International media organizations on Monday called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to “prioritize” the arrest of former Palawan governor Joel T. Reyes, who is currently the subject of an unserved arrest warrant from the Regional Trial Court, as a mastermind suspect in the 2011 assassination of Dr. Gerry Ortega.

In an in-depth report on the Ortega murder case released Monday, the Amsterdam-based Free Press Unlimited lamented the delay in the trial of former Governor Reyes, attributing it to the failures and weaknesses of the country’s judicial system to effectively prosecute the case.

“We conducted the investigation (on the Ortega murder case) to uncover new findings,” Jos Bartman, Research Coordinator for the Safer World for Truth Project, said in an online presentation of the report to the Philippine press hosted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

“The justice system in the Philippines really failed to provide justice in the case of Gerry Ortega when it had an opportunity to provide justice,” Bartman said.

The report urged the DOJ to “prioritize the arrests of Joel Reyes” and “ensure that the Criminal Investigation Division Group follows up on the (serving) of the arrest warrant.”

Reyes was freed, then issued a fresh warrant

Reyes had been in jail during the course of the murder trial in Puerto Princesa until he was exonerated in 2018 via a ruling by the Court of Appeals. A year later, however, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling on an appeal by the Ortega family, prompting the Palawan Regional Trial Court to issue a fresh arrest warrant on Reyes in April 2021.

Meantime, Reyes has yet to be served the warrant and has filed for candidacy as Palawan governor in the coming May elections. He remains in hiding.

Loopholes in the murder investigation

Commenting on the handling of the investigation of the murder case by Philippine authorities, the report called out local authorities for “weaknesses” in the investigation. It cited the “mysterious death” of one of the key witnesses, a certain Dennis Aranas, in a jail facility in Lucena City. Aranas had previously testified he was part of the hit team that performed the hit job on Ortega.

“That incident was not thoroughly investigated. We are unable to determine if Dennis Aranas’ death was a case of suicide or murder,” Bartman said.

Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific Director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), explained that the “Safer World for Truth” project is a collaboration between PFU, RSF, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, focusing on selected cases of media repression in various countries.

“It is important that we dig up these cases so that impunity cannot go on,” Mr. Bastard said.

The report also urged the Philippine government to strengthen its Witness Protection Program, citing the case of the lone state witness on the murder case, Rodolfo Edrad, who the group said is continuously facing death threats because of his testimony. Edrad previously testified that he was hired by Reyes to organize the hit on Ortega.

The NUJP, in a statement, said the report on the Ortega murder case was “emblematic and illustrative of the challenges that the media community faces in seeking accountability for his murder and for the attacks on journalists since 2011.”

“It is disappointing and alarming, if not surprising that that report has found that the alleged mastermind, former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes still has power and influence in the province,” the NUJP said.

“This is beyond the influence and power that he has had in evading accountability for the killing despite witness testimony identifying him as the alleged mastermind,” it added.