On the Deadly Trail: the Ampatuan Massacre (2)

On the Deadly Trail:  the Ampatuan Massacre
2nd of three parts
Part 2: Kongko
by Germelina A. Lacorte/MindaNews

DAVAO  CITY (MindaNews/24 November) — In Davao City, a kongko refers to someone who asks favor, oftentimes cash, from sources after an interview. The term, coined in the 1990s, refers to someone who poses as a media person to extort cash from politicians or businessmen.

For Ben Diansay, a publisher of a number of small tabloids in Davao City and the surrounding cities and provinces, the practice of selling the headlines of his newspapers doesn’t make him a kongko. “I don’t consider that wrong because you have something to show for your work,” said Diansay, a former salesman of heavy equipment who put up his printing shop in the late 1990s. “You deserve to be paid. Other people merely pretend to be media men without anything to show for it. When they pretend to be journalists and ask for money from sources, that’s wrong.”

Two of the media workers killed in Ampatuan worked for his Metro Gazette, a tabloid circulated five times a week in Davao City. They were Santos Gatchalian, a former radio blocktimer who was only with him for three months, and Lindo Lupogan, for five years.

Diansay considered them reporters although the newspaper never gave them any salary.  “They’re paid by commission,” he said, “They’re allowed to write for the newspapers and solicit ads from their sources, and that’s how they earn,” he explained.

He said his “reporters” earn half of the amount of the paid advertisement they can “solicit from their sources.” A whole page ad on the inside pages, for instance, fetches as much as P12,000, he said. His “reporters” can also write stories on the front page and sell the story for P25,000 to the subject of the report.

As a publisher, Diansay does not consider the safety of his “reporters” as his own look-out, since they operate on their own and rarely inform him where he or she is going. Most of the journalists killed in the Ampatuan massacre worked for small community tabloids like that of Diansay, with only a few of them connected to national newspapers or networks.

Diansay runs seven weeklies and a five-times-a-week tabloid in the cities of Davao, Digos, Tagum, General Santos and Compostela Valley. Asked why he runs so many weekly newspapers (he had trouble naming them all), he said that under Presidential Decree 1079, you could not publish legal notices arising from court litigation—a source of paid advertisement for small tabloids like his—if you’re not published in areas where they were filed.

He also said that before a small tabloid can be accredited by the court for the regular raffle, it has to have 52 uninterrupted issues for one year. “Dili ka basta-basta ka-attend og (court) raffle kung di ka accredited (You cannot just attend the court raffle if you’re not accredited),” he said. Most of the small tabloids like his rely only on press releases for content to fill up their pages.

But not all Davao local papers operate like Diansay’s. Among the dailies that have their own team of reporters, Sunstar-Davao is part of the nationwide network of community newspapers whose mother company based in Cebu city drafted its own Journalism Code of Ethics in the early 1990s, the first community newspaper to do so.

Mindanao Times, Davao’s oldest newspaper which started off as a weekly in 1946, keeps a regular team of reporters and editors, whose functions are separate from the business and advertising sections. Even the Mindanao Daily Mirror, another family-owned Davao daily, is trying to catch up.

“We have a standing policy within our editorial staff never to accept money from politicians,” says Amy Cabusao, editor-in-chief of Mindanao Times, whose owner also operates radio station UMBN, Davao’s University of Mindanao, and the Tower Inn chain of small hotels with branches in Davao and Manila. “We have made it clear that those who do so will lose their job.”

“Once politicians or some business entities approach us, we advise them to go to the sales department,” says Cabusao. The paper allotted a special space where politicians can post their advertisement or press releases for the 2010 elections. “But definitely, we don’t allow reporters to write for them,” says Cabusao. “Reporters are only there to cover.”

She recounts how the paper had painstakingly fought it out to keep its editorial integrity intact amid pressures from powerful politicians and businessmen who sometimes sought friendship with the company owner. She recalled early last year when the paper’s court reporter had a working arrangement with a powerful politician close to the Mindanao Times owner.  When Cabusao issued a memorandum telling the reporters to stick to their beats, she was made to explain why she banned the coverage of the politician. She explained that she did not ban such a coverage but issued a memorandum that reporters should stick to their beats  because somebody already covered the politician; and that stories are already being fed to the newspaper from the politician’s public relations machine.

The Mindanao Times owner respected her decision and did not interfere with the paper’s editorial policy. At another time, the son of a politician wanted to write a column in the newspaper. Cabusao turned down the request. “Why not?” the son asked, shocked. “Because everybody knows you are running for office,” Cabusao explained. “And this newspaper sets its news agenda,” she added.

Mindanao Times drafted its own standard of reporting, defined its news agenda, which sets the perspective of how they cover the news. Setting the news agenda allows the editorial team to resist efforts by business and politicians to influence the news. One of their big advertisers had wanted the paper to remove the tag, “this is a paid advertisement” on the advertorial they place on the paper but the editors refused.

Cabusao said that professionalism also reflects on how the newspaper is run. “We get paid, so, we are not beholden to anybody else,” she said. “Even if it takes time (for the management) to increase our pay, at least, there is an increase.”  Mindanao Times’ editorial staff  includes five editors, five regular reporters, contributors, photographers and other support staff like lay-out artists. (In late October this year, the owner named former Secretary Jesus Dureza, a former editor of the paper, as its publisher).

Regular reporters get a basic pay of P7,500 (US$150) a month, not yet including the transportation allowance, rice subsidy, phone card subsidies, insurance, healthcare and  other benefits. To ensure that the reporter delivers quality news, the newspaper doesn’t impose a quota of three or four stories a day, as other newspapers do. “As long as it is well researched, one good story a day is enough,” Cabusao said.

Unethical practice, however, is hurting badly the credibility of the local media. “The media have been suffering from a credibility problem and this, somehow, contributes to impunity,” says Cabusao. “Readers can discern which newspaper is credible or not.”

She admitted that there are only a few credible newspapers in the local media. Everybody knows how much it costs for a story to land on the front pages of some newspapers.

“We’re supposed to have freedom of the press, but what’s the use of being free when we are not credible?” (Germelina A. Lacorte/MindaNews. This three-part series is an excerpt from the author’s Masters Project for her MA Journalism at the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University)  Tomorrow: Retrieving the core values of journalism)