The peace talks challenge to the media

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As peace negotiations are resumed between the Philippine government and the armed social movements that for decades have been fighting for autonomy or social change, accurate and reliable information on these conflicts has become an even more critical factor in citizen capacity to contribute to the resolution of, among others, the “Bangsamoro problem” and the 47-year guerrilla war being waged by the New People’s Army (NPA) under the joint leadership of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Meaningful citizen engagement with this key issue can take the form of support for peace agreements based on the social, economic and political reforms needed to end conflict, and/or informed demands for a just and lasting peace. A sovereign people are the ultimate decision-makers in a democracy and governments must take their views on public issues seriously. But for citizens to wisely discharge that duty, they must be armed with the information that the media, whether old (print and broadcast) or new (online news sites, social media, etc.), have a distinct capacity to provide on a mass scale.

Unfortunately, much of media reporting of conflict is often erratic and haphazard if not egregiously partisan, and as a consequence detrimental to the search for solutions including the making of peace agreements. With the exception of such Mindanao-based news organizations as the online news site Minda News, the conflict in Mindanao had not received adequate or even fair reporting until the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Aquino administration, when some media organizations finally provided some background information on the roots of the conflict.

Even that proved short-lived when the 2015 Mamasapano incident resulted in, among other consequences, the media’s pandering to mass prejudice by reverting to their characteristic depiction of Muslims as barbaric and treacherous. For much of 2015, the media provided more than ample space and airtime to the grandstanding of such anti-Muslim ideologues as Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. while denying either to the MILF, peace advocates, and even the government’s peace negotiators. The result was the eventual scuttling — with the support of a public basically uninformed about the causes of the Mindanao conflict and even where responsibility for the Mamasapano incident lies — of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Both ignorance and resulting incompetence are at the core of much of anti-Muslim media bias. But the focus on what sells newspapers and rates over television is also a culprit. In a year 2000 study of the reporting on the Mindanao conflict, only one article — an interview in the Philippine Daily Inquirer with the then head of the MILF — provided a background on what the MILF aims were and why it was fighting. In comparison were dozens upon dozens of articles that reported almost solely on the number of dead and injured in encounters, and which were almost uniformly based on statements from, and interviews with, government sources. Not only was interviewing government sources who always make themselves available convenient, most practitioners’ sense that it was what the public wanted and would therefore sell, also contributed to one-sided reporting.

The same pattern is noticeable in much of the reporting of the conflict between the Philippine government and the New People’s Army (NPA). Neither the reasons why the latter has been fighting since the late 1960s and for what aims — the NDFP has a 12-point program about which most Filipinos have no inkling — have been mentioned in media reports. Despite their stock-in-trade stories on poverty, injustice, joblessness, inadequate social services, violence and other ills, the media have mostly failed to see these as the driving force behind the rebellions that for decades have haunted Philippine society. Supposed “analyses” and opinion pieces almost uniformly imply, if they do not declare outright, that “the insurgency” is driven either by a desire to sow chaos and violence, or by ideological dogmatism.

This has made public appreciation of the necessity and validity of arriving at solutions to the conflict extremely problematic. The likely consequence of public hostility and even indifference is not only to prolong conflict, including the 47-year-old war between the NPA and the government, but also to obscure the necessity of addressing the root causes of the conflict through a viable program of economic, social and political change.

Despite hopes among peace advocates that peace negotiations between the NDFP and the Philippine government will finally prosper during the Duterte administration, the media have not positively responded to the historic opportunity of helping end Asia’s longest-running armed conflict on the basis of a principled agreement on substantive reforms.

Unaware of even the difference between a truce and a unilateral ceasefire declaration (the major broadsheets used the term interchangeably when Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire last July 25 and when he lifted it a week later), much of the media have proven both ignorant of the issues and even malicious in their willingness to pass off lies as truth and to ignore attempts to provide information whose accuracy they can verify from other sources. They have not bothered to look into whether, for example, command-detonated mines are indeed not banned by the Geneva Conventions. Noticeably rare are attempts, such as that of TV 5’s Interaksyon, to present both sides in an issue that could be a sticking point in the peace talks that are to resume in Oslo, Norway this Saturday(August 20).

Typically, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ insistence that the use of mines including command-detonated ones are in violation of the Geneva Conventions has been widely reported. The media religiously report the military’s claims without verifying their accuracy, and without the skepticism they so generously endow on the statements and claims of both the armed and unarmed Left, to the extent of seeming to support continuing conflict.

And yet the ethical and professional standards practitioners are expected to observe demand fairness in terms of presenting both sides in even the most minor disputes, as well as verification through multi-sourcing. The same standards mandate putting events in context. If they were true to these standards, the media could help provide answers to such questions as why social movements such as those led by the MILF and the NDFP, despite the most brutal campaigns of suppression over the decades, have persisted; why they have the support they enjoy; what their programs are—and would a peace agreement be more viable if it incorporated elements of these programs ?

The failure of much of the media to provide the kind of information needed in these crucial times is based on a number of factors, of which ideological bias — the very same bias they accuse social movements of — is among the most pivotal. The challenge before every media practitioner is to transcend these barriers to the making of an informed public that would support the crafting of peace agreements between the Philippine government and the various armed social movements in the country. To paraphrase President Duterte, Filipinos cannot keep fighting each other. But the conflicts that have riven the country for decades will end only when the reasons for them are addressed with means other than arms.

First published on BusinessWorld. Parts of this column have appeared in the website of AlterMidya.org. Image courtesy of Arkibong Bayan.

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