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Manila jail chief faces murder rap over broadcaster’s death

PHILIPPINE STAR/ ERNIE PENAREDONDO

PHILIPPINE police on Monday filed a complaint against the country’s prison chief before the Justice department for ordering the murder of a local broadcaster whose death has sparked international alarm.

Government prosecutors will conduct a preliminary investigation to determine probable cause against suspended Bureau of Corrections Director General Gerald Q. Bantag, his security officer and four inmates, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla told a news briefing streamed live on Facebook.

“Hopefully, this issue will be laid to rest the way it should be when crime is committed against a citizen of the Republic of the Philippines, especially this time we are talking about a member of media,” he added.

He was referring to the murder of radio broadcaster Percival C. Mabasa, who was killed by assassins on a motorcycle in front of his house in Las Piñas City near the Philippine capital.

Mr. Bantag did not immediately reply to a Facebook Messenger chat seeking comment.

His security officer had since gone into hiding, national police chief Rodolfo S. Azurin, Jr. told the same briefing.

Mr. Remulla said prosecutors would give Mr. Bantag and the other respondents due process.

“I wanted to believe in something otherwise, but it is overwhelming because the testimonies are all there,” he said.

Mr. Azurin earlier said police were looking into more than 100 people whom the late journalist had criticized in his radio program, including Mr. Bantag.

Mr. Percival’s YouTube Channel, which had more than 200,000 subscribers, showed that he was critical of ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte and some of his officials.

Mr. Bantag had denied involvement in the crime, saying he had nothing to gain from it.

The self-confessed gunman surrendered to authorities on Oct. 18, claiming he and three other accomplices had been hired by someone inside the national penitentiary. The assassins allegedly got paid P550,000 for the job.

Mr. Remulla earlier said one of the supposed middlemen who contracted the killers died inside the national jail.

The man did not show any signs of external injury, according to an initial autopsy report by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

But forensics expert Raquel del Rosario-Fortun, who was tapped by the Justice department to conduct a second autopsy, said the alleged middleman could have died by suffocation using a plastic bag.

“President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. is aware of the situation, and hopefully, it will pave the way for justice to be served for the family of Mabasa,” Acting Press Secretary Cheloy Velicaria-Garafil told a separate televised briefing.

The president earlier said he had suspicions about the man’s sudden death, saying there were multiple ways to kill a person discreetly.

Last week, New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the Philippines remained the seventh worst country in the world where journalist killers get away with murder.

CPJ noted that the country, where 85 Filipino journalists were killed between 1992 and 2022, had 14 unsolved murders involving reporters.

Political analysts have said the government should work with more civic groups to improve media security.

Maria Ela L. Atienza, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines, said in a Viber message on Nov. 6 that the government should fast-track the prosecution of cases involving journalists.

The Akbayan political party has said the recent murders against local broadcasters highlight the prevailing culture of impunity in the country.

In a joint statement on Oct. 18, the embassies of the Netherlands, Canada and France said journalist killings “curtail the ability of journalists to report the news freely and safely.” — John Victor D. Ordoñez

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