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Philippine Police Allege Prisons Chief Ordered Murder Of Journalist

Police in the Philippines have accused the country’s prisons chief of ordering the killing of a prominent radio journalist whose death sparked international alarm.

Percival Mabasa, 63, who went by the name Percy Lapid on his programme, was shot dead in a Manila suburb on 3 October as he drove to his studio.

Police alleged on Monday that the 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.

Officials had previously said that the alleged gunman, Joel Escorial, surrendered to authorities last month out of fear for his safety after police broadcast images of his face captured in security footage.

“[Bantag] will probably be the highest official of this land ever charged with a case of this gravity,” said the justice secretary, Crispin Remulla.

Rodrigo Duterte, who was president of the Philippines from 2016 until June this year, appointed Bantag as director general of the bureau of corrections in September 2019.

Bantag allegedly ordered the murder of Mabasa after the “continued exposé by the latter of the issues against the former on his show”, said Eugene Javier of the national bureau of investigation.

Weeks before Mabasa was shot dead, the journalist had aired allegations of corruption against Bantag on his late-night radio show.

Gerald Bantag. Photograph: Francis R Malasig/EPABantag told the broadcaster DZRH last month that he had had nothing to do with the killing.

Bantag and Zulueta have also been accused of ordering the killing of Cristito Villamor Palaña, a prison inmate who allegedly passed on the kill order to the gunman. Palaña was suffocated with a plastic bag by members of his own gang, Javier said. Criminal complaints have been filed against 10 inmates over that killing.

Prosecutors at the justice department will decide if there is enough evidence to file charges in court.

Jonathan de Santos, the 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,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Mabasa was an outspoken critic of Duterte, who waged a deadly drug war that killed thousands of people, as well as the policies and aides of his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He is the second journalist to be killed since Marcos took office on 30 June.

Bringing to justice everyone involved in the murder was an “acid test” for Marcos’s commitment to human rights, said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for the NGO 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 as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, such murders rarely happen in Manila, with radio broadcasters outside the capital often being the target.

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”.

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