Philippine prisons chief charged over killing of radio journalist

Broadcaster Percy Lapid, a prominent government critic, was shot dead in Manila last month.

Journalists and activists call for justice and protection of media workers in Manila
Percy Lapid, who had his own show on radio, was a frequent critic of government officials [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Police in the Philippines have charged the country’s prisons chief and a number of others for ordering the killing of prominent radio journalist Percival Mabasa, better known as Percy Lapid.

The charges were filed on Monday against Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag, who has been suspended from his post, prisons security official Ricardo Zulueta and other suspects in the October 3 fatal shooting.

The 63-year-old was killed by two assailants on a motorcycle at the gate of a residential compound in the Las Pinas area of suburban Manila. Lapid had fiercely criticised Bantag and other officials for alleged corruption and other anomalies.

A joint statement read at a news conference by top justice, interior and police officials said three gang leaders locked up in the country’s largest prison – under Bantag’s control – were tapped to look for a gunman to kill Lapid for a 550,000-peso ($9,400) contract.

Philippines' Secretary of Interior Benjamin Abalos Jr., (R) gestures with Philippines' Justice Secretary Jesus Remulla (L) during a press conference announcing suspects in the killing of radio journalist Percival Mabasa, at the Department of Justice in Manila on November 7, 2022
Philippines Secretary of Interior Benjamin Abalos Jr, right, with Philippines’ Justice Secretary Jesus Remulla, left, during a press conference [Ted Aljibe/AFP]

After the killing, however, the gunman, who was identified by police as Joel Escorial, surrendered in fear after government officials announced a reward for his capture. He then publicly identified an inmate, Jun Villamor, who he said was assigned by detained gang leaders to call him and arrange Lapid’s killing.

The gang leaders later killed Villamor inside the prison by suffocating him with a plastic bag allegedly on the orders of Bantag and Zulueta, officials said.

Eugene Javier, a National Bureau of Investigation agent who read out the statement said: “Bantag had a clear motive to effect the murders … For Percy Lapid, it was the continued exposé by the latter of the issues against the former on his show, Lapid Fire.”

Bantag has denied any involvement in the killings. He and Zulueta have also been charged for the killing of Villamor. No warrants have been issued yet for their arrests, officials said.

Lapid is the latest media worker to be killed in the Southeast Asian country, which is regarded as among the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.

‘Good development’

Jonathan De Santos, 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,” De Santos told the AFP news agency.

Aside from Bantag, Lapid had also strongly criticised former President Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw a deadly crackdown on illegal drugs in which thousands of people were killed. Duterte ended his turbulent six-year term in June.

Duterte appointed Bantag as Bureau of Corrections chief in 2019 even though Bantag was facing charges for a 2016 clash that killed 10 inmates when he was the warden in another detention centre. A court later cleared him.

Nearly 200 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986, when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, according to the journalists’ union. The group led a protest on Tuesday night and called on the government to do more to stop the killings.

Source: News Agencies