On the front-lines of a bigger war

Standard

In 2009 the worst attack on the Philippine press in history occurred in the town of Ampatuan, Ma-guindanao province. Thirty two (32) journalists and media workers were killed during an attempt to prevent the followers and relatives of a candidate for provincial governor from filing his certificate of candidacy.

The attack was political and primarily directed against the wife, other relatives, lawyers and sup-porters of candidate Esmael Magundadatu, who incidentally did win the post in the 2010 elections. But the journalists were killed as well because the perpetrators knew that for even one them to sur-vive would mean exposure in the media.

The trial of the accused principals as well as their accomplices, a number of them from the police, the military and so-called Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs), or paramilitary formations trained by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), has been proceeding in fits and starts since early 2010.

Nearly eight years have come and gone since the massacre; and one administration has passed into history, while another has just marked its first year in office. Journalists are still being killed for their work, while the trial is still to be concluded and those responsible for the massacre punished.

What has come to be known as the Ampatuan Massacre is so far the most telling indication of the risks community journalists take in the course of doing their jobs — risks to which their counterparts in the so-called “national press” have been relatively immune.

Public interest in the Ampatuan Massacre trial and its outcome have waned, among other reasons because the massacre happened in Mindanao, where the Marawi crisis is in the minds of many people validating the majority bias that violence is inherent in Moroland, anyway; but also because community media practitioners, not Manila-based media people, were the casualties.

The killing of mostly community journalists and media workers had in fact been going on for years prior to the massacre, with very little attention being paid to it by both ordinary citizens as well as a succession of administrations.

And yet, the community press and media are on the very front-lines of a war much bigger than that in Marawi and the war on drugs: the war against the corruption, criminality, lawlessness and dynastic rule that practically define the lives of the vast majority of Filipinos, with some practitioners doing a better job of addressing these issues than their supposed betters in Manila.

The presumably better practitioners are based in the capital. In terms of the audiences they seek to address, they belong to one of two parallel media systems in the Philippines. The first of these is the so-called “national press” in Manila which claims, but not all of which have, nation-wide circulations. The second is the community press based in the towns, provinces and cities outside the National Capital Region, the constituents of which, whether they’re working in print, radio or television and video or online, report and comment on events, issues and concerns in their immediate localities.

The latter have been and are still regarded as the poor cousins of their Manila counterparts, and until 2003, when Pagadian City’s print and broadcast journalist Edgar Damalerio was killed in the line of duty, even journalists’ groups and media organizations in the capital were paying very little attention to, and hardly expressing any concern for, the killing of mostly community-based journalists.

And yet studies on the killings, among them by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), which was the first media advocacy organization to alert the public on the implications of the killings on press freedom and democratic discourse, have found that most of those slain for their work were reporting and commenting on local corruption and criminal syndicates, and on human rights, militarization, and environmental issues among others — indicating a commitment to addressing those problems with that are of utmost concern to the residents of the communities they serve.

The community press has often been criticized for some of its practitioners’ limited training; for corruption and unethical conduct; for being the mouthpieces of local politicians as well as business interests; and for being paid assets of the police and military.

While all this is true of some of its practitioners (and of some journalists in the “national press” as well), it is nevertheless in the community press where the alternative press tradition that historically has focused on the imperatives of authentic independence and social change is most alive today. It is evident not only in the work of practitioners in local newspapers but also of those in the community radio, television and video groups that, often at great risk to their lives, continue to provide in-formation crucial to the people’s understanding of their communities and of Philippine society as a whole.

The alternative tradition of the Philippine press and media goes back over a hundred years ago to the Propaganda Movement and the struggle against Spanish colonialism, and later, the fight for independence from the United States, the anti-Japanese resistance, and the opposition to the Marcos terror regime.

Today it is the alternative wing of the Philippine press and media resident online and in the communities that is providing the people the information they need to combat neo-colonial and elite rule. And, as is evident in the membership of AlterMidya, the organization of the alternative media groups scattered all over the archipelago, they are the contemporary heralds of the Philippine media’s reform and revolutionary tradition.

Knowledge of the community press and its alternative and revolutionary role in both the past and the present is crucial to Filipino understanding of why its practitioners continue to be targeted by those with a stake in keeping things as they are in the communities as well as how vital they can be in the achievement of those changes that have eluded the Filipino people for over a century.

But in addition to the paucity of studies on the community press, most of the studies that do exist, as former University of the Philippines (UP) College of Mass Communication Dean Georgina Encanto notes in a book for publication by the UP Press, have paid scant attention, if at all, to its revolutionary tradition.

Encanto’s “The Philippine Community Press and its Revolutionary Tradition” fills that breach in Philippine press history by providing both the information and the analysis needed by students and teachers of the press and media as well as journalists and media practitioners themselves, not only for the sake of historical awareness, but also for the eminently necessary purpose of remembering that journalism through whatever platform is an undertaking vital to the understanding and trans-formation of society.

Journalism, whether practiced in print, radio, television, or online, is after all an enterprise akin to the arts and the sciences, engaged as it is in the same purpose of describing, interpreting and understanding the world in order to enable human beings to change it.

The Encanto book will hopefully be the first of others that will shed further light on how those journalists working in the community press and media are functioning today in furtherance not only of the immediate interests of the communities they serve but also of Filipino aspirations for authentic independence and social transformation. It should encourage more journalists, specially the new graduates of UP and other schools, to devote their skills, knowledge and talents to the community press and media’s honored and honorable legacy of service to country and people.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Philippine Press Institute.

Leave a Reply