Sunday, 29 November 2009

Philippines diary: In the line of fire

With Marge and Baby at Sabang’s underground river

I spent most of my sixth week in the Philippines on the island of Palawan, at a UNICEF-supported training session for journalists from the troubled region of Mindanao, where a civil war between government forces and Islamic separatists has been raging with greater or lesser intensity since the late 1960s.

Parts of Mindanao are notorious for the kidnapping and murder of Westerners but the province is equally dangerous for journalists. In recent years, there has been an increase in murders of journalists throughout the Philippines, most of which go unsolved. This had already earned the Philippines the dubious distinction of being the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Iraq.

We arrived in Palawan a few days early to do a bit of sightseeing, in particular to visit the famous underground river at Sabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. From the outside, the river looks unremarkable, just a low cave mouth at the edge of a sandy blue-green pool. Once you pass under the rocky archway, however, you are transported into another world. Within a few minutes the cave is pitch black, with the distinctive clicking sound of swifts and bats echolocating all around you in the dark.


The underground river is navigable by boat for 8km, although we only travelled about half of that distance, passing through a massive ‘cathedral’, with a vast high roof far above us and huge stalagmite pillars along the walls. Armed with a flashlight, our guide interspersed popular science that wouldn’t have been out of place on a David Attenborough show with well-rehearsed jokes about the shapes of the rock formations. He pointed out one stalagmite that looked vaguely like a naked woman. “We call that one Sharon Stone,” he quipped.

The landscape of Palawan is even more striking than that of Camarines Norte. Tall limestone cliffs tower over lush green paddy fields like vast statements of natural power, akin to Manila’s skyscrapers and malls lording it over the slums. We passed wood and bamboo houses raised on stilts, partly for ventilation and partly to provide shelter for livestock during the not infrequent rains. Outside, farmers were laying out rice grains on cloths along the road to dry in the sun.

Training days

Antonio Manaytay, 44, is a journalist in Mindanao
The media training started on Monday morning. Run by Probe Media Foundation, a partner of UNICEF, it aimed to provide 28 Mindanao journalists with training on ethical reporting of children and to introduce them to issues around children’s rights. After a previous training session and workshop in Davao City in September, the journalists returned home to record their own stories on children’s rights – some in print or on the web, others for radio or TV.

The Palawan workshop was a chance for the journalists to share these stories and get feedback from each other and a panel of experts. The stories presented included child labor in Batang Kalabaw, school bullying in Davao, solvent abuse in Zamboanga and children affected by armed conflict in Marawi.

What we didn’t know until Monday afternoon was that, as the delegates began presenting their work, back in Mindanao 26 of their colleagues were shot dead, along with 31 local politicians and observers, as they tried to file nomination papers for a candidate in local elections next year.

The killings took place in Maguindanao, on Mindanao Island, and were linked to tensions between rival clans vying for political office in the elections next year. “Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day,” Reporters Sans Frontiers said, condemning the “incomprehensible bloodbath”. As a result, literally overnight the Philippines overtook Iraq to become the most dangerous place for journalists on Earth.

We were all shocked and upset by the killings but the incident also underscored the importance of UNICEF’s work supporting journalists in Mindanao. Two of the participants at the training session had been invited to cover the Maguindanao event and would have been killed too if they had gone. Another delegate had staff members among those killed. If nothing else, just holding the workshop had saved two lives.

I had also been due to go to Mindanao the week after to report on UNICEF’s work with children affected by conflict. Unsurprisingly, the trip was cancelled – I was both disappointed and a little bit relieved but determined to do my best in Palawan.

I interviewed Marge about the thinking behind the training. “The Philippines has one of the freest media in the world but unfortunately it also has one of the highest incidences of journalist killings,” she said. “The challenge is for journalists to express themselves freely without fear of being punished or killed because of their views.”

In addition to running these kinds of workshops, UNICEF Philippines regularly monitors how children are portrayed in the media. “The most common problem is denying a child’s right to privacy,” Marge continued. “Sometimes in sensitive cases like sexual abuse, the child’s face is shown on TV or their real name is used, which makes them easy to identify. Children can also be made to relive difficult experiences and their stories can sometimes be sensationalised.”

The boatman’s call

Rodney, 13, works as a ferryman on the Olutanga straits
© Inside Mindanao/Antonio Manaytay
Despite their worries back home, most of the delegates remained in good spirits during the session. Once again, I was put on the panel of experts and asked to comment on the work. I felt like a bit of a fraud but did my best to highlight child rights issues and give constructive criticism of the style and content of the pieces. At the end I was asked to hand out awards and received one myself for being ‘Mr Brilliant’ – a reference to my British vocabulary, which causes much amusement here. Marge also finds words like ‘chirpy’ and ‘mozzie’ hilarious.

The quality of the journalistic pieces varied – partly due to the varying levels of training and experience – but the best pieces were powerful and moving accounts of children’s lives in Mindanao. One of the stongest print pieces was an article on child labour by freelance journalist Antonio Manaytay, 44, from Zamboanga. The article, which he wrote for news website InsideMindanao.com and the Zamboanga Sibugay Tribune, focused on children who work as ferrymen, rowing adult passengers across the straits that separate Olutanga Island from the mainland.

“Thirteen-year-old Rodney Balagot appeared too small for a boy of his age,” Antonio wrote. “His bony sun-tanned arms paled in size to the paddle he gripped with his hands, safely guiding the motorized boat carrying his six passengers to dock.” Three years ago, Rodney’s father died and he had to drop out of school to help his mother support the family. He has been working as a ferryman since then, making around ten trips a day across the straits. “But I don't stop dreaming of returning to school one day,” he told Antonio.

Antonio was inspired to become a journalist after ten years working on conflict resolution and community development in the NGO sector.”I feel that there are important stories to be told,” he explained. “Children’s rights issues in particular are not being reported, or are being misreported.”

When he got an email from a colleague about the training course, Antonio was immediately interested. “I thought this training was a good opportunity to learn new skills and sharpen my tools,” he continued. “Since starting the course, I’ve learned a lot about media ethics and how to approach the stories of children.”

Before the conference finished, I wrote a story about the training in the context of the massacre in Mindanao, and posted it on the UNICEF website and Facebook. Our moderator, Ariel, was from the Philippine Press Association and asked for a copy to send to their member newspapers. I’m used to writing at a greater distance from the breaking news, but this time I felt like a proper journalist – and proud to be one.

“No story is worth dying for,” said Jewel Reyes, a TV reporter for ABS-CBN in Zamboanga, who has received death threats from the Mindanao terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. However, for these journalists there are plenty of unreported children’s stories worth living for.

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