MANILA: Philippine police accused the country’s prisons chief on Monday of ordering the killing of a prominent radio journalist whose death sparked international alarm.
Radio personality Percival Mabasa, 63, who went by the name “Percy Lapid” on his programme, was shot dead in a Manila suburb on October 3 as he drove to his studio.
Police allege Bureau of Corrections director general Gerald Bantag, who is currently suspended from duty, was behind the murder along with his deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta.
The alleged gunman, Joel Escorial, surrendered to authorities last month out of fear for his safety after police broadcast images of his face captured on security footage, officials said previously.
“He (Bantag) will probably be the highest official of this land ever charged with a case of this gravity,” Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla said.
Then-president Rodrigo Duterte appointed Bantag as director general of the Bureau of Corrections in September 2019. Bantag allegedly ordered the murder of Mabasa following the “continued expose by the latter of the issues against the former on his show”, Eugene Javier of the National Bureau of Investigation told reporters, reading from a statement.
Weeks before he was gunned down, Mabasa aired allegations of corruption against Bantag on his late-night radio show. Bantag told DZRH broadcaster last month that he had nothing to do with the killing.
Bantag and Zulueta have also been accused of ordering the killing of Cristito Villamor Palana, a prison inmate who allegedly passed on the kill order to the gunman.
Palana was suffocated with a plastic bag by members of his own gang, Javier said.
Criminal complaints have also been filed against 10 inmates over that killing.
Prosecutors at the Department of Justice will decide if there is enough evidence to file charges in court.
Jonathan De Santos, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, welcomed the “good development” in the case, but warned there was a long way to go.
“As we have seen it takes a decade or more to secure a conviction,” De Santos said.
Mabasa was an outspoken critic of former president Duterte, who waged a deadly drug war that killed thousands of people, as well as the policies and aides of his successor Ferdinand Marcos.
He is the second journalist to be killed since President Marcos took office on June 30.
Bringing to justice everyone involved in the murder was an “acid test” for Marcos’s commitment to human rights, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“But putting Mabasa’s killers behind bars should also be the start of a comprehensive effort, not a one-off case because the victim happened to be a prominent, Manila-based journalist,” he said.
Mabasa’s brother Roy said he believed there were “more masterminds” behind the killing.
While the Philippines is ranked one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, such murders rarely happen in Manila. Radio broadcasters outside the capital were often the target.
A Manila-based analyst said Mabasa’s murder was likely personal, rather than political.
“Radio journalists are killed because they air individual people’s grievances and get involved in personal disputes,” he said.
Javier said the investigation into the murders had exposed “the institutionalisation of a criminal organisation within the government”.
“This will be the cause of many reforms in government and the strengthening of current mechanisms to ensure that nothing of this nature will happen again,” he said, describing it as a “war against impunity”. — AFP