the Bombo Radyo General Santos station and spoke with Station Manager Jonathan Macailing and two other broadcasters. Macailing told the team that the gunfire attack on the station was related to Bombo Radyo’s critical reportage of the allegedly illegal investment scheme of the KAPA Ministry.

Bombo Radyo GenSan started  coverage of the KAPA investment scheme. Bombo Radyo was among the first media organizations that reported the Security and Exchange Commission resolution questioning the legality of KAPA’s investment program as it was registered only as a religious organization.

According to Macailing, the station’s security personnel saw a pick up truck near the station in Amao Road, Baranggay Bula at about 8:30 p.m. on July 3. As the truck approached the station, the driver pulled out a gun and fired several shots. One went through the glass window of the station building. The guards on duty managed to return fire but the truck sped away towards the downtown area.

The incident happened while there was an ongoing commentary program, but no one was hurt.

A “soft” blotter obtained by the team from the Bula Police Station said that “The SOCO team was requested to process the crime scene and was able to recover four empty cartridge cases in the area. The bullets were subject for (sic) ballistic information.””

The investigation is still going. The police have yet to identify the suspects. There were no witnesses who can identify them.

Macailing said that there was a possible witness to the incident. A man on a bicycle was passing by the station when the shooting occurred. However, they failed to get the identity of the man.

The Fact Finding team notes that Bombo Radyo station is located along the road but that there are no other establishments near it.

During the interview with Macailing, the team found out that gunfire attack  was not the only attack against Bombo Radyo  allegedly involving KAPA Ministry members and its leader Joel Apolinario. 

Macailing and another Bombo Radyo anchor are facing a criminal case for robbery before Branch 35 of the Regional Trial Court in General Santos City. The robbery case against Macailing and Salvador “Boy” Galano stemmed from an entrapment operation  by the National Bureau of Investigation in September 2018 upon the request of Apolinario.

According to Macailing, he and Galano met with Apolinario in a restaurant inside a mall in Lagao, General Santos City.

Macailing told CMFR that they were being forced to stop commenting on the religious organization. Apolinario allegedly invited them to discuss possible KAPA donations to the annual bloodletting drive of Bombo Radyo. Macailing and Galano agreed on a PHP5 million donation to be deposited in the station manager’s bank account. Macailing  agreed to meet Apolinario in the restaurant where the entrapment happened. He was surprised when he found that he and Galano were being arrested for extortion. Local news reports said that Apolinario had reported to the police that Macailing was demanding r PHP10 million in exchange for the station to stop its commentaries on KAPA. (https://www.mindanews.com/top-stories/2018/09/2-bombo-radyo-gensan-biggies-nabbed-in-p5-million-extortion/)

The two were brought to the provincial police station but were later freed after the management of Bombo Radyo paid the bail bond.

Macailing claimed that the gunfire attack on the station coincided with the scheduled arraignment of Macailing and Galano for the robbery case.

In January 2019, two police officers charged Macailing and his companions with Direct Assault upon Agents of Persons in Authority. The officers alleged that Macailing resisted arrest when they tried to serve the warrant in connection with the robbery case.

However, Macailing claimed that the police officers, who wear in civilian clothes and were aboard a motorcycle, had tailed his car when he was on his way downtown. He thought they were paid “riding in tandem” gun men so he and his security personnel stopped their car and accosted the riders in a crowded place. Macailing said they confiscated a gun and a phone from the two men, and then found out that they were police officers.

Macailing said they tried to bring the police officers to the General Santos Hall of Justice but the two resisted. The station manager then decided to surrender the confiscated items to justice personnel.

At the Hall of Justice, General Santos City police arrested Macailing for not appearing in the preliminary hearing of his robbery case. Macailing said his lawyer had filed a motion to suspend the hearing days before and thought it had been granted by the court.

Meanwhile, five KAPA members filed separate online libel complaints against Macailing before the General Santos City Prosecution Office in January 2019. The complaints stemmed from Macailing’s August 2018 “Bombohanay Bigtime” broadcasts posted on the station’s Facebook page.  The complaints were junked on 29 March2019 due to lack of probable cause.

When asked about other threats and attacks, anchor May Declaro told CMFR that the station has received threats in the form of text messages and letters. Declaro personally received an empty matchbox while doing a program.

OTHER ATTACKS AND THREATS

PPI member Joseph Jubelag told the team that there were no other recent threats and attacks against journalists in General Santos City that he knew of except for the gunfire attack on the Bombo Radyo station.

The team asked Jubelag if there were updates on the arrest of the gunman in the Dennis Cuesta murder. Jubelag said the suspect, former Police Inspector Redempto “Boy” Acharon, remains free despite the issuance of several warrants of arrests against him.

Cuesta died in  hospital on 9 August 2008, five days after a gunman on a motorcycle shot him along a national highway near a shopping mall in General Santos City. A program director and anchor at the local station of Radio Mindanao Network (RMN), Cuesta was on his way home from an RMN-sponsored outreach program when he was attacked.

The Fact Finding team also met with the families of the media workers killed in the  2009 Ampatuan Massacre. They also got copies of selected court documents from lawyer Nena Santos.

The Ampatuan Massacre trial is currently on its ninth year. According to Santos, the case will soon be submitted for resolution. The killing of 58 people including 32 journalists in Maguindanao is still the bloodiest attack on press freedom in the Philippines to date. 

During its interview with Regional Prosecutor Calica, the team found out that the case of Nestor Bedolido has been transferred to General Santos from Digos City. Branch 35 of the General Santos Trial Court is currently hearing the case.  An ocular visit of the crime scene will be conducted on 23 September 2019.

Nestor Bedolido, editorial consultant of the weekly newspaper Kastigador and publisher of the Mt. Apo Current, was killed on June 19, 2010 in Digos City. On August 26, 2014, the Department of Justice ordered the filing of charges against former Davao del Sur governor Douglas Cagas and Matanao town mayor Vicente “Butch” Fernandez for Bedolido’s murder. Also charged were Ali Ordaneza, Bado Sanchez, Richard Velila Sanchez and Henry Mirafuentes Jr.

CONCLUSION

Since 1986, 93 out of the 165 journalists killed for their work were from Mindanao. Region XII and Region XI (Davao Region) had 16 killings each and share the second spot with highest number of journalist killings per region. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has the highest number killings at 34. The number includes the 32 media workers killed in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre.  

This culture of violence against journalists in Mindanao persists despite the implementation of martial law on 23 May 2017. Since then until 10 September 2019, six journalists were killed in Southern Philippines. CMFR also recorded 18 other threats and attacks in the island during the period. And, there may have been more unreported incidents.

The KAPA issue added another layer of fear among critical media organizations in Region XII. According to Bombo Radyo Gensan, most of the media organizations in the city were mum about the KAPA issue. Those critical are being silenced by means of legal actions or by physical attacks including strafing and murder.  

Talking to some locals, the team found out that the KAPA recruited people from different fields including media men, lawyers and police officers. All are part of the 50,000 affected by the ministry’s closure. Some members expressed disapproval of its shutdown.

KAPA members were named as suspects in the killing of Dizon. And Bombo Radyo GenSan had cases filed against them by Apolinario and another by KAPA members.

The government responded promptly by installing members of the Philippine National Police to man Bombo Radyo station. And for Dizon, an investigating panel was created and the case was now filed in Cotabato RTC.

The team noted two points during the fact-finding activity: (1) that while the martial law in Mindanao primarily focused on curbing terrorism, it seemed to fail in addressing other kinds of violence including media killings with six journalists killed since it started. And that, (2) the approach of the government to look at these incidents as individual cases does not answer the general question of journalist safety in Mindanao as well as in the other areas in the Philippines.

The work of government and other press freedom advocacy groups does not end after a case has been filed in courts. Threats, attacks and violence against journalists are broad to be treated as individual cases. While a prompt response is greatly needed, there should also be a thorough investigation to examine patterns and establish underlying issues in all of the cases. The results should show the areas that needed to be addressed to prevent more violence against media workers from happening.