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A 13-year fight for justice in Philippine activist’s murder

More than 13 years after the murder of Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega, the man accused of ordering the hit, former provincial governor Joel Reyes, is in hiding
More than 13 years after the murder of Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega, the man accused of ordering the hit, former provincial governor Joel Reyes, is in hiding - Copyright AFP JAM STA ROSA
More than 13 years after the murder of Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega, the man accused of ordering the hit, former provincial governor Joel Reyes, is in hiding - Copyright AFP JAM STA ROSA

When Philippine environmental activist and radio host Gerry Ortega was shot dead on the tropical island of Palawan, his family and friends believed there was enough damning evidence to convict the alleged mastermind.

But more than 13 years later, the man accused of ordering the hit, former provincial governor Joel Reyes, is in hiding, while his brother, also implicated, is a mayor.

In a country where hundreds of journalists and environmental defenders have been killed in the past two decades, Ortega’s murder on January 24, 2011, stands out for its brazenness.

The father-of-five was shot in the back of the head at a second-hand clothes shop along a busy road in the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa.

Ortega had just finished his morning radio show where he frequently railed against politicians, including Reyes, who he accused of corruption and allowing Palawan’s forests and minerals to be plundered.

“He made a lot of enemies, but he made the biggest enemy in Joel Reyes and that’s why he was killed,” Redempto Anda, a journalist in Palawan and friend of Ortega’s, told AFP.

Reyes has always denied involvement in the murder.

Ortega’s killer was caught and the gun he used traced to a close aide of the former governor.

A bodyguard, who hired the hit squad, turned state witness and implicated Reyes.

But Reyes remains free after many legal twists and turns in the case, leaving Ortega’s family, friends and rights groups to lament over the prevailing “culture of impunity” in the Philippines. 

“We just really want to have a fair and honest trial,” daughter Michaella, 35, told AFP.

“It’s been 13 years. Evidence is there.” 

– Press groups urge arrest –

Prosecutors initially cleared the Reyes brothers of involvement in Ortega’s death, but reversed their decision in March 2012 and charged them.

The brothers fled to Thailand where they were caught three years later and deported to the Philippines.

Reyes was freed in 2018 after a court voided the case against him but the charges were reinstated nearly two years later.

The Supreme Court issued a stay on the order for Reyes’ re-arrest while it heard his plea for reconsideration, but last year rejected his appeal, ordering him to be arrested and resume trial.

Lawyers for Reyes, who went into hiding, are now seeking to have the case moved from Palawan to Manila, which the Ortega family insist is another delay tactic.

Reyes claimed he was framed for Ortega’s murder and that he could not receive a “fair trial” in Palawan, Rolando Bonoan, a friend of Reyes, told AFP.

Despite the murder charge, Reyes ran for Palawan governor in 2022 elections but lost.

Mario, a former mayor of Coron municipality, succeeded in his re-election bid.

Press advocacy groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), recently met with Philippine authorities to provide information about Reyes’ location.  

“The information we have provided to the Department of Justice and the National Police provides all the keys to finding and arresting Joel T. Reyes,” said Cedric Alviani of RSF.

Neither the justice department nor the police responded to AFP’s requests for comment.

– ‘Someone chose for him to die’ – 

At their home in Puerto Princesa, Ortega’s widow Patty and two of their children thumb through photo albums filled with memories. 

Michaella said the family still struggle with the loss of her father.

“Death in the family is already really, really tragic, but murder means someone chose for him to die,” she said.

“Someone planned it, someone paid someone to make that happen.”

Ortega was a passionate defender of Palawan’s environment, home to beautiful beaches, stunning coral reefs and biodiverse forests.

Patty said she felt angry at the lack of justice for her husband, but refused to be consumed by it.

“As much as possible we keep our focus on what he was fighting for because I also believe in what he was fighting for,” she said.

– ‘It can happen to anyone’ –

After the killing of another radio broadcaster in November, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos said attacks on journalists would not be tolerated.

Last month, the Presidential Task Force on Media Security said the suspected gunman in that shooting had been arrested, signalling the Marcos administration’s commitment to “ensuring that perpetrators of violence are arrested and made to pay for their crimes”.

But the Ortega family and rights activists point to the long list of journalists and environmentalists killed in recent years, and the lack of justice for those victims.

In Palawan, the murder of someone as high-profile as Ortega had a chilling effect on journalists and activists.

“Why did it happen? So it can happen to anyone?” said Grizelda Mayo-Anda, head of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, which worked with Ortega.

Redempto Anda often collaborated with Ortega on stories.

One of their most sensitive exposes — and the one that Anda is convinced got Ortega killed — was about the alleged misuse of millions of dollars from the Malampaya gas field off Palawan.

“He was very, very critical, very vocal and unafraid,” said Anda, editor-in-chief of the Palawan News.

Since Ortega’s death, Anda said he had been more cautious in his reporting.

“It’s not like surrendering our independence in terms of being able to cover a story, but being more circumspect,” he said.

Michaella said it was important their fight for justice succeeded so other “brave voices” could be safe.

“Maybe it would send a message that you can’t just kill people for speaking out… that just because you’re powerful you’re not going to get away with it,” she said.

“Maybe, because we’re not there yet.”

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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