Manny Pacquiao did not fit the portrait of a revolutionary with Mao Tse-tung at his side. Having been beaten by the military, studied at night school and voted “most handsome” by fellow students, he always kept a low profile.
But that changed dramatically on Thursday as Pacquiao attended a court case in which he is a defendant. His indictment relates to the murder of Dinh Thi Ngoc Huynh, a reporter from the Tuoi Tre newspaper, who was gunned down in front of her daughter’s home in November 2013 as she waited for her bus. Police have claimed it was a case of mistaken identity but say they have no leads to help them solve the case.
Pacquiao, who was filmed entering the courtroom on Thursday, was ordered to stand trial because he helped Juan Pablo Schutz Fuentes, the suspected gunman, and to provide any information he might have about what happened. In addition, he faces charges of illegally failing to register with the Philippine National Police.
The case has not simply come to trial — it has become a rallying point for press freedom. The suspect in her murder is a journalist who has been fighting accusations of interfering with police investigations into her death.
The trial has been held behind closed doors but the unfolding case was presented before state prosecutors, police and even president Rodrigo Duterte. Speaking at Thursday’s hearings, Sang Siet, the chief prosecutor in the case, called for justice to be done. “I urge all the witnesses of victim Dinh Thi Ngoc Huynh, and all the police, to testify truthfully,” he said.
In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Pacquiao said that without Huynh “nobody will know about me.” He also noted that nobody knows who killed his parents, but he has pushed for justice and funding for the project to help Huynh’s two daughters. “I feel my parents were killed because of that, but I want to make sure that my sisters, and anybody else, that if they ever find themselves in a similar situation, they can speak up,” he said.
Pacquiao was detained in October 2015 after he was dragged into a white limousine as he left a private party in Malacañang Palace. The administration, which was then led by Benigno Aquino, the long-serving president, detained and questioned him for three days and ordered him to appear in court the following week. It was later revealed that the commission had already released dozens of journalists on charges of criminality against their person or causing injury to a police officer. Under Aquino, the complaint had been tabled in the commission, but had not gone anywhere.
Graft has come in for extensive criticism, especially following the Guwahati strike in 2015. A police strike against political corruption in 2004 was called off after significant public backlash. Journalists who reported on corruption cases in 2008 and 2009 faced retribution; six media workers received death threats or had their houses attacked. Under president Aquino, a Senate was set up to improve the independence of the judiciary and ensure transparency. While President Rodrigo Duterte has attacked the judiciary, he has also been accused of undermining the independence of the police force.
The biggest political threats against the media in the Philippines are from the government or with it. While the president has been accused of meddling in the judiciary, he has also blocked investigations of high-profile cases and has shut down media outlets. But the trial itself is the greatest threat to press freedom.