After wrongful arrest, journalist fights to get justice,‘true self’ back

Davao-based veteran journalist Margarita Valle has not been writing the way she used to. She can't finish her columns. She faces a blank wall every time she "attempts at writing my usual stuff."

It's been two years since police mistook her for an alleged New Peoples' Army (NPA) leader and arrested her in Misamis Oriental on June 9, 2019. She was freed after 12 hours when police realized that they got the wrong person.

But she has never been truly free.

"I have wanted to believe that nothing’s changed, that I am doing well, but deep inside, I am far from my true self. I admit that I hated every moment that a blank wall stares at me, [when] it’s time I attempt at writing my usual stuff, because it’s hard, blangko lang talaga (it's really just blank)," Valle said in an online forum on Thursday, August 12.

The Office of the Ombudsman denied Valle's motion for reconsideration last June, sustaining its 2020 decision that cleared the arresting agents of criminal liabilities of serious illegal detention, torture, and violation of rights of a detained person.

Valle claimed she was allowed only one phone call at the airport where she was arrested, before holding her incommunicado as she was whisked to the police station.

Ruling out bad faith, the Office of the Ombudsman ruled that the arresting team's leader, Captain Moh Madzie-Aziz Mukaram, and Colonel Tom Tuzon, the cop who approved the operation, are only liable for simple neglect of duty, which carries a light penalty of three months suspension without pay.

Valle filed her petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court on Friday, October 1. She is represented by Katherine Panguban of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) and assisted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

During the forum, Valle said, "It is hard enough as it is to detach my mind from the personal, emotional part of this development in the so-called mistaken identity brouhaha, and yet like it or not, I must confront it just to survive, if only to claim back my equilibrium that has long been destroyed, and so difficult to take back."

"And though my heart, head, and hands, long to go back to writing, all I can muster each and every day is to do mundane task  as household chores, pretending I am okay so far," added Valle, who broke into tears from time to time during the forum.

Red-tagged

The police were after a certain Elsa Renton, an alleged NPA leader, whom they claim looked a lot like Valle. The Philippine National Police (PNP) quickly admitted that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Yet in the policemen's motion for reconsideration filed before the Office of the Ombudsman in October 2020 to appeal their suspension, they still red-tagged Valle, claiming "both [Renton and Valle] are connected to the CPP-NPA."

"The red-tagging activities of government officials, more often than not, have no basis. Especially here, we have available official documents saying Margarita Valle and Elsa Renton are not one and the same. We will all raise that on appeal in the Supreme Court," said Panguban.

Valle said the media in Davao, President Rodrigo Duterte's turf, have been "undeniably affected" by the red-tagging of journalists.

After Valle, other journalists in Mindanao were also red-tagged, in the usual propaganda style of posters and Facebook posts, said National Union of Journalist of the Philippines (NUJP) vice chairperson Kath Cortez, who is with Davao Today.

"Davao Today is regularly under attack, greatly tagged as media of the Left," said Cortez.

Accountability

Valle said she is consulting with a psychiatrist, getting "medical and spiritual intervention."

"What will truly liberate you?" Valle was asked. Justice, she said in response.

"That's all people ask for – for justice for everyone whose human rights were violated," Valle said in Filipino, adding that what happened to her might be considered a "small thing" compared to others.

Her son, Rius Valle of the Save our Schools Network (SOS), a group that helps protect Lumad schools, for his part, said in Filipino: "For our family, it's maximum accountability. Someone has to be punished. In all the cases of state-perpetrated human rights violations, so few are held accountable. If any, it's one in a million."

Pursuing countercharges against state agents is an uphill fight for human rights lawyers. This is made even more difficult by an anti-terror law that has rendered many judicial remedies useless when it comes to going after abusive law enforcement, as pointed out by petitioners against the law to the Supreme Court.

"Naiintindihan ko po, mahaba ang proseso, pero mainam na may ginawa ka kaysa wala kang ginawa," said Lynda Garcia, Philippine chapter president of the global consortium International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT).

(I understand, the process is too long, but it's better to have done something than do nothing at all.) – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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