A court in the central Philippines on Friday handed life prison sentences to three men convicted of murdering an investigative journalist.
Judge Eric Menchavez of the Cebu Regional Trial Court said Gerry Cabayag and two of his accomplices, including a former army sergeant, were found guilty of murdering columnist Marlene Esperat in March 2005.
Esperat, a columnist for The Midland Review, was fatally shot inside her home in southern Tacurong city after writing about corruption in the Department of Agriculture.
She earned the moniker "Erin Brockovich" in the local press because she uncovered multimillion peso anomalies in the department. The nickname recalls the movie of the same name based on the true story of a woman _ played by American film star Julia Roberts _ who takes on a U.S. energy utility in a US$333 million environmental lawsuit.
Menchavez said in a phone interview that the fourth accused, Rowie Barua, who later testified as a prosecution witness, was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines hailed the verdict as a victory for press freedom in the country, where at least 46 journalists have been slain since 2001, according to the groups.
"This is a rare win in the battle for justice for the overwhelming number of journalists brutally murdered in the Philippines," IFJ President Warren Christopher said in a statement.
"We are hopeful that this victory for press freedom will set a solid example for future trials of journalist killers and send a strong message to those who seek to silence the media through brutal murders that they will be brought to justice," he said.
But he pointed out that the verdict was only the fourth conviction in a string of cases of murdered journalists in the country.
Also on Friday, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales ordered the reinstatement of murder charges against two officials of the Agriculture Department suspected of masterminding the murder.
A Tacurong court that had previously handled the case before it was transferred to central Cebu city had dropped the charges against the two officials on a technicality, but Gonzales said evidence presented during the trial indicated the officials' involvement.
Esperat's first husband, Severino Arcones, a hard-hitting radio commentator who lambasted local government officials, was killed in 1989. Arcones had first stirred Esperat's interest in journalism as a tool to fight corruption, the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said.