Podcasts: Investigation

Killing the Truth: The case of Gerry Ortega

Radio host Gerry Ortega annoyed the powerful by speaking out against corruption. He was shot dead – and his family are still waiting for justice

Penny Dale
30 March 2022, 7.00am
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Gerry Ortega, a community leader and environmentalist in the Philippines who used his primetime daily radio show to speak out against local government corruption, was shot dead on 24 January 2011 as he browsed in a thrift shop.

Some people are in prison. But the alleged mastermind, a former governor, remains at large and is running for the governor job again in May elections – despite a warrant having been issued for his arrest for Gerry's murder.

In partnership with A Safer World for the Truth, openDemocracy examines Gerry’s death – and commemorates his life. Original music and sound design by Lee Sparey. Episode research by Anita Mureithi. Written, produced and hosted by Penny Dale.

For more information about the case of Gerry Ortega, download the A Safer World for the Truth investigation.

A journalist is killed every week. Because of their reporting. And in the vast majority of cases, there’s no justice. That matters to us all. I'm Penny Dale. This time, in the final episode in the Killing the Truth series… the Philippines. And the death – and life – of Gerry Ortega.

MUSIC

A strand of even the best abaca leaf is worthless by itself. No matter how good Beth Maclang is in explaining her advocacy against destructive mining, she is useless if we, the Palawenyos, will not listen to her.

That’s Gerry Ortega. A community leader in Palawan island in the Philippines. Vet. Crocodile farming pioneer. Environmentalist. And radio journalist.

Take the case of Dong Batul. Few listened to him while he was yakking every day on the radio. But after he was killed, people came out in large numbers to pay tribute to him.

I just hope I don't suffer the same fate as he did, oh merciful Jesus.

Please no, please no.

MUSIC

Sadly, Gerry Ortega did suffer the same fate as Fernando ‘Dong’ Batul had five years earlier. On 24 January 2011, a few minutes after coming off air from his daily morning radio show, Gerry was shot dead. As he browsed for clothes in a second-hand shop.

Gerry was a big guy by Filipino standards; he was a big man. He had a bodyguard, a relative who was with him all the time because Gerry was receiving death threats, and he had also been showing me some of the messages he got on his cell phone. So he was careful. So I was wondering to myself, “Shit, how could it happen?”

My name is Redempto Anda and you can call me by my nickname Dempto. I'm a journalist based here in Puerto Princesa city in Palawan. I'm the editor of an online newspaper, Palawan News. Gerry, Dr. Gerry Ortega, was a friend of mine.

MUSIC

Yeah, immediately I heard it, I immediately went there. And there were people milling around the murder site. And the first I saw was Patty, Gerry's wife. She's also a veterinarian. Immediately I cried… tears just fell from my eyes when I saw her brushing the hair of Gerry, with her hands. He was lying sprawled on the floor, blood was… a pool of blood around his head. He was in his favourite Hawaiian clothes. Four nights ago, he was in my house, we had dinner and he was wearing the same shirt… Yes.

Gerry Ortega was murdered … he was shot from the back through the back of his head by a shooter with the name of Recamata. Eventually it turned out that there actually was an entire hit team.

My name is Jos Bartmann. I'm the research coordinator of the Safer World for the Truth project, a merger of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Free Press Unlimited and Reporters Without Borders, and we investigate cold cases of journalist murders. And I’m also the lead investigator on this particular investigation into the murder of Gerry Ortega.

It’s really beyond reasonable doubt for us that Gerry Ortega was murdered for his work as a journalist. He was not an investigative journalist, but he had quite some reach in his radio programme.

AUDIO clip of Gerry Ortega on the radio

Very popular local programme. Prime-time programme, starting at six o'clock. And he would end around nine o'clock. That was a daily programme. It's entitled Ramatak.

AUDIO clip of Gerry Ortega on the radio

The concept of his programme was essentially exposé, mainly about the environment, local governance, political commentary.

AUDIO clip of Gerry Ortega on the radio

On this occasion, Gerry was comparing the lavish lifestyle of local politicians and their wives to Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines.

AUDIO clip of Gerry Ortega on the radio

His friend Dempto was an avid listener to Gerry’s Ramatak programme and they often collaborated on stories.

I remember listening to his programme every morning while having coffee. Often I will drop by because his radio station was just close to my residence. I would be, like, doing my morning walks and I would come by. He would be asking me about stories that I'm working on. He didn't have time to really cover the story like a journalist would. So we were kind of like partners there. We would exchange notes, then he would pick up the information and use it in his radio programme.

AUDIO clip of Gerry Ortega on the radio

He would raise his voice passionately over an issue. He was very committed to any issue that he would take up on his commentary programme. More than just being a journalist, I would describe him more as an activist. An activist on local governance, human rights, justice issues. He was also big on environment.

Music

When he was shot and killed, he was about to go to Manila. because they were going to launch a signature campaign. A national, international signature campaign to stop mining, particularly in Palawan. Because you see Palawan is a special place environmentally. It has the largest forest cover in all of the country, its biodiversity is the highest in the country

Journalist killings in the Philippines are happening for a long time.

I am Ronalyn Olea. I'm the secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. It's the largest organisation of Filipino journalists. And I'm also the managing editor of Bulatlat, the longest-running online media outfit in the country.

Journalists based in Metro Manila, in the city, are relatively quote, unquote, safe compared to our colleagues in the provinces. They are the most vulnerable because often they work in an environment that's very small. Small in the sense that they can easily be located, put under surveillance, especially when the powers that be do not tolerate the kind of reporting that journalists do.

Here in the Philippines many local politicians have this notorious tactic of putting up their own media outfits. So if they cannot buy you, as a journalist, they will harass you or intimidate you to silence.

And the case of Gerry actually reminded me of another case Marlene Esperat. She was a journalist who exposed a multi-million scam involving national government agency officials. So she was shot dead inside her home in front of her children.

According to the NUJP, at least 189 journalists have been murdered since 1986, when the people of the Philippines overthrew the dictatorship of Ferninand Marcos and democracy was restored. On 23 November 2009, 32 journalists were killed in what became known as the Ampatuan massacre – the single most deadly attack on journalists anywhere in the world. The journalists were in a convoy, following a local politician as he travelled to file his papers to run for governor. The convoy was ambushed and the people abducted by 100 armed men. I won’t go into the horrific details of their murders.

I was actually with Bulatlat colleagues. And we turned on the television to monitor the news. The Ampatuan massacre was being reported. We were shocked because at that time, they were recovering the bodies of the victims. And there was no total body count yet. But when we saw the footage of the backhoe we were really shocked. We could not believe that it was happening in 2009.

A backhoe is a digger – which was used to dig a mass grave two days before the massacre.

Later on, we realised that it was a tragedy waiting to happen. Because in the Philippines, political dynasties are very common. They are the powerful clans who run for government office. And they hold political, economic power in their territories. And that also includes having private armies.

So the Ampatuan clan, the main suspects in the Ampatuan massacre case, were so powerful, they were enabled by the national government; they had political allies, and they were acting like warlords. And when someone challenged their power, they were so emboldened to commit a murder in broad daylight. Supposedly, we were in a democracy already, since 1986. But the gruesome killing of 58 individuals – of whom 32 were journalists – was so shocking. And it really got us into thinking if we really wanted to continue being a journalist.

The Ampatuan massacre took more than ten years to be resolved. The good thing is that the families did not give up. Our colleagues from several media organisations continued providing support. And we consider it a partial victory that some of the main suspects were convicted.

MUSIC

Why was he killed? Why was Gerry killed? I don't know. But, you know, if you ask the the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee…

The Blue Ribbon Committee is the popular name for the Senate committee whose job it is to investigate alleged wrongdoings of the Philippines government and its officials.

They were very specific that Gerry Ortega’s death was related to his exposé on the Malampaya issue.

AUDIO CLIP of Gerry Ortega on the radio

Malampaya is a big natural gas field in the sea north-west of Palawan. The national government and the Palawan provincial government – under the then governor, Joel Reyes – were in dispute over who should get what share of royalties from the gas.

The national government made an argument that the natural gas reserves were outside the jurisdiction of the province of Palawan. So there was a legal case, long-running legal case. And Joel Reyes thought of a way to resolve this by agreeing to an interim resolution of the case that was offered by the national government, wherein Palawan would get a portion of the share while the case was being heard in the Supreme Court. The amount was ten times more than the annual average budget of the provincial government. So, you know, it's a significant amount.

A significant amount of money that was allocated to projects picked by the government of Joel Reyes. But according to an 2008 investigation by the independent Commission on Audit:

The identification of projects were questionable. There were anomalies in the utilisation of the fund. The report was damning in the sense that it painted the provincial government in the bad light with the misuse of the fund essentially. So Gerry took this up as a major topic. Gerry was pointing out that the funds were essentially converted into pork barrel.

What Dempto means by ‘pork barrel’ is that the funds were handed out to pet projects – in return for political support. Or to ‘ghost’ projects – for personal profit. And Gerry’s response…

AUDIO CLIP of Gerry Ortega on the radio

He was digging into details every day in this programme. And he was making a lot of enemies.

MUSIC

In fact I remember that particular topic was his last topic before he was shot on January 24 2011.

MUSIC

People are behind bars for Gerry’s murder. But his family say there hasn’t been full justice because, they say, the alleged mastermind of his murder has evaded prosecution. A Safer World for the Truth has re-examined Gerry’s case and published an extensive report in February 2022. Here’s the author Jos:

We spoke to various people in the Philippines, people from within the judiciary, law enforcement. But we also spoke to witnesses and one of them was Rodolfo Edrad. He has become a state witness. He worked as a bodyguard for the governor of Palawan, Joel T. Reyes. He was the governor between 2000-2010. Rodolfo Edrad was the middleman of the murder. He was the person that selected the people that were part of the hit team. So there was a hit team that was collectively responsible for the murder of Gerry Ortega. Edrad has actually said to us that Joel T. Reyes asked him to murder Gerry Ortega because he was giving him headaches as a radio host.

Joel Reyes has always denied any involvement in Gerry’s murder. He says that he is being framed by his political opponents. Over the past 10 years, there have been a series of complex, often confusing, legal battles. To start off with, in February 2011, a special panel of prosecution was set up to establish whether there was probable cause to begin a court case against Joel Reyes.

The first panel of investigators, they prosecuted the hit team, but not Joel T. Reyes, the alleged mastermind, right, and a handful of other people, for example, Mario Reyes, which is the brother of Joel T. Reyes, which handed over the money to Edrad, according to Edrad.

The first panel said there was no evidence to corroborate Edrad’s testimony that Reyes had ordered him to organise Gerry’s murder. It also ruled that what the Ortega family said was new evidence was filed out of time, and so could not be considered. These were:

Text messages, correspondence between Edrad and Joel T. Reyes.

The messages start with one from Reyes.

“Hopefully on my return the problem is over”

Hours after Ortega was killed Edrad said: “He is dead”

And Reyes replied again: “OK. Be safe.”

What happened next was that:

The justice secretary at the time, Leila De Lima, she found a new panel, which was tasked again with a revision of the investigation, and they actually decided to prosecute Joel T. Reyes. Whereafter he actually fled the country.

With his brother, Mario, a former mayor, in early 2012. Dempto takes up the story.

They were in hiding until they were arrested for overstaying in the tourist town of Phuket, Thailand.

In September 2015, the Reyes brothers were sent back to the Philippines to jail. They were there for three years. And then the murder case was dismissed.

He was essentially exonerated in 2018 – exonerated largely on a technicality,

Which Jos explains:

A court of appeal in the Philippines decided that the very foundation of the second panel was legally void. So Leila De Lima abused her power as a justice secretary to raise the second panel.

However, Joel Reyes stayed in prison – on corruption charges.

Parallel to the murder case he was indicted and he was convicted. For graft connected to his issuing anomalous mining permits. He was sentenced to six years.

The Ortega family challenged the decision by the court of appeal to drop the murder charges against Joel Reyes. And they won.

The same court reversed itself a year later, on account of a motion for reconsideration filed by the family. And it went up to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court ordered essentially the continuation of the murder trial against Joel Reyes. And that's where we are at right now.

But… the murder trial hasn’t resumed. And Reyes was released from jail in April 2021 – when his prison sentence for corruption ended.

MUSIC

Something else happened and that is that in August 2021 we had phone conversations with the middleman of the murder and the sole state witness into the murder.

That is Rodolfo Edrad. And as part of the A Safer World for the Truth investigation Jos talked to him…

While he was in a tent. And he was basically hiding. He fled his house after people actually gun-sprayed his house. There were two men on a motorcycle with machine guns that riddled his house with bullets. He also explained that a few weeks before there was a police official, which he recognised as being one of the persons sitting on the motorcycle that passed by his house, and actually asked him to withdraw his confession in which he implicated Joel T. Reyes. He was sent by Joel T. Reyes and was actually offering Edrad money in exchange of withdrawing his testimony.

MUSIC

The situation at the moment is extremely precarious and strange, because Joel T. Reyes is running for governor in May 2022. Again, in the state of Palawan. But at the same time, on the 14th of July 2021, there was a judge of the regional trial courts that actually issued a new arrest warrant to arrest Reyes in the case of the Ortega murder. But he was never arrested, and at the same time, he's running for governor.

MUSIC

It seems as if local authorities are either unable or unwilling to arrest Reyes, that Reyes still exerts a certain amount of control over the authorities in Palawan.

The situation today is not like what the situation was over ten years ago when the national government really made a big deal about Joel Reyes having slipped out of the country and there was a massive manhunt. This time there's no manhunt.

MUSIC

Is Joel Reyes guilty for being the mastermind in the killing of Gerry Ortega? It has to be determined by the court. The problem is Joel Reyes never openly accepted the legal process to exonerate himself. He did exert a lot of effort to avoid a prosecution by questioning the procedures of the investigation, but he never really had the chance to formally in court confront the evidence that were filed against him.

MUSIC

Definitely, the case of Jerry Ortega is emblematic of the culture of impunity in the country.

Ronalyn of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, which each year commemorates Gerry’s murder – in 2011, at the age of 47.

It's really frustrating to see how the justice system in the Philippines is so excruciatingly slow. Whenever I feel frustrated, we look back at the case of the Ampatuan massacre and draw inspiration from that experience. Just continue. Get the support of the public in holding the perpetrators accountable. Never give up. So we're still optimistic that, some day, justice will triumph.

MUSIC

Thank you to all who spoke to me for this Killing the Truth: the case of Gerry Ortega. And to you for listening.

Thanks also to the family of Gerry, who gave us permission to use the clips of him. They decided for security reasons not to talk to me for this episode.

A Safer World for the Truth’s investigation into Gerry Ortega’s murder is available to download, for free. There’s a link to it in the shownotes.

That’s it for this Killing the Truth series. If you haven’t already, please do listen to and please do share the other episodes on: Regina Martínez in Mexico, Gauri Lankesh in India and Deyda Hydara in The Gambia. All remarkable journalists – murdered for speaking truth to power.

This is an openDemocracy production in partnership with A Safer World for the Truth. Music and sound design is by Lee Sparey. Research by Anita Mureithi. Written, presented and produced by me, Penny Dale.

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