Philippine police have announced the arrest of a suspect in the killing of a radio journalist who was known for criticising President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and his immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
The suspect, identified as Joel Estorial, 39, gave himself up to the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Interior Secretary Benjamin Abalos and was charged with murder two weeks after seasoned radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa (also known as Percy Lapid) was gunned down in a suburb south of Manila, officials said.
Estorial surrendered “out of fear for personal safety following public disclosure of … CCTV footage revealing his face during the incident and naming him as [a] primary person of interest,” according to a statement from Abalos’ office.
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“This is a major breakthrough. He made an extra-judicial confession, duly assisted by counsel,” Abalos said, adding that the suspect had named three other accomplices who were subjects of “intensive follow-up operations”.
The gun used to shoot Mabasa was recovered and “positively linked to the crime scene” by the police forensics laboratory, according to the national police.
Estoral confessed that five others had allegedly participated in the planning and killing of the broadcaster, but he only managed to identify three.
Mabasa, who worked for DWBL radio station, was ambushed on October 3 as he drove his car toward a gated community in Las Pinas, a suburb in southern metro Manila. He was the latest in a long line of killings targeting members of the Philippine media.
Motive remains unknown
However, the motive for his murder remains unknown. Abalos did not answer reporters when they asked him about this on Tuesday.
“Just give us a few more days. We have to get the mastermind, that’s very important. The investigation is ongoing right now, there are many more details. Let’s not jeopardise them,” he said.
The suspect in custody was presented at the press briefing, where he spoke to reporters.
Someone from inside the country’s main prison facility, whom Estoral did not identify, had ordered a hit on Mabasa, he said. He identified two brothers and a third man as fellow accomplices in the attack.
“I was afraid and conscience-struck for the killing of Percy Lapid,” said a handcuffed Estorial, who wore a helmet and bullet-proof vest.
“Our arrangement was for whoever got closest to Percy would be the one to fire the fatal shot, and I was in that position. I was threatened with death if I didn’t shoot Percy at that moment, so I did,” Estorial said.
The team was paid 550,000 pesos (US$9300) for the hit, he told reporters.
“I hope the family forgives me. I did not want to do it, I was just forced to do so,” he said.
Family thank police
Mabasa’s family issued a statement Tuesday thanking the police and saying they hoped his killing would not become just another statistic among murders of Filipino journalists dating back decades.
“We hope this development leads to the identification, arrest and prosecution of the mastermind,” the family said.
Filipino activists light candles in memory of killed radio journalist Percival Mabasa (also known as Percy Lapid) during a demonstration in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Oct. 4, 2022. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]
The Southeast Asian nation ranks among the most dangerous countries for journalists worldwide. Dozens have been killed with impunity since the dictatorship of Marcos’ late father, Ferdinand E. Marcos, more than 36 years ago.
Mabasa’s commentaries were often bold and sharp as he sought to counter fake news spread on air as well as on social media. He had also hit out against a perceived attempt by supporters of the Marcos family to distort history and had been bitingly critical of the war on drugs by Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, which left thousands dead. During his six years in office, Duterte had said journalists were fair game if they were corrupt.
The Duterte administration worked to close down broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp. and convict Maria Ressa, the chief executive of the news website Rappler who was later named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, on cyber libel charges.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, southern Philippines, and Basilio Sepe in Manila contributed to this report.