Philippine authorities have filed murder charges against the country’s top prison official and an associate, accusing them of orchestrating the recent murder of the radio commentator Percival Mabasa.
In a joint statement read out at a news conference yesterday, senior officials from the justice and interior ministries and the Philippine National Police announced murder charges against Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag, who has been suspended from his post. They have also pressed charges against prisons security official Ricardo Zulueta, who is on the run from the law, and other suspects in the killing.
On October 3, Mabasa, who is also known by his nom de plume Percy Lapid, was shot dead in his car during an ambush near his home in Las Pinas City, a suburb of Metro Manila.
Mabasa had many potential enemies; his “Lapid Fire” show featured frequent criticism of the family and legacy of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, whose term ended in June.
According to the statement, Bantag tapped three gang leaders locked up in the country’s largest prison to look for a gunman to kill Mabasa for a payment of 550,000 pesos ($9,300), The Associated Press reported.
Besides the complaint filed for Lapid’s death, the authorities also filed another complaint about the death of Jun Villamor, the alleged middleman in the Lapid case. Villamor was killed by gang leaders inside the New Bilibid Prison as a cover-up after he was publicly identified by the gunman as the inmate who arranged the killing from his prison cell.
“It was found through the investigation that both director-general Gerald Bantag and DSO Ricardo Zulueta were behind the killing of both Percy Lapid and Jun Villamor,” Eugene Javier, an investigator for the National Bureau of Investigation, said at the news conference.
The statement said that Bantag had “a clear motive to effect the murders,” given the fact that Mabasa’s “Lapid Fire” show had fiercely criticized Bantag and other officials for alleged corruption and other misdeeds. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said that the country’s prison system had been turned into a “criminal organization.”
Mabasa’s killing reinforced the Philippines’ reputation as what Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has described as “one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists.” An estimated 195 journalists have been killed since 1986, and RSF rated the Philippines at 147th out of 180 countries in its latest Press Freedom Index.
While many of these murders have gone unsolved, especially those that have taken place in regions under the sway of powerful local families, Lapid’s killing has galvanized an unusual amount of public pressure, perhaps due to his prominent national profile and the brazen nature of the murder.
The charges were filed the same day as the Philippine House of Representatives adopted a resolution condemning in the “strongest possible terms” Lapid’s killing and expressing “grave concern” over the safety of journalists in the country.
“Local and international journalists were outraged and deeply saddened by the killing of Mr. Percival ‘Percy Lapid’ C. Mabasa, and they considered this dastardly act as an attack on the freedom of speech and of the press that must be stopped to save and maintain democracy,” stated the resolution.
The fact that murder charges have been brought against powerful figures is an encouraging sign that the Philippines is moving in the right direction in terms of preventing threats and attacks against critical journalists. At the same time, a thick catalog of unsolved murders suggests it still has a long way to go before the deterrent effect is powerful enough to prevent this tragedy from recurring.