Conflict and journalism: reporting on Mindanao

Catching up with an old friend yesterday, he told me something about his encounter with a Manila-based journalist and how that journo reacted to a video montage he produced. The Manilan was wondering as to why of all the things in Mindanao he can make a montage about, he chose war, or in conflict-sensitive journalism parlance, conflict, as the subject. My friend told the Manilan that it is conflict which has kept Mindanao from development and until that conflict is resolved, the inhabitants of the island will remain poor, deprived and exploited.

And then after talking to my old friend on the phone, I saw a Facebook status from a former colleague who has gone on to another country and another career. The status though betrays her shift to the new profession. As a reaction to the events that are happening in Libya, she said that if only she were still a journalist, she would have signed up for the assignment and covered the revolution with the rebels.

Both these former colleagues of mine used to be part of a team of Mindanao-based journalists who, back in the 1990s, ran after almost every case of kidnapping for ransom by armed groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front. They were also among the earlier group of journalists who were granted entry into the MNLF and MILF camps all over northwestern, central, southwestern Mindanao. In fact, it was their efforts which eventually prompted the creation of news bureaus in the area by the country’s biggest news organization.

These two would eventually become my mentors in my days (and nights in Mindanao). The other would be my cameraman, editor, driver and friend; while the other would be my news chief, constantly pushing me beyond my limits so that I may learn the ropes fast and be able to meet the demands of the professsion. The two however, have since then taken slower paces in life and have learned to view the conflict in Mindanao from different eyes.

But what’s the connection between wars (conflict) and Mindanao-based journalists?

Well, that would be a long story. But to cut it short, Mindanao has always been the fertile ground upon which hopeful journalists would try their luck and come up with big stories on war, poverty, corruption and political clans. And when these stories make the headlines, these journos hope that they would be elevated in their own offices and garner acclaim not only within their own agencies, but in the circles of the profession itself.

Of course, this was before the concepts of peace and conflict journalism; the multi-stakeholder approach; and as mentioned earlier, conflict-senstive journalism, were introduced by journos who also frequently covered conflicts in places like East Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and Palestine. These new concepts also added to the already flourishing specialized field in journalism which had Bob Woodward and Carl Benstein as its standard bearers: investigative journalism. The introduction of these new concepts in journalism eventually shifted the ultimate aspiration of every journalist from becoming a war correspondent to becoming an investigative journalist out to promote freedom, justice and peace.

But for journalists in Mindanao, the conflict has not ended yet. And despite efforts to promote a greater adherence to journalistic ethics and conflict-sensitive journalism, there are still practitioners who have caught on an old habit which may take a long time to do away with. For some of these journalists, including my old friend who I mentioned earlier, trainings in peace and conflict journalism have helped them slant their reportage from one which encourages conflict to one which promotes dialogue and peaceful resolution.

There are a few however who still love to sow seeds of mistrust between the government and the insurgents. And instead of filing reports which would renounce conflict and illustrate the costs of waron the people, they concoct stories which only add more fuel to an already fiery environment. What is noticeable however is that these war-mongering and saber-rattling reports usually come from young and ambitious journalists wanting to attain quick fame (remember what I said earlier?) and go on to become news anchors, block-timers or columnists.

For the old guard though, those who have seen the conflict since the 1970s; those who have seen civilians getting caught in the crossfire; those who have seen the bakwits in the squalid conditions of the evactuation camps; those who have seen Mindanao deteriorate through the years with foreign investors leaving due to the unresolved conflict, the purpose of reportage on the conflict has changed.

In recent years, reportage on Mindanao by Mindanao-based journalists has shifted from focusing on the efforts of the military and the insurgents to that of the effect of the conflict on the people in the areas affected. Instead of constantly waiting for the division or task force spokesperson to issue updates, journos have taken more time to visit the evacuation camps, the disturbed communities, and the families of those who have lost loved ones to the folly of armed men. 

The focus of Mindanao-based reportage has become the condemnation of the use of arms in the struggle against neglect, discrimination and exploitation. I hope though that this shift in reportage will eventually make heads in Manila, instead of pursuing war for peace, tread on the path of peace for peace in Mindanao.

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