Dangerous dynasties in Northern Mindanao

Dangerous dynasties in Northern Mindanao

Powerful political families have turned the Philippines into one of the world’s worst countries for journalists.
article image
An activist lights a candle at a rally commemorating a massacre in Mindanao that left 57 people dead in 2009, among them dozens of journalists.

Halfway through the interview, journalist Hugo Dumaguing paused. He pointed to his wall of weapons in the veranda. It was well-stocked.

“Those are just toys. I have real arms.”

Then he pulled out his gun.

“Because I don’t know you.”

What kind of country would drive a journalist to become this wary of another? Such action speaks volumes about the Philippine situation, which has grown so dire as to breed mistrust among the press.

Dumaguing was one of several mediamen beaten up in the island-province of Camiguin during the 2010 general election. Camiguin lies in the Northern region of Mindanao, an island group known as much for its deep-seated political dynasties as its natural resources.

Mindanao was the site of the deadliest event for journalists in modern history. Thirty-two journalists were killed in one sitting for envenoming the Ampatuan family, overlords of Maguindanao province in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Where warlords and secessionists hold court, ARMM is the worst place in what the Committee to Protect Journalists has labeled the world’s worst country for journalists.

Who's next in Northern Mindanao? 

Northern Mindanao is comparatively the safest among Mindanao’s regions; for what it is worth, only 4 journalists were killed here in the line of duty. But with long-entrenched political families maintaining bailiwicks throughout the region - or all across the Philippines for that matter - a fifth victim has been a long time coming.

Dumaguing could have been that one.

He and his son Hubert journeyed with two cameramen to Camiguin on a 10-day assignment from RR Productions. On May 9, 2010, they settled in the town of Catarman, where a Nestor Jacot was gunning for mayor under the banner of the Romualdos, Camiguin’s paramount political family. 

Having covered the campaign rallies, the team decided to split up to collect evidences of vote-buying in town. Hubert eventually strayed outside one house, where he espied incumbent Camiguin Governor Jurdin Jesus “JJ” Romualdo meeting surreptitiously with supporters.

Hubert captured the potentially damning scene on video - until somebody caught him. Initially, Romualdo’s supporters just amassed around Hubert. When he and the others tried to make a getaway on motorbike, the crowd mobbed them.

“I could not run. At first they weren’t able to close in on me because I resisted. They zeroed in on my son because he had the video,” Hugo recounted.

'We don't recognise media here'

“When JJ arrived, I implored him to stop the people. But JJ only told them, ‘Hold him.’ He punched me. That was when the crowd rushed in on me. I was whipped with a .45 on the head. Someone even tried to stone me…JJ said, ‘We don’t recognise media here.’”

Hugo sustained a sizable gash on the head from the gun-whipping. The team lost many belongings in the melee, including Hubert’s recording. On June 10, the four mediamen filed counts of kidnapping, robbery, grave threats, physical injury, and violation of the Election Code against Romualdo and Jacot, both of whom had swept the election clean.

On May 11, 2011, the Northern Mindanao prosecutor’s office cleared the politicians of all charges - but not before Hugo and Hubert almost got killed by unidentified drive-by shooters.

“We were crestfallen over the decision. All we wanted was justice,” Hubert lamented. “It’s unbelievable. It’s the job of the prosecutors to find the probable cause at least.”

“Do you actually believe the prosecutors were not influenced? The evidence, witnesses, videos, medical records: They were incontrovertible,” his father vehemently added.

Hugo claimed an emissary of the defendants had offered P5 million ($117,592) in settlement to the plaintiffs.

“We did not accept the offer. Because let’s say we won’t file charges against them. I would have to beat up JJ in exchange. We would also have to mob his son. So he would know what it feels like for a father to see his own son being mauled before him. We would be on even terms then. We could even shake hands and have a drink afterwards,” Hugo said.

‘Pick which body part you want cut off’

Jigger Jerusalem, who freelances for Mindanao Gold Star Daily and national broadsheet Philippine Star, covered the Dumaguing case at length.

In October 2010, he received caustic emails, one of which read: “Mr. Jigger Jerusalem, age 39, a resident of Puerto, Cagayan de Oro, a news reporter in this city. Man, if you hold your life dearly, do me a favor: I don’t want to see your face here in Cagayan. Pick which body part you want cut off. You don’t know whom you are up against…”

Jerusalem does not know for sure if the Dumaguing story peeved the email sender, who did not allude to any case in particular. Apart from this story, Jerusalem memorably wrote a contentious piece on the illegal seizure of a fishing vessel by forces associated with another Northern Mindanao dynasty: the Guingonas.

Ruth Guingona, wife of a former Philippine vice-president, was one of those suspected of spearheading the killing of DXRS radio commentator Arecio Padrigao in the city of Gingoog, where she is unbeatable mayor.

A dogged detractor of Guingona, Padrigao was gunned down in full view of his daughter by motorcycle-riding assailants on November 17, 2008. Three months after Padrigao’s murder, DXSY radio presenter Ernesto Rollin was shot to death in Ozamiz. He was the second journalist to die in this city after Panguil Bay Monitor editor Nesino Toling in 1991. 

Many deaths, few prosecuted

These deaths comprise Northern Mindanao’s share in somber statistics. Since the ouster of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the attendant ‘restoration’ of democracy, 145 journalists have been extrajudicially killed across the country.

“Of the 145 cases, less than 10 have prospered in the courts, insofar as someone was successfully prosecuted. Even fewer have cases whose masterminds were identified. Often, the triggermen were the only ones convicted,” said JB Deveza, coordinator of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines’ Mindanao Media Safety Office.

“Most were provincial journalists. Only a few were national or based in Manila…Now why should they take the brunt? It’s because the nature of coverage in the province is more personal. Say, you report about the mayor, whom you would eventually cross paths with,” added Deveza, who also writes for national broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In the Philippines, a mayor is apt to be the brother of the vice-mayor, who is in turn the father of the village chairman, and so forth. There is a constitutional ban on dynasties but it has yet to be defined by an enabling law.

Unsurprisingly, legislators who filed one have been losing a numbers game. Most other legislators hail from political clans.

“Politicians should give others their time. It shouldn’t be the same old surnames,” a disenchanted Hugo Dumaguing ranted.

The 146th plate

Despite the gilt-edged impunity of political families, Northern Mindanao’s press remains rambunctious. In the wake of the Ampatuan-led massacre however, the risks are now higher than the journalists’ prudence is vast.

“We must cover anomalies, in person,” said Ercel Maandig, an anchorman of the defunct cable channel Media Higala. “But we must only act upon the referrals of these families’ opponents.”

Surely this forethought draws from out-and-out fear, embodied in a monument in one of the parks in Cagayan de Oro, Northern Mindanao’s largest metropolis.

On the wall of this monument are 145 brass plates, one each for the names of the country’s slain journalists. When the monument was erected in August 2009, it had little over 100 plates. Then the Maguindanao Massacre happened.

Still, ample space awaits the as-yet-unknown owner of the 146th plate. He or she may not even live far from the monument.

All rights reserved, Doha Centre for Media Freedom 2013

Designed and developed by Media Plus Jordan