Wednesday, December 18, 2013
- The festering war in the southern island of Mindanao is testing not just the leadership of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, but the credibility of the country’s press, long touted as Asia’s freest.
The Philippine media has borne the brunt of criticism in recent weeks, smarting from observations that its coverage of the conflict — and its frenzied search for headlines and footage of the 21 foreign and local hostages held by Muslim separatist rebels — has largely been wanting of substance.
Some say it has been decidedly one-sided in favour of government, or paints pictures of a decades-long conflict in black and white. Reports that some journalists and media outfits have been making a killing from the war have also contributed to the heat.
“It may be asking too much, but it is rather embarrassing that in this country, where supposedly there is more freedom to go around, freedom seems wasted on the free,” media critic Vergel Santos wrote in a recent column for the English-language business newspaper ‘Businessworld’.
Attention to and coverage of Mindanao by Manila dailes has increased in prominence and frequency, following the abduction of 21 foreign and local hostages by the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf on April 23 in the island resort of Sipadan, Malaysia.
Subsequent military operations in the southern province of Jolo, where the hostages were taken and where another Muslim group, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has resumed hostilities with government forces, have made Mindanao a preferred dateline for journalists, both foreign and local.
Many news reports talk about government and military officials’ statements, threats of war, whether to pay ransom or not, often adding to stereotypes already rife about the violence-prone south and the estimated 6 million Muslims in the Philippines, which is mostly Roman Catholic.
“One too many in the Manila press reacted in stereotype and let stereotype color copy and photo selection. One too many journalists let loose ‘hate-speech’ against Muslims,” said the Philippine-based Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
A violent separatist rebellion peaked in the seventies, led by the Moro National Liberation Front, which in 1996 reached a peace accord with the Manila government along with an autonomy arrangement. The roots of the unrest lie deep, including lack of national representation and decades of economic neglect despite more recent efforts to devote attention to the region.
Two other groups however continue to demand self-rule — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has had clashes with government troops recently and which began as a faction of the MNLF, and the small but extremist Abu Sayyaf, which kidnapped the hostages in Malaysia in April.
Religious and Muslim groups have been calling for a ceasefire to allow civilians to get safe shelter and belongings, and estimates of displaced people have reached into hundreds of thousands.
But the CMFR says that “what were reported to the public merely reflected what was said by government officials”, judging from a content analysis it did of the Mindanao coverage. It looked into stories run by the three most widely-circulated Manila-based broadsheets — the ‘Manila Bulletin’, the ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’ and the ‘Philippine Star’ — and the Filipino-language broadsheet ‘Kabayan’.
Rather than being “a neutral transmitter of events, these four newspapers were generally reporting on them from their own, as well as the government’s perspectives,” the centre said.
Local media failed to recognise that “in a period of crisis such as a war, what the government says should be only one view of a complex situation that requires a multitude of views to understand”, it added.
Glenda Gloria, a journalist and co-author of the book ‘Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao,’ says the public has been “getting only the surface” because media has reported the conflict as “nothing but a cockfight — who’s losing, who’s winning”.
For instance, she says, the war has not even been questioned by media at the policy level. “Nobody is asking the important questions that the public needs to know like how was the policy of war crafted? Who’s calling the shots, is it the military? In other words, government has not even been held accountable for this war.”
Instead, she adds, the public is given a false notion that once military “victory” is achieved, then the war is over. “A problem as complex as this isn’t going to be over with the capture of rebel camps,” Gloria said.
There are many other players involved in the conflict, among them the 56-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which last week adopted a resolution urging both the Estrada administration and the MILF to stop hostilities in Mindanao.
The OIC had helped broker a 1996 peace deal between the Philippine government and the MNLF, the main Muslim rebel group that spent 20 years fighting for a separate state.
Gloria says the reluctance of publishers to spend for coverage of the war forces many reporters to piggyback on military officials who conduct operations, resulting in a skewed view of the situation, she said.
This narrow perspective “tends to view the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf as one and the same thing, the better to demonise the enemy,” the CMFR said. “How can such coverage lead to insight and learning?”
Indeed, some politicians say the government can talk about economic development and attention on Mindanao with the MILF, but rule out the Abu Sayyaf as a “terrorist” group.
Unlike other wars around the world, the military has not exactly imposed restrictions on the movement of journalists or imposed a news blackout in Mindanao. Journalists however have been warned that they put themselves at risk by seeking out the hostages.
Some legislators in fact want restrictions, saying the government is telegraphing its punches through media. However, these suggestions were met with stiff resistance from editors and media critics who decried it as censorship.
For all the hue and cry, though, analysts say the problem lies in how the Philippine media has not been up to its duty of explaining the war, beyond reporting what officials and rebels say about it.
“The media cannot hope to be served by simply standing and waiting; neither can it hope to be given by simply asking; they will have to seek to find,” Santos said.
The so-called “bidding war” among journalists and Abu Sayyaf rebels has also raised ethical dilemmas for many journalists here.
The issue is not confined to journalists making money from scoops, such as photographs and video of the hostages in Sipadan, but the practice introduced by foreign correspondents who fly in and pay their way to rebel camps.
“There’s tremendous pressure for journalists to deliver. Should you pay rebels in exchange for a story? Only some institutions have professional, rigid rules,” said Gloria.
In the last two months, Abu Sayyaf rebels have made money from journalists willing to pay virtually any amount just to go anywhere near the hostages.
Some foreign correspondents have reportedly paid anywhere from 1,000 U.S. dollars to 5,000 dollars each to get to the rebel camp. But photographers, for example, are able to recoup this amount by selling each photograph to buyers for at least 2,000 dollars a piece.
The result has been that Abu Sayyaf now requires journalists to give something in return for access, in cash or kind. Journalists now periodically find themselves stripped of cash, shoes, watches, mobile phones and other possessions whenever they go to the Abu Sayyaf camp.
Media’s vulture tendencies have not escaped the notice of hostages themselves. The English-language daily ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’ quoted German hostage Renate Wallert as assailing journalists for “only (wanting) something from us. They don’t show enough feeling for our plight, our suffering.”
How much is a scoop worth? ‘I’ magazine, published by the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), says one local broadcast journalist earned as much as 15,000 dollars for the first footage and photos of the Abu Sayyaf’s foreign hostages.
Certainly, many journalists, networks and news agencies have been reaping profits from the war, writes ‘I’ magazine. “But that is far from saying that the public is getting the real story behind the Abu Sayyaf,” and the war in Mindanao, it says.