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Journalists killed in Maguindanao, Mindanao

I have been stunned by the news that around 37 journalists have been killed in the Philippines while they were doing their job – following a political candidate’s ambitions to run for Mayor. In the Philippines politics is so often linked with violence, but as the link to the story below by Aquiles Zonio shows (I’ve also cut and pasted it), it appears that the politician concerned hoped and planned to use the presence of journalists and women in his family to protect himself from his expectations of an attack from his political enemies. This is one of the great functions of journalism: exposure. When actions by people in power are reported openly and are “seen” by others, it therefore follows that those people will behave better. It would be shocking to think instead that in this case the bandits targeted the media and the women-led entourage precisely to gain more notoriety and publicity for their cause.

According to Reporters without Borders, never has the media anywhere in the world lost so many in a single day. But journalists are not safe in the Philippines – the country has a reputation of being one of the worst in the world for killings of reporters. So get this: last year the Philippines maintained this reputation with 8 deaths during the year, according to Reporters without Borders. This week’s incident will see the country now become the new benchmark in a barometre of darkness.

The journalists I have met in the Philippines are passionate people – passionate for their craft and passionate for their stories. Many of them are paid very little, usually only by the story. They know the corruption on which they report could lead them to their deaths, but they believe, as we all should, that corruption must be exposed. Some of them, like reporters everywhere, have no grand ulterior motives, they just enjoy chasing strong, moving yarns.

Perhaps this incident will become a catalyst for change in the Philippines. I hope so. I fear instead however that reporters everywhere will become a little more cautious, a little more hesitant in their work as they know that the spotlight they bring to a story could become a beam on their own vulnerability.

There will be campaigns of support, for the families, for press freedom, for the recognition that journalists throughout the world do dangerous, honourable jobs. Please support those campaigns.

Here is the link to the story I referred to: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20091124-238100/Inquirer-man-recounts-harrowing-tales-of-survival

Here is the article:

Hotel incident made us skip media convoy at last minute
By Aquiles Zonio
Inquirer Mindanao
First Posted 04:03:00 11/25/2009

TACURONG CITY—Ian Subang, a longtime friend and former colleague in the now defunct Gensan Media Cooperative, was in his usual jovial mood that Monday morning, poking fun and exchanging jokes with us.

Alejandro “Bong” Reblando, Manila Bulletin reporter covering Socsksargen (South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos City), was, as always, in his fighting mood—insistent and persistent with his own opinions.

He was always late during media events, so we used to tease him “The Late” Bong Reblando.

That last joust among us took place outside the living room of the mansion of Assemblyman Khadafy Mangudadatu of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in Buluan, Maguindanao.

A few hours later and 50 kilometers away, Subang, Reblando and 32 other media practitioners would meet their tragic deaths in the hands of a ruthless band of armed goons in Ampatuan town, also in Maguindanao.

That painful truth refuses to sink in my consciousness.

Subang would usually play the role of a clown and he could easily make anyone in the group smile with his jokes.

Reblando, the most senior among us, was contented with acting as Big Brother. He was already a radio reporter when I was still in high school, way back in the 1980s.

That Monday, a few hours before they were kidnapped and slaughtered, we were enjoying a pastel breakfast served by our host. Reblando, Joseph Jubelag, Paul Bernaldez and I were discussing with Assemblyman Mangudadatu and his legal counsel, Cynthia Oquendo-Ayon, the security concerns and scenarios that may arise in an intense yet cordial exchange of ideas.

We were insisting that reporters covering the scheduled filing of the certificate of candidacy (CoC) of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Buluan, must be assured of their safety. Mangudadatu is seeking the gubernatorial position in Maguindanao.

Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. ran unopposed in the 2007 elections. Vice Mayor Mangudadatu claimed that he had received reports that the Ampatuans threatened to chop him into pieces once he filed his CoC.

The Ampatuans are considered above the law, warlords and political demigods in Maguindanao, Mangudadatu said. Someone must come to the fore to bring about change and improve the lives of Bangsamoro people, he added.

He said he had requested for security escorts from Chief Supt. Paisal Umpa, ARMM police director, but this was turned down. A similar appeal for help to the Philippine Army went unheeded.

Had the police or military provided security escorts, the mass slaughter of defenseless women and journalists could have been prevented.

Massive movements

A week earlier, according to the Mangudadatus, there were massive movements of the Ampatuan political clan’s armed followers—police, civilian volunteers and militiamen—in the area.

Believing on the “power” of the media, Vice Mayor Mangudadatu, who felt helpless, sought help from journalists. He asked Henry Araneta of dzRH radio station to contact other media practitioners to cover the scheduled filing of his CoC in the Commission on Elections (Comelec) provincial office in Shariff Aguak town.

Araneta was able to invite 37 journalists from the cities of General Santos, Tacurong and Koronadal.

“Maybe, they will not harm us if journalists are watching them,” Mangudadatu had said.

Mangudadatu disclosed that he organized a support group of women, led by his wife Genalyn; elder sister, Vice Mayor Eden Mangudadatu of Mangudadatu town, youngest sibling Bai Farinna Mangudadatu, and lawyers Oquendo-Ayon and Connie Brizuela.

The women from Buluan should be the ones to file his CoC, no security escorts, only journalists to avoid creating tension, he said.

“Under our tradition, Muslim women are being respected. They should not be harmed just like innocent children and the elders,” Mangudadatu stressed.

Active role for women

Eden, his sister-in-law and younger sister were also in a jovial mood before departing to Shariff Aguak. She was even saying that Muslim women should play a more active role in Maguindanao politics to attain genuine social change and economic progress.

“This is women power in action. Let’s help our men chart a better future for the province,” she was heard as saying.

We were confident that nothing bad would happen as some of us in the convoy frequently visited the provincial capitol.

All in all, there were 58 people in the convoy—37 journalists, 16 Muslim women who carried Mangudadatu’s CoC and five drivers.

After several attempts, I was able to contact Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton, commanding general of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, through a mobile phone.

He gave an assurance that the national highway going to Shariff Aguak had already been cleared and safe for travel. He even added that police checkpoints littered the long route from Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat to Shariff Aguak.

Five vehicles, led by the L300 van of UNTV, left Buluan at around 9:30 a.m. that Monday. I was with UNTV reporter Victor Nuñez, his cameraman and driver, and Bernaldez.

Fuel stop

However, while the vehicles were refueling at the Petron station in Buluan, I decided to transfer to Joseph Jubelag’s vehicle to accompany him. Bernaldez followed me.

The convoy proceeded. We decided, however, to follow the rest of the group after dropping by BF Lodge in Tacurong, where we had stayed the night before, to get some valuables we left and meet some personal necessities.

Two hotel attendants approached me and said two unidentified men riding on separate motorcycles had just left three minutes ago and were asking for the names of journalists covering Mangudadatu’s filing of CoC. The hotel management did not give any name.

The revelation made us change our minds and decided against going to Shariff Aguak. On our way back to Buluan, we tried to contact our media colleagues several times but failed to reach them.

Upon arriving in Buluan, Vice Mayor Mangudadatu told us that the vehicles were seized by the Ampatuans’ armed followers. Journalists, his relatives and his family’s supporters were abducted and killed.

Several military sources disclosed that innocent motorists traveling from Buluan to Tacurong were seized and executed on mere suspicion of being followers of the Mangudadatus.

Dead journalists

I remember the names of only 24 of the journalists in the group.

They were Subang, Reblando, Leah Dalmacio, Gina Dela Cruz and Maritess Cablitas, all of Mindanao Focus, a General Santos City-based weekly community newspaper; Bart Maravilla of Bombo Radyo-Koronadal City; Jhoy Duhay of Mindanao Goldstar Daily; Henry Araneta of dzRH; Andy Teodoro of Central Mindanao Inquirer.

Neneng Montano of Saksi weekly newspaper; Victor Nuñez of UNTV and Macmac Arriola, his cameraman; Jimmy Cabillo, a radioman based in Koronadal; Rey Merisco, Ronnie Perante, Jun Legarta, Val Cachuela and Humberto Mumay, all Koronadal-based journalists; Joel Parcon, Noel Decena, John Caniba, Art Belia, Ranie Razon and Nap Salaysay.

Later that night, gory scenes of slain media colleagues kept flashing on my mind. For the very first time in my life, I didn’t have a decent sleep.

Once again, several working journalists shed their blood in the name of press freedom. This, however, will not deter or discourage us from doing our job.

Underpaid and under threat, be that as it may, we will continue answering the call of our beloved profession.