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A protester holds a sign with an image of slain broadcast journalist Percy Mabasa, also known as Percy Lapid, during a rally in Quezon City, Metro Manila earlier this month. Photo: EPA-EFE

Philippine prisons chief suspended, listed as ‘person of interest’ following murder of radio host

  • Bureau of Corrections director Gerald Bantag suspended for 60 days to ensure ‘fair, impartial investigation’, but he says it’s because ‘I have stepped on too many toes’
  • Confessed gunman reveals that the order to kill Percival Mabasa, who had criticised high-profile figures, came from inside the National Penitentiary through a middleman
The Philippines has suspended its prisons chief and listed him as a “person of interest” following the murder of a broadcaster who had criticised high-profile figures including two presidents, uniformed officials and most recently, Chinese online gaming operators.

Bureau of Corrections director Gerald Bantag, who is in charge of all jails nationwide, including the National Penitentiary or “Bilibid”, was named among 160 possible suspects for the death of radio journalist Percival Mabasa, 63, who was killed on October 3 while driving to work in Manila.

The brazen attack has gripped the nation due to its twists and turns, the suspected involvement of politicians and netizens comparing the case to HBO series On the Job: the Missing 8, about prisoners being released to carry out contract killings.

Mourners hold placards for slain journalist Percival Mabasa during his funeral in Metro Manila on October 9, 2022. Photo: AFP

Philippine National Police chief General Rodolfo Azurin Jnr on Tuesday revealed Bantag as a “person of interest” in the case but declined to name the others.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr ordered Bantag to be suspended for 60 days to allow “a fair, impartial investigation on the matter so that all doubts will be put to rest”, according to justice secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla.

However, Bantag on Tuesday said he was suspended “because I have stepped on too many toes [including] drug lords. They would all celebrate this”.

Joel Estorial (centre), the alleged gunman in the killing of Philippine journalist Percival Mabasa, is presented to the media on October 18, 2022. Photo: AFP

Police had on October 18 presented to the media confessed gunman Joel Estorial, who revealed that “the contract to kill came from inside Bilibid through a middleman”. He decided to surrender because “my conscience was stricken” and asked for forgiveness from the Mabasa family.

Estorial said six men – including himself and the “middleman” inside Bilibid – were collectively paid 550,000 pesos (US$9,350) for “the job”, with Estorial himself receiving 140,000 pesos for pulling the trigger. Ballistics matched the gun Estorial had surrendered, authorities said.

There were two gunmen on the night of the murder with orders to shoot if Mabasa came within sight, according to Estorial. “It so happened I had him in my sight, that’s why I shot him,” he said.

Protesters hold signs during a rally in Quezon City, Metro Manila earlier this month to demand government action and condemn the killing of broadcast journalist Percival Mabasa, also known as Percy Lapid. Photo: EPA-EFE

The killing has alarmed media professionals. The fact that the murder took place in the metropolitan capital “indicates how brazen the perpetrators are”, said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), adding that journalism remained “a dangerous profession in the country”.

Mabasa is only the third journalist to have been killed in Metro Manila, but nearly 200 people have been killed nationwide since 1986, according to data by the NUJP.

NUJP noted that Mabasa, whose YouTube channel had about 223,000 subscribers, “had been critical of the Duterte administration as well as some personalities in and policies of the Marcos administration”.

Mabasa had also warned of the “security risks of [continuing to host] Philippine offshore gaming operators and on historical distortion of martial law” imposed by the incumbent president’s late father Ferdinand Marcos Snr in 1972.

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Police last week assured the public they had secured the “middleman” inside the Bilibid. Officers later revealed the “middleman” named Cristito Palaña had died suddenly, citing “cardiac arrest”, but the cause of death was listed as “undetermined” on the death certificate.

A second “middleman” was still alive, police said, declining to reveal his name.

Palaña’s sister, who has also remained unnamed and appeared before the media wearing a face mask, on Monday told Senator Raffy Tulfo that her brother had contacted her through Facebook Messenger soon after Estorial’s press conference, saying the order to kill Mabasa “came from inside the national penitentiary office”.

He had named the possible suspects and asked her to reveal them should something happen to him.

On the same day, Tulfo referred her to the Department of Justice to be placed under witness protection. Palaña died on October 18 at 2pm, according to his sister, barely hours after Estorial’s public confession.

National police chief Azurin said he now suspected foul play in Palaña’s case and that they still did not know the mastermind.

Family members grieve the loss of journalist Percival Mabasa at their home in Las Pinas, suburban Manila earlier this month. Photo: AFP

Senator Risa Hontiveros, who met the Mabasa family on Tuesday, said they told her they were now receiving death threats. Authorities had also told the family Palaña had died of “bangungot” – a Filipino term for sudden unexpected death during sleep.

Political and market risk analyst Jonathan Ravelas, managing director of eManagement for Business and Marketing Services, told This Week in Asia on Tuesday that the murder “is a test case for the Marcos administration”.

Meanwhile, On the Job director Erik Matti told a radio network he found it “weird” that netizens saw similarities between his series and the murder. The series has been nominated for next month’s International Emmy Awards for best TV movie or miniseries. A three-hour sequel is the official Philippine entry to next year’s Oscars.