Journalism as a “widow maker”

by Juan L. Mercado

“Is it necessary that journalism be a widow-maker craft?”

We raised that question eight years ago. By then, journalists killed on duty had reached 40.  That did not include those salvaged under Ferdinand Marcos’ “New  Society”.  Headcounts resumed after People Power.

“It’s one of the world’s worst records,”  International Press Institute said.  then. But  worse  was  to  come..

Just before 30 journalists were slaughtered in Maguindano, last November,  the body count already exceeded 70, the Philippine Press Institute and Center for Media Freedom reported.  No murderers or masterminds have been nailed.

The November massacre of 30 journalists and 27 civilians, outside Ampatuan town, saw the Philippines top the list of five “most murderous countries for journalists. The others, on the New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.’list   titled “Marked for Death”, included  Iraq,: Colombia, Bangladesh, and Russia.

We didn’t come to this mess overnight. Inept law enforcers, linked to the underworld, and zero convictions, spawned a pernicious “culture of impunity.” President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo benefited from rule by the Ampatuans, the Economist notes. Her administration  tolerated the mushrooming of 132 private armies of local warlords.

Did  we, in the press, fail to play our role as society’s “early warning system”?  Can we really say:  Nothing prepared us for Maguindanao?

Fragmentary reports on “Chainsaw Murders” in that province filtered out for years. Commission on Audit reports documented  repeated failure by Maguindanao officials to account for IRA and other funds. A climate of fear blanketed the province. The Ombudsman turned a blind eye to clan “unexplained wealth.

Did we fail to connect the dots yesterday?  And did that lapse result in today’s widows of slain journalists?

“Myrna Reblando, Glenna Legarta and Mary Jean Merisco refer to each other as 17, 20 and 19—numbers assigned by the police to  their husbands’ bodies,” Vera Files’ Mylah Reyes-Roque wrote.

Norma Parcon recall her husband’s body’ was recovered by a backhoe.  Nalaglag yung green ID holder nya–alam ko siya yun. (A green ID holder fell—and I knew it was him).  The face of Glenna Legarta’s husband bore torture marks. All bore multiple gunshot wounds. Myrna recovered her husband’s body was their 25th wedding anniversary.

Noemi got a call on her husband’s cell phone: “Patay na, patay na (He’s dead, he’s dead).” To date, she does not know who answered.  Mary Jean Merisco  recites the order in which names were read on radio. Her husband: was the fifth.

Has the history of Philippine journalism been split into two new periods?  Is “BA”, now  followed by AA?  “Before Ampatuan” and “After Ampatuan”?

Until  Maguindanao, professors informally saw  journalism  history as sliced into two chunks: “BD” and “AD”.  “BD” was shorthand  for  “Before Dictatorship”. It’s cut off point  was Proclamation  1081 which, Ferdinand Marcos used to  silence a free press. “AD” stood for “After Dictatorship” Corazon Aquino  restored liberties in the wake of People Power.

What does “Before Ampatuan”, or BA, category include?

In 1895,  Wenceslao Retana, in  Madrid ,  wrote  El  Periodismo  Filipino (1811-1894).  Jose Rizal and others turned to newspapers to protest, reforms. The  Aves de Rapina  ( “Birds of Prey”)  libel  case  roiled the press during American colonial rule.  Distinguished journalists emerged in later part of that   era: Joaquin “Chino” Roces, Teodoro Locsin, Sr.,  James Reuter, SJ, Jose Burgos Sr, among others.

Before  Maguindanao, 54 percent of victims were  walk-in buyers of airtime or “block-timers.” Majority (80%) lacked  Kapisanan Ng Mga Brodkaster (KBP) accreditation. Few were trained in objectivity, balance, fairness, etc.

What  will the “After Ampatuan” era , or “AA,” show?

That depends. How will journalists react  to today’s  threats?   Most attacks, occurred in the provinces, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility  noted.  Community papers and provincial stations, are frontliners.   Can we connect the dots?   Can we sift significance from facts better?

“Press freedom is more than just being allowed to call the President a schmuck,” It is, above all, about service anchored to core values: “to inform, to entertain, to educate, to shed light in dark places.”

Media: make “values that endure even after the sun goes out” operative in newsrooms; fairness, accuracy, balance, and old-fashioned integrity. These anchor the social contract between the journalist and reader—and offer the most enduring protection.

We need more sifting of significance from a plurality of voices. Superficiality, however, still hobble some of us: “It takes less work to mock the pretensions of public officials than to analyze their policies.”

Cell phones, Internet and  new technology is recasting our newsrooms. But  technology is made for man, not vice versa. All of us are in danger of standing that yardstick on its head. Journalism  is  a service, rather than a power.

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