Access to PH Justice System Suffers Amid the Lockdown

The pandemic is laying bare lingering issues such as abuse of power, human rights violations, lack of access to the justice system, overcrowded jails and detention centers, lack of accountability, weaponization of the law, and impunity.

BY ANGELICA CARBALLO PAGO/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

TWO months of lockdown have put the Philippine justice system under more stress and farther away from the reach of ordinary citizens.

Lawyers from the multisectoral network Courts Appointments Watch PH pointed to illegal or warrantless arrests, maltreatment of quarantine violators, transgression of labor laws, and a crackdown on free expression during a webinar titled “Access to Justice Under a Pandemic Crisis” on Wednesday, May 19.

Lack of legal information and access to the complex and formalistic judicial system has long been a problem for the poor and those in far-flung areas, said lawyer Sheila Formento of Alternative Law Groups (ALG).

In 2017, the Philippines had 2,200 courts, equivalent to just one court for every 50,000 people, according to figures submitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

That same year, one prosecutor handled an average 166 cases and disposed of 145 cases, according to the National Prosecution Service. At the Public Attorney’s Office, which serves indigent litigants, each lawyer handled 465 cases in 2018.
Courts constrained

Posting bail for detainees became particularly difficult, even for those with money, because of limited court operations during the lockdown.

“Even those who scraped up money for bail ay nahirapan pa rin makapagpiyansa dahil sa dami ng requirements at nahihirapan din magbayad,” said lawyer Jose Manuel ‘Chel’ Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

(Even those who scraped up money for bail had a hard time because of so many requirements. It was also difficult to make payments.)

In some areas, bail could only be paid through state-owned Land Bank of the Philippines. Some branches were open just three times a week and for only half a day. Interbranch payments, ATM, and online banking services were not accepted.

In just a month after the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was enforced, the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrested 31,363 individuals, 2,467 of which were still in detention. Police filed 24,248 cases of quarantine violations.

These cases were on top of the arrests and killings under the war on drugs, which continued despite the lockdown. 

Dahil sa limitadong operasyon ng mga korte, ‘yung mga pending na kaso ay lalong made-delay at dahil madadagdagan pa ng mga violation ng ECQ, mas lalo pa itong dadami,” Formento said.

(Because of limited operations of the courts, pending cases will be further delayed, and the case loads will swell as violations of the ECQ pile up.)

Food or bail money?

Lawyers from the multisectoral network said unchecked abuses and human rights violations by law enforcers, as well as delays in the resolution of cases, have contributed to growing distrust in the judicial system among the poor and disadvantaged.

In many communities, the choice was either to post bail or go hungry, and the poor would rather spend their money on food and other necessities than file a case against abusers, ALG said.

Online initiatives to help to those in need, including remote legal advice and electronic filing of cases and bail petitions, were hampered by poor internet connection in far-flung communities and even in urban poor areas, it said.

The group has developed information materials on individual rights at checkpoints and during arrests, as well as on court procedures and other relevant issuances. 

Isang malaking hamon ang ibinigay ng pandemic na ito sa ating justice system. Bagama’t may kakulangan sa pasilidad at sa kahandaan ng organisasyon, dapat siguraduhing ang hustisya ay gumugulong para sa lahat. Kailangan ng pagmamatyag nating lahat na siguruhin ito,” Formento said.

(The pandemic is a big challenge to our justice system. Even if there’s a lack of facilities and organizational preparedness, the wheels of justice need to turn for everyone. We have to keep watch to make sure of that.)

Unwarranted arrests

Diokno said the pandemic further underscored lingering issues such as abuse of power, human rights violations, lack of access to the justice system, overcrowded jails and detention centers, lack of accountability, weaponization of the law, and impunity.

He cited instances when rules on warrantless arrests were not observed during the quarantine.

By law, warrantless arrests are allowed only in three situations: 1) when the crime is committed in the presence of police or in flagrante delicto, 2) when in hot pursuit based on personal knowledge of who committed the crime and 3) when arresting escaped prisoners.

“Unfortunately, the power to arrest without warrant has been, in my opinion, misused,” said Diokno.

Warrantless arrests have been used against people over jokes, memes, satires, and even legitimate opinions and speech on social media. 

In Cebu, Bambi Beltran was arrested for posting a satirical Facebook status, and the Zambales teacher Ronnel Mas, who posted a reward to “kill” President Duterte on Twitter, was brought to Manila under questionable circumstances.

“This pandemic has exposed the flaws in our justice system,” said Diokno. 

Diokno also said it was not unusual to hear of a poor person being arrested for a simple quarantine violation and then detained for more than 20 days.

FLAG also received reports that some detainees were beaten up in crowded jails, where social distancing was next to impossible, he said. (See related story: Philippine Jails are a Covid-19 Time Bomb)

Labor rights take the backseat

Job security and labor rights have also suffered as workers bore the brunt of business losses due to the lockdown, said Marco Gojol of National Union of Workers in Hotel, Restaurant and Allied Industries-Sentro (Nuwhrain-Sentro). 

Gojol said many companies were poised to let go of employees with losses mounting due to extended closures. Many companies were unable to get government subsidies, he said. 

Ang isa sa pinakamalaking issues na kinakaharap ng workers ngayon ay income loss. Maraming kumpanya ang napilitang itigil ang operasyon at apektado ang maraming no-work, no-pay (na mga manggagawa),” Gojol said.

(One of the big issues faced by workers is income loss. Many companies have been forced to stop operations and workers in no-work, no-pay arrangements have been affected.) 

Many employers avoided stoppage by shifting to alternative modes of work, such as work-from-home and skeletal operations, but regular employees were prioritized over contractual employees, Gojol said.

In areas under the less restrictive general community quarantine, employees had a hard time going to work because of lack of public transportation. Safety remained a question mark in the absence of mass testing for the coronavirus disease, he said.

Moreover, union-busting did not stop during the pandemic, and some workers were dismissed for demanding safe workplaces and protocols, Gojol said.

Gojol said food and beverage workers from the Sentro labor centerfiled a notice of strike due to lack of safety protocols in their workplace on May 18. The notice was received but not docketed by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board, whose operations were put on standstill by the pandemic.

Gojol called on justice system stakeholders to help the labor sector find ways to protect the fundamental rights of workers amid the Covid-19 outbreak. 

He cited the Department of Labor and Employment’s Advisory 17, which encouraged workers and employees to negotiate temporary adjustments to wages and other benefits.

Habang may pandemya, inevitable ang labor-management disputes. Paano ia-address ng mga parties ang issues ngayong ‘new normal’ at paano magwo-work iyong mga dispute resolution mechanisms in this situation?” Gojol said. 

(Labor-management disputes are inevitable during the pandemic. How will the parties address these issues during the ‘new normal’ and how will dispute resolution mechanisms work in this situation?)

Media, free expression under threat

Karol Ilagan of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said truth-telling and holding government to account have become even more important during the pandemic.

“The crisis is transforming the business of journalism from gathering information, reporting, research to production, publishing and broadcast. It comes at a time when our role in disseminating reliable and verifiable information and holding power to account has never been more critical,” she said. 

The government’s pandemic response, however, has been accompanied by threats to press freedom, freedom of expression, and journalists’ safety. Some of these measures were meant, ostensibly, to stem the spread of disinformation, Ilagan said.

Ilagan cited the provision penalizing fake news in the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” which has been weaponized to punish or stifle dissenting voices, especially those on social media.

According to a report published by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All netowrk, at least 60 individuals have been charged by government officials on the basis of this provision of the pandemic response law. (See related story: Journalists Struggle to Cover the Pandemic as Space for Media Freedom Shrinks)

In a jab against press freedom, ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network, was shut down on May 5 as lawmakers allowed its broadcast license to expire under pressure from the Duterte government.

 The shutdown has deprived Filipinos of access to information during the pandemic, and has jeopardized the livelihood of 11,000 network employees.

The Philippine Press Institute said over half of its members had ceased printing due to economic losses, and layoffs were expected in the next few months across media companies. ABS-CBN has said it would be forced to lay off workers by August without a new franchise.

“Reporters and newsrooms are under intense pressure during this pandemic, which is arguably the most complex story that we can cover right now. At stake is the public’s right to know at a time when the stakes are even higher,” Ilagan said.

While information about the pandemic has been made available online by various government agencies, access to other information about the inner workings of government has generally been delayed, she said.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office for a time has ordered the suspension of responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests during the quarantine period. Not all agencies cater to FOI requests, resulting in longer waiting times and delays for journalists looking for stories during the pandemic.

Bright spots still in sight

Ilagan said collaboration was key to tackling the difficulties and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic as media and other stakeholders seek transparency and accountability in the legal system and the government.

“If we are to talk about solutions, there should be a concerted effort, particularly with the spread of disinformation. Alam nating aggressive ang nagpapakalat nito. We have to be more vigilant in providing verified and reliable info. And we have to work extra hard kasi nahihirapan tayo to do our job given the practical limitations,” Ilagan said.

Ria Nadora of the Association of Law Students of the Philippines urged the public to join in the national discourse for improved access to the justice system by using online spaces and social media.

“Not being silent about the matter helps in its own little way,” Nadora said.

Lyceum of the Philippines law dean Ma. Soledad Deriquito-Mawis, past president and chairperson of the Philippine Association of Law Schools, was optimistic of the solutions discussed during the webinar.

“This pandemic was not able to put a curse on our spirit in defending our freedoms and fighting for our rights. This pandemic did not put to sleep the Filipino spirit,” Mawis said.

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PCIJ is a member of Court Appointments Watch PH. The CAW webinars and its coverage are made possible by the support of The Asia Foundation.— PCIJ, May 2020

NUJP presses for justice on Gerry Ortega’s 9th death anniv

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) renewed its call for justice for broadcaster Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan on the ninth anniversary of his killing.

In a statement, the NUJP said it calls on the courts to resume trials against alleged masterminds in Ortega’s murders after the Court of Appeals (CA) reversed a 2018 ruling clearing former Palawan governor Joel Reyes, the primary suspect.

The group said the CA  ordered the Regional Trial Court in Puerto Princesa to “issue a warrant of arrest against the petitioner (Reyes) and to conduct proceedings in criminal case No. 26839 with purposeful dispatch” last November.

“Today, as we remember Doc Gerry, we call on the courts to let the wheels of justice finally turn, but not turn slowly,” the group said.

Hopes that the alleged brains behind Ortega’s murder would be held accountable had been dashed when co-accused former Coron, Palawan mayor Mario Reyes was granted bail in 2016 and his brother Joel was cleared of the murder charge and freed by the Court of Appeals in January 2018.

The former governor was back behind bars however after he was convicted of graft by the Sandiganbayan three weeks later.

The NUJP expressed optimism in a conviction as the gunman and all the members of the hit team were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted.

“In a rare instance, the hired killers named the alleged masterminds, who fled the country in 2012 soon after arrest warrants were issued against them but were captured in Thailand three years after and brought back to stand trial,” the NUJP said.

Ortega—also an environmentalist, public servant, good governance advocate and civic leader—had just finished hosting his program on radio station DWAR when shot dead.

The NUJP also noted that the victim’s family never wavered in their struggle for justice, adding it can do no less.

The NUJP is set to light candles for Ortega at the Sgt. Esguerra gate of ABS-CBN tonight, January 24, as it also calls for the renewal of the media company’s legislative franchise President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to block at the House of Representatives. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Ika-33 anibersaryo ng masaker sa Mendiola, ginunita

Nagtipon sa tulay ng Mendiola sa Maynila ang mga progresibong grupo sa pangunguna ng Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas upang gunitain ang masaker na pumatay sa 13 magsasaka noong 1987.

Kasabay ng panawagan ng hustisya para sa mga martir ng Mendiola ay ang pagpapatuloy ng usapang pangkapayapaan sa pagitan ng National Democratic Front of the Philippines at Government of the Republic of the Philippines na ang susunod na adyenda ay ang Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms kabilang na ang tunay na reporma sa lupa para sa mga magsasaka. (Bidyo ni Joseph Cuevas/ Kodao)

NDFP: After successful ceasefire, time to release peace consultants

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) seeks the release of its detained peace consultants and staff as a goodwill measure to boost chances of peace talks resumption this month. 

Along with the success of the ongoing ceasefire between the Rodrigo Duterte administration and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), NDFP chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison said it is widely expected that the government ought to release consultants who are under detention.

“The release of the political prisoners on humanitarian grounds will ensure the success of the formal meeting to resume the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations within January,” Sison said.

He said the consultants are being detained in violation of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees that prohibits harassment, arrest and detention against personnel of both the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the NDFP negotiating panels.

Long-time NDFP peace consultants Vicente Ladlad, Adelberto Silva, Renante Gamara, Rey Claro Casambre, Frank Fernandez, Cleofe Lagtapon, Esterlita Suaybaguio, and Leopoldo Caloza as well as NDFP panel staff Alex and Winona Birondo were arrested in succession after negotiations broke down in November 2017. 

All had been similarly charged with illegal possession of firearms, ammunition, and explosives.

Consultant Rafael Baylosis was the first to be arrested in January 2018 but was released by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court a year later due to lack of evidence.

Consultants Eduardo Sarmiento and Ferdinand Castillo were arrested by previous administrations.

NDFP consultant Lora T. Manipis has been reported missing since February 24, 2018, last seen with her husband Jeruel B. Domingo in Kidapawan City.

Manipis joined other missing NDFP consultants believed abducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, such as Leo Velasco, Rogelio Calubad, Prudencio Calubid, NDFP staff members Philip Limjoco, Leopoldo Ancheta, and Federico Intise. 

Meanwhile, youngest NDFP consultant Randy Felix P. Malayao was assassinated in Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya by still unidentified gunmen in January 2019. Another peace consultant, Sotero Llamas was killed in Tabaco, Albay in May 2006. 

Sison said Duterte should also immediately release sick and elderly political prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

“As regards the rest of the political prisoners, they can look forward to the general amnesty that is already slated for proclamation upon the approval of the Interim Peace Agreement (IPA),” Sison said.

Reaffirming past agreements

Sison said the formal meeting to resume the peace negotiations has the task of reaffirming all previous joint agreements since The Hague Joint Declaration of 1992 and setting the agenda for negotiating and approving the Interim Peace Agreement 

The IPA has three components: 1. the general amnesty and release of all political prisoners; 2. approval of the articles of CASER (Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms) on land reform and national industrialization; and 3. coordinated unilateral ceasefires, Sison said.

“The CASER will benefit the entire Filipino people, including families of adherents to the GRP and NDFP, through land reform and the generation of jobs under the program of national industrialization. These provide the economic and social substance for a just peace,” Sison said.

He added that a resumption of formal negotiations shall effectively supersede all Duterte issuance that terminated and prevented peace negotiations since November 2017. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

December 19 and the quest for justice

ON DECEMBER 19, the day set by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 for the promulgation of its much-awaited verdict on the Ampatuan massacre, it will be 10 years and 25 days since the killings occurred in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

Let that sink in: a decade of injustice. Ten years since 58 men and women, of whom 32 were journalists and media workers, were brutally killed in the worst election-related violence in the Philippines and the worst attack on journalists in history. These are millions of moments when swift decisive justice could have been served on the alleged perpetrators of the crime and its masterminds.

On December 19, the Filipino public expects nothing less than a conviction from Quezon City RTC Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes. But the Ampatuan case is one more indication of the fact that in the Philippines, a verdict in the lower courts even on a patently heinous crime will take at least a decade. It proves that impunity thrives for the powerful, while for the victims of crimes such as the Ampatuan massacre, a decade can pass without attaining justice.

A decade has indeed passed but the conditions that led to the Ampatuan massacre remain: political dynasties and patronage are still alive, paramilitary groups have not been dismantled, and the Ampatuans’ collusion with the administration — Arroyo then and Duterte now — still persists.

But in this climate when attacks against free expression and the press escalate relentlessly – from the killings of journalists to illegal arrests to online attacks – we should remain undaunted. Despite the stark lesson on how elusive justice is from the Ampatuan massacre case, journalists, activists, and advocates must not only soldier on, but also up the ante in the fight to shatter the culture of impunity that has enveloped the nation.

A conviction of the Ampatuans would be considered an initial victory against impunity. An acquittal, on the other hand, would spell death to press freedom.

December 19 will not only underscore how elusive justice is in our country. It should also be a time for all of us to renew our commitment to continue fighting for it no matter the cost, and no matter how long.

On December 19, let us express our solidarity with the families of the Ampatuan massacre victims and register our resounding call: Justice for the 58 massacre victims. End Impunity. Convict the Ampatuans.

* Pooled editorial of the members of the AlterMidya Network, a national organization of independent media outfits in the Philippines.

Ampatuan Massacre promulgation of verdict will be broadcast live–SC

The promulgation of judgement on the Ampatuan Massacre trial shall be broadcast live on December 19, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled Tuesday, December 10.

The High Court shall allow two People’s Television (PTV) cameras inside the courtroom which other media outfits could hook into, SC assistant court administrator and public information office chief Brian Keith Hosaka said.

Citing space limitations, the Court also decided it would only allow a limited number of reporters inside the court who would not be allowed to bring their own cameras, smart phones and other video and audio recording equipment inside.

The SC Public Information Office shall prepare a list of “accredited media” to be allowed inside the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology compound in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.

The High Tribunal decided on the petition for live coverage filed last week by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

“The live coverage/streaming of the promulgation would allow the families and relatives of the 58 victims who may not be able to attend the promulgation in Metro Manila to hear live the reading of the court’s decision on the killing of their relatives,” the media groups wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta.

Government communication and media offices also asked to be allowed to cover the event.

Before the groups’ petition, the Court, through Hosaka, wrote to PTV requesting for airtime and technical support, including cameras and video footage that would be provided to other media groups, for the live coverage of the verdict set on December 19

“Because of the paramount public interest involved in this case, the Supreme Court, which is overseeing the matter, would like to have live television coverage of the proceedings,” SC Assistant Court Administrator and Public Information Office chief Hosaka told PTV. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Media groups demand justice as promulgation nears

Groups continue their countdown 10 days before the promulgation of judgement on the decade-long trial on the Ampatuan Massacre on December 19. Groups such as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Photojournalists Center of the Philippines, Altermidya, College Editors Guild of the Philippines , Justice Now and others are expected to be present when Quezon City Regional Trial Court 221 hands down its verdict. (Video by Jek Alcaraz/Kodao. Background music credits: Haunting Sadness – Scary Background Music For Creepypastas – Mediacharger)

FOCAP: Ampatuan convictions only acceptable outcome

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) said the conviction of all perpetrators, especially the masterminds, is acceptable on the expected Ampatuan massacre case ruling next month.

In a statement issued two days before the 10th anniversary of the massacre, the FOCAP said it renews its call for a closure that will bring justice to the 58 victims, 32 of whom were journalists.

“Convictions of the perpetrators and full recompense of the victims’ families will be a first step in reversing the long and tragic injustice,” the group said.

FOCAP said nothing can justify another delay of even just one more day.

Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 presiding judge Jocelyn A. Solis-Reyes has been given until December 10 to submit a copy of her decision to the Supreme Court and until December 20 to promulgate it.

The cases’ promulgation was originally expected to be held on or before November 20 but Solis-Reyes asked for a 30-day extension “due to the voluminous records of these cases.”

The case dragged on for more than a decade which private prosecutor Nena Santos blamed on the “delaying tactics” employed by the principal respondents, the Ampatuans.

FOCAP added that the Philippine government has to do much more to banish the political barbarism that engenders media killings.

“The horrific display of impunity that claimed 58 lives, including 32 Philippine media workers, on November 23, 2009 underscored the deadly mix of political abuse and government failures that remains a threat we face today,” FOCAP said.

“Already regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, the Philippines became the scene of the deadliest single attack on media workers with the savage killings in Ampatuan town,” FOCAP added.

The group called on officials at the highest level to take effective steps to stop all forms of attacks and intimidation against journalists.

“They should fulfill their core constitutional duty to protect fundamental freedoms,” the group added.

10th anniversary activities

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) announced its series of activities commemorating the anniversary of the massacre.

The group announced its concert dubbed #FIGHTFOR58: A Concert for Justice at the Mows Bar in Matalino Street, Quezon City on November 22 at seven o’clock in the evening.

The concert is for the benefit of the families of the massacre victims.

At five o’clock in the morning of November 23, journalists, artists and other allies will collectively paint a mural depicting their call for justice for the massacre victims.

They will then march on to Mendiola at 10 o’clock in the morning, pausing for 58 seconds at exactly 11.23 AM to pay respect to the victims.

At Mendiola, they will erect a wall-sized installation of the photos of the victims.

NUJP’s chapters nationwide shall hold their own commemoration activities. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Bacolod journos to remember Maguindanao massacre victims

By Visayas Today

Officers and members of the Negros Press Club and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines-Bacolod chapter reiterated their call for justice for the victims of the massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao that killed 58 people, including 32 journalists, 10 years ago.

The local media groups will mark their death anniversary with a tribute at the NPC building on Friday, November 22, at 3 p.m.

It will be followed by the lighting of candles and offering of prayers at the Marker for Fallen Journalists at the public plaza.

The victims’ kin, campus journalists, students, and civic leaders are also expected to join the commemoration.

On November 23, 2009, the 58 victims, including the 32 journalists, were shot to death on the way to the provincial poll office for the filing of certificate of candidacy of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, for governor against Andal Ampatuan Jr., the son of the governor at the time, Andal Ampatuan Sr., the alleged mastermind of the massacre who died in 2015.

The promulgation of judgment is expected to be handed down on or before December 20 this year.

The Maguindanao massacre is considered as the worst election-related violence in recent Philippine history and the worst attack on journalists the world has known. #

Kids of Ampatuan massacre victims cry ‘justice’ 10 years after carnage

By Visayas Today

SITIO MASALAY, Ampatuan, Maguindanao – Princess Arianna Caniban was eight months old when the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre happened, claiming the lives of 58 persons, 32 of them media workers.

On Sunday, November 17, Princess Arianna, whose father John was a reporter for the community paper Peryodiko Ini in Koronadal, joined other children of the murdered journalists on the very hilltop in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao where their parents died.

Most of the victims, including the journalists, were in a convoy on its way to file the candidacy of the town vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, who intended to run for governor against Andal
Ampatuan Jr., a scion of the powerful clan that ruled Maguindanao and mayor of the town of Datu Unsay, which bears his nickname.

The convoy was stopped at a highway checkpoint by scores of gunmen, allegedly led by Unsay himself, and forced, along with the five passengers of two other vehicles that just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, to the hilltop in Sitio Masalay where they were gunned down.

The killers then tried to conceal the evidence by burying the bodies and vehicles in huge pits dug ahead of the slaughter but were foiled when soldiers looking for the missing convoy arrived.

Among the other victims were Mangudadatu’s wife, aunt, sisters, lawyers and supporters.

The massacre, named after both the town and the clan accused of planning the carnage, has been acknowledged as the worst incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the single deadliest attack on the press ever recorded.

Each year since, the families of the massacre victims have made the pilgrimage to the site of the slaughter to pray for them and cry for justice. And yet, for a crime whose ferocity and scale shocked the world, justice has been frustratingly slow in coming.

When the trial of the close to 200 suspects finally ended a few months ago, the Justice department promised a verdict before the massacre’s 10th anniversary. It normally takes 90 days after a case is submitted for decision for the verdict to be handed down. In this case, that should have been on November 20.

However, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, who presided over the trial, suddenly sought a 30-day extension from the Supreme Court, citing “the voluminous records of these cases which have now reached 238 volumes.”

The request has been granted with an non-extendable deadline set for December 20.

Thus, a decade later, Princess Arianna, now 10, was with the other slain journalists’ children putting on a skit in which they spoke of the hardships they have gone through over the past years.

“Who is going to take care of me? Who will buy my medicines?” Princess Arianna, who has been diagnosed with rheumatic heart fever, asked as tears flowed down her face.

Not only did the journalists’ families lose husbands, fathers, wives, sons or daughters, most of them also lost their breadwinners, adding almost certain penury to their grief.

And the children have suffered the most.

Jean Malabanan, daughter of Gina dela Cruz, was forced to look after her four siblings after her mother died in the massacre.

She spoke of having to suffer through long periods when their power and water were cut off because they could not meet their payments.

Although those accused of the massacre were agents of the state – the principal members of the clan who were charged included, aside from Unsay the mayor, the patriarch Andal Sr., the long-time governor of the province, his sons Zaldy, then governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Sajid Islam, the vice governor of Maguindanao; the then provincial director of police and other officers were also accused of conniving to carry out the massacre – the families of the slain journalists have received little to no support from government.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and other groups helped send the massacre victims’ children to school, with a number of them finishing college and helping support their families.

However, last year, the scholarship program had to be suspended after donors sent notice they could no longer fund it.

At the mass he said at the massacre site to honor the victims, Catholic priest Rey Ondap also lashed out at politicians he accused of trying to “to use the massacre for their own ends,” singling out former president Benigno Aquino III, “who promised justice during his campaign” for the 2010 election.

“Nothing happened,” said Ondap, who entered the priesthood the year the massacre happened.

He mused about the contrast: “While I am happy to celebrate a decade of priesthood I am unhappy this case has yet to be resolved.”

And despite the expected verdict next month, the priest also scored officials of the current government who had earlier not only promised a decision but even gave the supposed date it would be issued.

He said the massacre and the decade spent working to hold the perpetrators accountable “show how the government and the judiciary work.” Nevertheless, he urged the families of the victims not to lost hope. “Leave history in the hands of God,” he told them.

Emily Lopez, president of JUSTICE NOW, the organization of the murdered journalists’ families, also slammed government officials who, she said, not only “tried to use us for political ends but even tried to divide us.”

Yet, while speaking of their disappointment and frustration at the further delay in the verdict, she urged the families: “Let us hold firm. We have to if we are to claim justice for our loved ones.”

JUSTICE NOW officer Grace Morales, who lost her husband Rosell, also said even if the expected verdict brings justice to their loved ones, “there are more than a hundred other media killings that remain unsolved.”

These, she said, would continue to feed the culture of impunity and embolden more killings.

Since 1986, the NUJP has recorded 187 media murders. Of these, 14 have happened under the Duterte administration. #