“Confetti” Reporting

by Juan L. Mercado

“Abu Sayyaf” gunmen, in ski masks, dropped off kidnapped  US citizen Gerfa Lunsmann at the pier of  Maluso, Basilan. She limped  to the Basilan town hall.  The 42-year old Filipina-American  was snatched on Tigtabon islet, off Zamboanga City  three months earlier.
ASG  still held, at this column’s deadline, her 14-year-old son Kevic Eric, and nephew Romnic Jackaria, 19.   Other  hostages include an  Indian, Malaysian, Japanese and some  Filipinos.  Zamboanga City mayor Celso Lobregat turned over  Ms Lunsmann to US Embassy officials.  Proforma denials of hostage money swapping hands were issued.

Is this “A  Wilderness of Mirrors” all over again?.   Eduardo F. Ugarte of Monash University,  Australia, used that  title for his  study on “The Use and Abuse of the ‘Abu Sayyaf’ Label”  He  takes a hard look why many journalists in, southwestern  Mindanao, “are highly dependent on official sources for data.” Willy-nilly,  some  become “vulnerable to disinformation”.

“Media became  a battleground of lies and deceit and propaganda tool  both  for rebels  and the military,” the  paper points out.  Meanwhile,  ASG  gunman  Adzhar Mawalil , who in 2007  beheaded seven Filipino workers while singing  for video, was nabbed this week.

From June 2007 to June 2008, government  portrayed ASG as a loose assortment of two-bit bandit gangs, with shattered  command and control structure, Numbers were down and, influence confined to interior of Basilan and Sulu  There were no links to international terrorists  then at their weakest.
“They’re on the run,” President Gloria  Macapgal  Arroyo predicted in 2001.  Soon, they’ll reach the end of the road.” But t he penduluim swung to the other extreme from June 2008 to January 2009.
ASG was depicted as a powerful Islamist terrorist  group linked to international terrorists.  Flush with cash from kidnapping to shabu, ASG’s new recruits could rampage, at will, from Tawi-Tawi to Metro Manila.

At the “Shangrila Dialogue” in Singapore, then  AFP chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said 1,270  ASG  members were down  to 400 — “a  “welcome  decrease”.  But  a   2009 military report disagreed, saying:  400 meant “ a disturbing increase”.
“So marked are the  dissimilarities, to say these images of ASG differ would be an understatement,” Ugarte marvels  Indeed, “to delve into official accounts  of ASG is to slide into the ‘labyrinthine’ Orwellian ‘world of double-think’ – a reference to George Orwell’s novel of dictatorship:”1984”.
“(Here) two  plus  two  equals  five,” the study notes. “’Membership numbers are thrown around like confetti”.  ASG is concurrently big and small;  strong and weak; brazenly  prowling Manila  and cowering in hinterlands of Basilan and Sulu; tied to and cut off from international terrorist groups, ideological and mercenary  in character;  cash-rich and impecunious.”
Both    government and rebels put their own “spin” to exacerbate  these contradictions  This is the setting  where the press must  break free of  Orwellian “double think”  and hold sources  to account  for their inconsistencies. How well is the media doing? 
Most media accounts of ASG and it’sforays are based on material provided by police, military and government, the Monash analysis concludes.  Press conferences at  AFP’s Western Mindanao Command ( Westmincom) are cheaper, practical  and convenient.
When a major story breaks, Manila will “parachute” staffers to augment local staff. Often unfamiliar with “the  region’s  broader  troubles…(they’re)  less capable of critiquing official intelligence — and more susceptible to propaganda.
Some journalists  turning ‘propagandist ’  is not “born  of an  outright  conspiracy, hatched  in smoke-filled rooms  between government officials,  media  proprietors and other  powerful  groups”. Ugarte notes. Instead, this often “arises  from   capacity  of government to foist its agendas.  It’s “framework of assumptions’ can smudge ‘inconvenient facts from public inspection’.
“The ongoing Muslim separatist insurgency and its violent backwash make southern Philippines perilous for journalists. Center for Media Freedom  and Responsibility classifies Zamboanga Peninsula and Sulu Archipelago among three divisions with the highest percentages of ‘media killings’.  
The area’s unsettled conditions restrict freedom of movement. (They) make investigative work highly hazardous. ‘In Sulu, media  reporting is limited  by  the  pervasive atmosphere of violence. Local correspondents face danger should  they try in-depth investigative reporting  involving powerful  local figures.’
Given deadlines they must meet’ it is not surprising that, at times journalists, embed themselves with military officials. You don’t get kidnapped. Remember what happened to broadcast journalist Cecilia “Ces” Drilon  and the ABS-CBN  team?. They tiptoed  to Sulu  for an arranged interview  in June 2008. They  ended  up  paying for  “extended  board and lodging.”
As seen in Basilan and Sulu, media practitioners can “internalize the government’s ‘framework of established dogma’.‘ Right-thinking people’ typically ‘operating with integrity  and goodwill’,  will  ‘adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements’ —  and  self censor.

Analyzing  coverage of  ASG  does  not “imply  that political  Islam  has not set down roots in the southern  Philippines. This is a valid question”. “. But the  study argues that the ASG label, and  the Islamist  threat  it evokes ,  “have  been  and  are  being exploited by power holders, in the zone,  to advance their personal and institutional interests.”

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