Murder of Jerry Ortega: Justice Delayed, Justice Denied (“Justice Delayed; Justice Denied”… This is the fourth part of a series of surveys conducted as part of the Safe World for Truth project. This initiative, led by three major press freedom organizations – Free Press Unlimited (FPU), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – aims to investigate unsolved murder cases, conduct long-term efforts to raise awareness of the action, and feed the People’s Court for the murder of journalists.
Murder Jerry Ortegamurdered on January 24, 2011 in Palawan, in the western Philippines, highlights a structural problem with the safety of journalists in the Philippines: while hitmen are often arrested, powerful organizers of journalist killings too often elude justice.
While attacks on the media have intensified under President Rodrigo Duterte since 2016, the Philippines has been a particularly dangerous country for journalists for much longer. Jerry Ortega is the 142nd journalist to be killed since 1986, according to the National Union of Archipelago Journalists (NUJP). The Philippines is ranked seventh in CPJ’s 2021 Impunity Index.
No answer, no justice
Jerry Ortega, or “Doc Jerry”, was a leading radio and television personality on environmental issues in the province of Palawan. His work has led him to inform the public about kickbacks and other instances of corruption in the provincial government. Thus, Jerry Ortega was not afraid to speak out publicly against mining projects in the region and, if necessary, to criticize some local political figures in these corruption cases, in particular those who are prosecuting then-Governor Joel T. Reyes.
This new project report Safe world for the truth it turns out that this same Joel Reyes – the alleged mastermind of the killer Jerry Ortega, who enjoys significant influence in the region – is still avoiding justice. More than a decade after the journalist’s murder, numerous court decisions have delayed the trial, leaving the journalist’s relatives without justice and no answers about the exact responsibility for this tragedy.
Worse, the lengthy legal battle played out over and over puts the family and key witnesses at serious risk to their safety. As this investigation shows, the suspicious death of a key witness and the recent assault on another witness are prime examples of how those involved in the case are being silenced.
Break the vicious circle of impunity
One of the most disturbing findings of this report concerns the shortcomings of the trial, beginning with the denial initially accepted by the prosecution of important corroborating evidence that Joel Reyes did order the murder. The report also sheds light on how the former governor still wields considerable influence over local officials in Palawan as he runs in the gubernatorial elections scheduled for May-June next year.
In light of these findings, Safe world for the truth recommends several concrete steps to achieve justice and break the vicious circle of impunity in future journalist murder cases in the Philippines.
- The Philippine National Police must prioritize bringing Joel Reyes to justice, including ensuring that the Criminal Investigation Service complies with the warrant for his arrest.
- The Philippine Department of Justice should regularly monitor and evaluate cases of murders of journalists to ensure prompt investigation and effective response to any shortcomings in the prosecution of these cases.
- The report also emphasizes that the international community must play its part in ending impunity for the murder of Jerry Ortega by applying sustained public pressure and monitoring the progress of the prosecution against Joel Reyes. At the request of the Philippine authorities or Jerry Ortega’s family, the international community should provide resources and expertise to expedite the investigation and prosecution.
Jos Bartman, Head of FPU Investigations : “Ten years have passed since the murder of Jerry Ortega. This case presents a much broader question about the power of local actors who escaped justice after the murder of a journalist. In 10 years, delayed justice becomes a denial of justice. Through this investigation, we want to help bring justice to Jerry Ortega and his family. The lessons learned should lead to immediate justice in future journalist murder cases.”
Sean Crispin, CPJ Southeast Asia Representative: “The unsolved murder of Jerry Ortega symbolizes the issues of impunity that characterize cases involving murders of members of the media. Until justice is brought to justice for the murder of Jerry Ortega, a climate of fear will continue for all Filipino journalists covering such important topics as corruption and abuse of power by the authorities. How much longer will Jerry Ortegas be before the Philippine authorities seriously address the problem of impunity in the country?
Daniel Bustard, RSF Asia Pacific Director: “Since Rodrigo Duterte came to power, the Philippines has dropped 11 places and is currently ranked 136th in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index. Radical changes are needed. We support the creation of a special representative to the UN Secretary General on the safety of journalists. In the case of Jerry Ortega, this UN representative could be in regular contact with the Philippine Department of Justice to ensure that investigations continue.
The Jerry Ortega murder investigation, as well as the project’s first three investigations, can be viewed at https://www.saferworldforthetruth.com/investigations.
CPJ (New York): Gypsy Guillen Kaiser – [email protected]
FPU (Amsterdam): Evelyn Wijkstra – [email protected]
RSF (Paris): Pauline Ades-Mevel – [email protected]
Representatives are available for interviews in French, English, Spanish and Dutch.