WHEN THE Ampatuan Town Massacre of November 23, 2009 occurred and its brutal details were known, it provoked attempts at self-examination among many media advocacy and journalists’ groups, and even in some of the newspapers and broadcast networks that for years had been ignoring the killing of journalists.
Among the questions these groups and some communication academics asked then, and have since been asking, is whether the Massacre has imposed on the media such supposedly additional responsibilities as providing more information than the daily news agenda makes available, and analysis and interpretation beyond the usual front-page, op-ed and evening news menu of politics and scandal.
The Massacre has since become an international symbol of the perils journalists face in failing and failed states (international media watch and press freedom groups have declared November 23, 2011 the International Day to End Impunity). It was not only election-related. It was also the worst attack in Philippine history on the press as a necessary institution of democracy.
To any practitioner with some experience, the suggestion that the news media should pay less attention to trivia and scandal is a fundamental principle. But it does seem novel in the context of what has since been common practice in the Philippine press. To some journalists immersed in the daily grind and such other burdens as corruption and plain incompetence, the duty to provide the public information on matters that concern it, and the analysis and interpretation that can enhance citizen capacity to make the informed decisions free men and women must make in a democracy, are either irrelevant to reporting the latest rumor on which actor is sleeping with whom, or even totally unknown.
What the press is basically being told is for it do a better job of both reporting as well as explaining those events, issues and developments most relevant to the lives of that segment of humanity known as Filipinos. Journalism after all shares with literature, the sciences and religion the fundamental need for human beings to understand the world so they may change it. But it can’t do that job, and can instead compound ignorance and harm individuals and even society as a whole if the information and analysis it provides are inaccurate, incomplete, biased, or bought and paid for by interests opposed to those of the public’s.
If the Ampatuan Massacre achieved anything, it was to remind journalists — or those who could still be reminded — of the need to keep in mind and observe the ethical and professional standards of media practice many had either never known or had forgotten.
Among those standards is that of truth-telling, which in practice demands accuracy in both factual and contextual terms. This has always been a fundamental press responsibility that has become even more relevant in the aftermath of the Massacre. Not only is the reporting of the details of that event and subsequent developments — for example in the trial of the accused perpetrators — a press responsibility, journalists also have to look into and explain its context so the public may better understand it and the crisis the killing of journalists in the Philippines has created for press freedom.
Of that duty some journalists seemed aware two years ago. A week or so after November 23, 2009, several media advocacy and journalists’ groups as well as the representatives of some newspapers and networks pledged never to relent in the pursuit of justice for the victims, and to do whatever needs to be done towards achieving that end by, among other means, keeping the story of the Massacre and events subsequent to it in the news.
Despite that pledge, there has been a perceptible slowing down in the commitment to keep the issue in the public eye 24 months since then. Evidently, the conventional news value of focusing on the the new has tended to exclude from the news and analysis agenda the continuing story of the trial of the accused perpetrators and the wealth of issues arising from the Massacre .
And yet, should not the events immediately following the Massacre have provoked the press into looking into the state of the country and its institutions beyond the mere reporting of events? Despite the Massacre, that does seem too much to ask of a press focused on beauty pageants, boxing matches and the sordid details of fratricide. In 2003 it needed a spike in the killings for the national press to even report that these killings had been happening in the community press since 1986.
As for looking into their causes, foreign media and press freedom watch groups were far ahead of what’s usually referred to as “the mainstream” Philippine press in the attempt to explain why, in a country supposedly at peace, and where press freedom is explicitly protected by the Constitution, the killing of journalists had assumed near epidemic proportions. By June 2003 the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ Lin Neumann had already written an in-depth report on the May killing of Edgardo Demalerio in Pagadian City.
The November 23 mass murders was a crime waiting to happen, given the fact that the factors that have made the killings possible have remained in place, among them the weaknesses of the justice system and warlord rule in over a hundred places in the Philippines. In one day the massacre bloated the number of journalists killed for their work from three in 2009 to at least 34, and added so many more to the 124 already killed in the Philippines since 1986.
But what is worse is that unless the killers are called to account, the Massacre will encourage more killings by demonstrating that no one or almost no one who kills need fear retribution. Only by arresting, bringing the perpetrators to court, and credibly concluding the trial can prevent the November 23 killings from turning into one more incident to inspire the killers — of journalists, political activists, human rights workers, local officials, priests, students, lawyers and judges — who roam this country with impunity to keep on killing.
This imperative compels the news media not only to closely monitor the ongoing trial of the accused in the Massacre to keep the public aware not only of the developments in that process, and to remind it not only of what happened on November 23, 2009. They must also provide the citizenry an understanding of its significance not only to the practice of journalism, but also to Philippine society as a whole.
This requires a pro-active commitment to the examination and reporting of the human condition in this time and place beyond the focus on celebrities and other trivia and the mere reaction to events typical of Philippine news media. The responsibilities of the news media are as they have always been: to fulfill the fundamental duty not only to explain the world, but to explain it towards changing it. The Ampatuan Massacre was a reminder of that purpose and among the news media’s most important subjects then, two years ago, as well as now and in the coming years of the trial.
Based on a lecture at a November 16 University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication forum. Comments and other columns: www.luisteodoro.com. Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter.