Camera-toting priest from Mindanao awarded Ninoy and Cory Aquino Fellowship

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/07 December) — For giving voice to the minority Mindanaoans through video documentaries, courageously exposing truth in the name of justice and peace, and inspiring others through his stories, Fr. Eduardo Vasquez Jr. of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate on Tuesday received the Ninoy and Cory Aquino Fellowship for Professional Development for his outstanding work in journalism.

Popularly known as “Fr. Ponpon,” the 38-year old priest always lugs along a camera even while wearing a cassock.

Starting his mission in North Upi in Maguindanao after his ordination in 2003, he revolutionized his homilies by presenting documentary films depicting social issues before giving a sermon.

Fr. Eduardo Vasquez Jr. shoots video during the funeral mass for slain Italian missionary Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, PIME, in Kidapawan City on October 25, 2011. Mindanews File Photo by Keith BacongcoHe has shown video documentaries to people in Maguindanao’s hinterlands who have no access to media using a widescreen cloth and projector powered by a generator.

Fr. Ponpon aims to empower the indigenous peoples in the field of electoral reforms, and to preserve their culture through audio recording of tribal music and dances and filming the lives of their neglected far-flung communities.

It was then in Pikit, North Cotabato where he was reassigned to oversee the inter-religious efforts for peace in Mindanao until the botched Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the government of the Philippines and Moro Islamic Liberation Front that led to renewed hostilities in 2008.

Maguindanao, including the town of Datu Piang where he was later assigned as parish priest of Sta. Teresita Church, was among the provinces affected by the hostilities.

A recipient of a diploma in Social & Religious Communications in Crec-Avex, France, Fr. Ponpon is the founder and director of I-Watch Media and is a GMA news stringer.

I-Watch Media is a video documentary outfit of the OMI congregation based in Cotabato City.

Under Fr. Ponpon’s leadership, I-Watch has documented humanitarian stories on the aftermath of battles between the military and the MILF, including the deadly skirmishes in Pikit and Datu Piang, and issues related to the Ampatuan Massacre.

Videos shot by Vazquez’s team have frequently been aired on GMA7 newscasts and other international TV channels.

“We must draw inspiration from the life and examples of late Sen. Ninoy Aquino and former President Cory Aquino where they taught us how to dream the impossible dream and to fight the unbeatable foe,” Fr. Vasquez said in his speech during the awarding rites at the Peninsula Manila Hotel.

The US embassy instituted the fellowship in 1988 to honor Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr.’s accomplishments in journalism and public service, and the late president Corazon (Cory) Aquino’s contributions in strengthening the country’s democratic institutions. They were the parents of the current president.

President Benigno S. Aquino III who graced the affair said Fr. Ponpon’s recital of “The Impossible Dream” reminded him of his father, who sang it in his cell at Fort Bonifacio in times that he felt alone.

“And I guess it is really a testament to what we still have to do: that there are exceptional sacrifices that gentlemen like our awardees today have had to do to get us to where we should be. We will not give up the fight; we will continue this until its logical conclusion: that we have reached our rightful place in the sun”.

Risky mission

For all his good work, Fr. Ponpon has received death threats from some parties.

His superiors had to invoke the “vow of obedience,” a sacred command from OMI to vacate Datu Piang, to forcing him to leave his parish in  Maguindanao in November 2010 at the height of another conflict.

“I obeyed the order not for my own sake but for the sake of the people in our mission field. I was very aware that their lives would be at risk too if I did not distance myself from them,” Fr. Ponpon said.

The priest considered himself a “dead man walking” even after he left Mindanao.

“I am deeply aware that wherever I go as long as I carry with me the truth that I know and I fight for, threats and dangers will just be around me, but is this enough reason to stop me from being a video journalist? My answer is a big no”, the journalist-missionary added.

“The documentation and exposition of the truth for the sake of justice and peace must continue where journalists are surrounded by wolves and other wild beasts. This has to be done more prudently with great courage and conviction”, he further stressed.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Junior Grade Roberto Beltran, an officer of the elite Navy Special Operations Group, was named the 2011 Aquino fellow for public service.

Beltran was deployed in Western Mindanao after graduating from the NSOG training, one of the most rigorous in the Philippine military. He served as team leader, weapons officer, communications officer and supply officer of the NSOG.

As Aquino fellows, Vasquez and Beltran will travel to the United States for three weeks to join the annual International Visitor Leadership Program, an exchange program of the US State Department, which promotes international understanding through the exchange of information and ideas between peoples of the US and other countries.

Quest for change will continue

The day Fr. Ponpon received the award happened to be the birthday of his late father Eduardo Sr.

The priest interpreted this as a reminder from his father to continue to dream the impossible dream as a “priest-journalist’.

“I am taking this award as God’s sign of approval for me to continue my media ministry in the midst of trust and dangers,” he said as he ended his speech. (Ferdinandh Cabrera/MindaNews)