On the Deadly Trail: the Ampatuan Massacre (3)

On the Deadly Trail:  the Ampatuan Massacre
Last of three parts
Part 3: Retrieving the core values of journalism
by Germelina A. Lacorte/MindaNews

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 November) — In a three-part series published in January 2010, MindaNews columnist Patricio Diaz had asked why there were too many journalists in the “routine coverage” of the political clan’s filing of candidacy.

Diaz also cited an Inquirer report quoting Freddie Solinap, publisher of the General Santos’ local paper Periodico Ini, saying that five of his employees included in the massacre were marketing staff who “had no business going there.”

Diaz also traced how only a few days before the massacre, Buluan vice mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu had been warned that violence will erupt once he files  his candidacy in Shariff Aguak but still, the politician sent his wife and relatives to file his candidacy for him and the media to secure them.

“Why did the media allow themselves to be used?” Diaz had asked. But he failed to categorically say what the families of the victims and everybody who covered the Ampatuan Massacre already knew:  that most of those who joined the convoy had been promised amounts that ranged from a low of P5,000 to a high of P20,000 after the coverage.

This is why Santos Gatchalian texted his wife evening of November 22, that  he would send money the next day after their coverage in Maguindanao.  Similar stories of assurances of money were also shared by relatives of other victims.

Solinap in several interviews said he had no reportorial staff  but ad solicitors. The ad solicitors earn commissions and since they go around anyway, they are also asked to get reports from agencies or companies they approach for advertisements, he said.

Core values

MindaNews editor Carolyn Arguillas said Solinap during her interview,  did not see anything wrong with his set-up. “He thinks every community paper operates this way,  that the newspaper’s purpose is merely to earn. Gatchalian’s wife and relatives of other victims who were assured there would be money after the coverage, did not also see anything wrong with it. They think that’s how it is.”

“This lack of understanding of a journalist’s role in a democracy and its need to be independent,  is lamentable and dangerous.” A weak press, she said, “helps prop warlords who can, as we’ve seen, get away with their unexplained wealth, get away with murders.”

CMFR’s press freedom report in 2008 had explored how the business interest of privately-owned mass media could oftentimes be at loggerheads with media’s avowed public service functions.

Rosenstiel and Kovach had reflected that if journalism had to survive in the midst of the onslaught of all types of information during the digital age, journalists need to retrieve the core values of journalism, now being eroded by the increasing commercialization of the mass media.

The same need is also reflected in the situation of community journalists under threat: ignorance of the core values of journalism in society could increase impunity. Although the exercise of good journalism may not be the best protection, retrieving the trust of the public will reaffirm journalism’s role in society.

Although salaries are often kept a secret among some of Davao’s family-owned dailies, an average regular pay for the daily newspaper reporters in Davao is about US$150 a month, oftentimes, even less.

This is a world of difference from the US$300 to US$400 that at the minimum, regular reporters in Metro Manila get.

To make ends meet, some journalists accept teaching jobs in local universities, or do some freelance writing work for non government organizations. This condition is reflected in other provinces.

In an interview in 2008, Julie Alipala, the Zamboanga-based reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), said that as correspondent, she used to work for three local media outlets in Zamboanga while juggling her time for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and another Manila-based magazine Newsbreak, where she contributed stories.

PJR Reports has highlighted the common practice among major Manila-based broadsheets to hire correspondents from the provinces to supply them with news stories from the provinces.

Unlike their Metro Manila counterparts, journalists in the provinces are exposed to higher risks and threats. Only a few of them get regular employment status, enjoy security of tenure or health benefits.

Although the correspondents’ work is almost the same as that of regular reporters submitting stories in their beats, correspondents are paid only for every article that gets published; and, because Manila-based editors are more focused on events happening in Metro Manila, there’s a very good chance that a report a correspondent covers the whole day will not get published at all.

This has been a common gripe among correspondents from Mindanao, Visayas and Luzon. In a major broadsheet which pays stories at P60 per column inch, for instance, over 100 correspondents across the country compete for space in one or two pages devoted to across-the-nation stories.  Most of these correspondents try to offset the income by working for a local newspaper.

Worse, other local journalists work as PR man of some politicians on the side, making them vulnerable to possible conflict of interest issues.

“The starvation pay that journalists get impacts on press freedom in the sense that you could never be free, or completely independent, when you’re hungry,” said NUJP vice president Nonoy Espina.  “You’re very vulnerable to manipulation and control.”

NUJP had particularly raised the issue of journalists’ low pay and long working hours during its 6th National Congress in August 2008. The Congress called on owners of newspapers, radio and television stations to improve the working conditions of journalists.

Where to from here

Although the carnage in Ampatuan casts a shadow of fear among Mindanao journalists, it also calls for journalists to unite against common threats.

As early as 2007, part of the CMFR’s Philippine Press Freedom Report, “Searching for Solutions,” showed that “apart from the need to speed up the wheels of justice, some common denominators among the slain journalists continue to suggest the need for a more active press community.”

But the situation is not that hopeless. In the face of the threats, the media in the Philippines has a capacity to fight back. CMFR referred to the media’s capacity to defend itself, a unique characteristic of the Philippine media, and a major strength of the press in the Philippines, as the “determination and readiness of media organizations and individuals to defend their rights as media practitioners” and “press freedom in general.”

This readiness to defend itself was alive among the Philippine media since the breaking story on the Ampatuan massacre came up.  It brought journalists from all over the country to the streets and pressured the President — who failed to act on the massacre until after three days — to move. It was also at work in 2007, when police arrested several journalists covering the siege at the Manila Peninsula and journalists from around the country filed a class suit against the Philippine National Police and the Philippine government.

NUJP  called on journalists around the world to band together to fight the culture of impunity that continues to claim more journalists’ lives. “The entire media profession in the Philippines is in pain,” said Nestor Burgos, NUJP chair, in a December 7, 2009 statement. “Journalists are traumatized and are operating in a climate of fear.”

“No one knows if another Filipino journalist will be killed by continued government inaction. If we are to overcome this decades-old problem, we need help from our journalist colleagues around the world,” Burgos said.  “We can only move on if we can ensure that those responsible for this monstrosity are called to account for their crime.”

In his preface to the report, “Massacre in the Philippines, International Solidarity Mission Rapid Assessment,” released in December 2009, Aidan White, general secretary of IFJ, said NUJP “has shown that solidarity is not a word to be taken lightly but matters most when it leads to practical actions to ensure that justice prevails.”

But justice is not so easily granted in countries where impunity reigns.

“Forgetfulness is among the worst vices of a people whom the media have failed to provide information crucial to their lives. And yet, forgetfulness is the sure guarantee for the repetition of such atrocities as the Ampatuan massacre, the human rights violations that continue to haunt this country, and the constant peril of authoritarian rule. Only by remembering the past can we prevent its repetition,” SEAPA said in a statement. [(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)]