Slain Pampanga journo helped in Pulitzer-winning report on drug war
Slain journalist Jesus “Jess” Malabanan assisted the wire service Reuters in its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of President Duterte’s war on drugs and was provided government security in 2017 to address his concern that he was being surveilled.
But Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco, executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, said on Thursday he did not think this had anything to do with Malabanan’s killing.
Cabinet Secretary and acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said the task force was exploring all angles of the killing, including the possibility that it was work-related.
“We condole with the family, loved ones and colleagues of Mr. Malabanan and assure them that the government will exert all efforts to ensure that those responsible are caught, charged [with] and convicted of the crime,” Nograles said.
The Pampanga-based Malabanan, a correspondent of Manila Standard, was shot at close range in the family store in Calbayog City, Western Samar, early Wednesday night. He was 58.
A father of three, Malabanan had often visited his ailing mother in Calbayog in the last three years, and had set up a small store, a piggery and a copra business preparatory to retirement.
He had been four days in the family home in Barangay San Joaquin, Calbayog, when attacked. According to the Philippine National Police in Eastern Visayas, he was “shot from outside by two unidentified suspects” around 6:30 p.m.
His wife, Mila, said a bullet entered behind his left ear and exited below the right ear. He was declared dead on arrival at St. Camillus Hospital.
Threat and danger
The Pampanga chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines condemned Malabanan’s “senseless killing.”
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said his murder “underscores the threat and danger Filipino journalists continue to face.”
Malabanan was a member of the Pampanga Press Club (PPC), which denounced his killing as a “cowardly act.”
“Jess, … a longtime reporter and stringer for many media outfits for many years, had proven himself to be a man dedicated to his duties as a journalist,” PPC said in a statement.
Egco condemned Malabanan’s killing “in the strongest terms” and said he would travel to Calbayog to personally oversee the PNP’s investigation and to condole with the bereaved family.
“Jess is a personal friend of mine. This cowardly killing is truly unforgivable. We will get to the bottom of this and will stop at nothing in bringing to justice the perpetrators of this despicable crime regardless of motive,” he said in a statement.
Citing initial verification from Malabanan’s close friends and colleagues, Egco said the journalist had no known enemies and that the killing could not be immediately ruled as work-related.
Late in 2019, Malabanan informed his PPC colleagues that he had helped a number of farmers settle a land dispute in Barangay San Joaquin. But PPC president Noel Tulabut said it could not be ascertained if the feud was linked to his murder.
From the defense beat in Metro Manila, Malabanan relocated to Angeles City while reporting for Manila Standard Today, Bandera and Reuters.
Egco told the Inquirer that in 2017, Malabanan suspected that he was under surveillance and that it had something to do with his helping Reuters report on the killings in the administration’s war on drugs.
Egco said Reuters got in touch with then presidential spokesperson Harry Roque about Malabanan’s concern, and that Roque then referred the matter to him.
He said Malabanan was not directly involved in writing the Reuters report, but was nevertheless given protection.
“We stationed intelligence agents around his residence and placed him under constant watch so we can get who was tailing him. But it was negative,” Egco said in a text message. He said he doubted that the 2017 incident was related to Malabanan’s killing “because it is remotely possible that an enemy in Pampanga would send an assassin” to Calbayog.
“I believe this has something to do with a local problem in Calbayog,” Egco said, adding that he had checked on Malabanan’s work and found the latter’s reports weremostly feel-good stories.
The PNP chief, Gen. Dionardo Carlos, said on Thursday that he had directed Brig. Gen. Rommel Bernardo Cabagnot, director of the Eastern Visayas regional police office (PRO-8), to form a special investigation task group (SITG) to coordinate all actions of regional units regarding Malabanan’s killing.
The SITG is composed of investigating teams from the PRO-8’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, Forensic Group, Intelligence Unit and Calbayog City police station, under the supervision of Col. Jonathan Cabal, the deputy regional director for operations.
“We understand the call of the family and different groups to expedite the investigation of the case. These requests will not fall on deaf ears. Establishing the motive of the case can help us [get] to the bottom of this. We just need the cooperation of the witnesses,” Carlos said.
Samar Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento said he was “devastated” to hear of Malabanan’s killing and called on the PNP to conduct a thorough probe.
“We must stand in solidarity with our fearless journalists as they fight to expose corruption and hold officials accountable for their wrongdoing,” he said.
No case resolved
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said it would also look into the murder of Malabanan, the 22nd journalist killed since 2016. None of these cases has been resolved.
In a statement, CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia condemned the latest attack on a member of the press and called on the PNP to “exert all efforts” to identify Malabanan’s killers.
“Without bringing the perpetrators to account, this episode of violence further worsens the climate of impunity and affects the freedom of the press to conduct their work without fear,” De Guia said. —With reports from Dexter Cabalza, Krixia Subingsubing and Joey Gabieta
Palace task force on media safety weigh in on Malabanan case
and Carmela Reyes-Estrope
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