Protesters interrupt Aquino forum at US university

NEW YORK, United States – "No justice, no peace! Stop the killings in the Philippines!"

President Benigno Aquino III's dialogue with students and guests of Columbia University in New York got interrupted twice when youth activists stood up to protest his alleged inaction on impunity in the Philippines, and the supposed corruption of aid for Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) victims.

Three activists from Bayan USA, Anakbayan, and Gabriela cut the President short as he was answering questions on media killings in the Philippines at the university's World Leaders Forum on Tuesday, September 23.

"People who are basically political activists in the Philippines, they are just fighting for what they’re believing. It’s a slap on the face of the Filipino people for you to stand there and [say] that a killing is a killing. You have to be [careful] when you talk to an international audience. I have family members in the Philippines," said a male activist who interrupted Aquino midway his answer. 

Then another female activist also stood up and began shouting.

"I look up to your mother! I am a Filipino woman. I saw her as a hero. A modern day hero. And what do you do? You want a charter change to extend your presidency? Now I see the reality of what your family has done. I have been to Hacienda Luisita," she said, referring to the estate of the family's president where farmers were killed in a 2004 strike.

Aquino remained unperturbed and continued addressing other students' questions.

Guards eventually escorted the two out of the hall. Yet a third youth activist again interrupted Aquino as he was answering other questions in the forum. Their colleague, Yves Nibungco, chairperson of Anakbayan USA later said he got information they were "detained." He refused to disclose their names to reporters, saying he still has to consult lawyers on the issue.

Aquino points to slow justice system

The commotion began after Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), asked Aquino about media killings in the Philippines, and what the international community can do to help address the problem as well as impunity.

Aquino responded that the issue must be placed in "the proper context." He said he talked to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and emphasized that it is not enough to identify suspects but the government must secure convictions, a point that human rights groups have long been harping on.

The President said the Philippines has conducted forensic training for the police, and is "refining the witness protection program" to encourage witnesses to step forward.

Yet he said the problem lies with the judiciary, especially regarding the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, where 58 people, including 32 journalists, were killed. It is considered the single deadliest attack on journalists in history. Five years later, the trial is still dragging on and prosecutors have had a rift on how to proceed.

"The problem is the very lengthy process of our judicial system. In the Maguindanao massacre, we have I think over 100 assailants going through the process of being arraigned, preliminary investigations to determine culpability, the rigors of an adversarial trial and on the other hand, if you were to perform quick justice shall we say, change the processes, we probably would be accused of violating their rights," Aquino said.

Aquino then reiterated that many killings of journalists are not related to their work but were "for other reasons."

"Now, the main point however is that a killing is a killing and it’s a violation of the law. And regardless of who did it and why he did it, there are penalties under our laws. The emphasis is solving the crime correctly, not just producing any suspect, be successful in prosecuting the same and there has to be certainty of punishment when you commit a crime and that is still a work in progress."

"We can point to several successes in this field. But others, by the sheer number of plaintiffs, it will really take time to go through the processes enshrined in our Constitution and our laws," he said.

It was at this point that he got interrupted.

'No right to interrupt an academic forum'

Anakbayan USA's Yves Nibungco told reporters that the group was also taking issue with the alleged loss of P1.5 billion in aid for Yolanda victims. He claimed he got the figure from a report of the Commission on Audit (COA).

After the forum, Nibungco and his group held a protest outside the venue to urge Columbia students to support their cause. He admitted that the activists planned to interrupt Aquino even before the event began. He added that they had no choice but to "take to the streets" after Congress junked the impeachment complaints against Aquino, whose ouster they called for.

"This is a space for free intellectual debate and discussion, and not to repress opposition to anyone speaking," he said.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger apologized to Aquino for the incident. “Of course, we believe in freedom of speech like you do. Everything has to be open and robust in the US but there’s no right to interrupt an academic forum like this. We appreciate your patience and endurance.”

The hecklers are not students of the university.

The heckling comes after students of the University of the Philippines-Diliman mobbed Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and almost grabbed him by the collar two weeks ago at a forum in the school. – Rappler.com