By Jason Gutierrez
MANILA, January 25, 2011 (AFP) – Philippine police said Tuesday hitmen killed a radio journalist for 150,000 pesos ($3,370) in an attack meant to stop the crusading father-of-five from speaking out against environment abuse.
Police said the assassin told them after his arrest that he and an accomplice, who remains at large, had been contracted to kill radio broadcaster Gerardo Ortega on Monday to stop his criticism of unnamed powerful people.
“The two men who paid them said their boss wanted to silence Ortega,” local police chief Superintendent Roland Amurao told AFP, adding that they may have been working on behalf of mining interests.
“They were first given 10,000 pesos each and some operational funds, and the rest was to have been paid after the deed was accomplished.”
He said the total amount to be shared between the two men was 150,000 pesos, which is a fortune for many in the Philippines, where a third of the population lives on less than 45 pesos ($1) a day.
Ortega, 47, was shot in the head while shopping in a clothing store in Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan island, on Monday morning shortly after he finished his daily broadcast.
The gunman, Marlon de Camata, was detained while trying to escape the scene, police said.
The identities of the men who approached De Camata as well as their supposed “boss” were still being verified and could not be publicly released due to the sensitivity of the investigation, Amurao said.
However, he said police suspected Ortega’s efforts to expose illegal mining led to his death.
“We are looking at that as a possible motive. Ortega’s hard-hitting commentaries were targeted against mining companies he had accused of destroying Palawan’s environment,” Amurao said.
He described Ortega as a staunch environmentalist who regularly went to church and was well-liked on the island.
Puerto Princesa mayor Edward Hagedorn said that the murder weapon was positively traced to a lawyer formerly employed by an ex-governor who Ortega had repeatedly criticised as corrupt.
Hagedorn said Ortega was clearly killed because of his anti-corruption and pro-environment crusade.
“If you are going to ask me, I believe the murder is already solved, but of course these are powerful people who will deny any involvement,” Hagedorn told AFP.
Amurao said the official under investigation had initially told police he had sold his gun several years ago, although he could not produce any valid proof.
A wildlife veterinarian by training, Ortega once headed a crocodile conservation park that soon became a tourist attraction.
He once ran and lost the race for governor of Palawan on a campaign to rid the island of miners, earning him many enemies, his friends said.
Ortega’s colleagues on Tuesday vowed his fight would continue, but noted his death was a loss to environmental activism.
“With the loss of Gerry, the movement stumbles, and falls hard. But it will rise to even greater heights,” said Antonio Oposa, a Filipino environmental lawyer renowned in Asia.
Media and rights groups say the Philippines is one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
They say a culture of impunity pervades the country, where powerful figures often act above the law and firearms proliferate.
Ortega was the the 142nd journalist killed since the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of democracy in 1986, according to the Philippines’ journalists’ union.
Most infamously, 30 journalists were among 57 people murdered in the southern Philippines in 2009, allegedly by members of a powerful Muslim clan who wanted to eliminate a rival’s political challenge.