In defence of journalists

Senior journalist and Manila Bulletin correspondent Ali Macabalang, at his home in Kidapawan City.Senior journalist and Manila Bulletin correspondent Ali Macabalang, at his home in Kidapawan City.
Senior journalist and Manila Bulletin correspondent Ali Macabalang, at his home in Kidapawan City.

[This is the side bar story to ‘A Union Against Impunity‘  also by Alyaa Abdul Aziz Alhadjri]

NORTH COTABATO, Philippines – They have armed themselves after numerous threats to their lives while working as journalists here in Mindanao in southern Philippines, where the highest number of media killings since 1986 have taken place.

But guns are not the only weapons journalists here have against those who want to do them harm, with faith, the love for their profession, and dedication to its ideals taking up a huge part of their arsenal while covering a region that is often described as “strife-torn” and “volatile”.

At his sprawling family home in Kidapawan, the capital of Cotabato Province, nearly 1,600 kms south of Manila, Manila Bulletin correspondent Ali G. Macabalang shows off two bullet wounds — one on his forehead and the other on his neck. The scars, he says, are results of his being “nosey” and exposing anomalies involving local politicians, and are souvenirs of attempts on his life in 1993 and 1996.

“Now I have mellowed down,” says Macabalang who has been working as a journalist for decades now.  “I have many children. I already have grandchildren.”

Raising his voice at times to be heard above the sound of a wailing baby and raindrops falling on the zinc roof, he says he has no regrets but that he has “had enough”.

“So I shifted to more positive reports,” says Macabalang. “In my case, I feel that being a journalist is primary over other professions.”

A former media coordinator for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Macabalang says he now tells the younger journalists to “refrain from being used by Manila editors to destroy more Mindanao” through negative reports about the region that only perpetuate unflattering stereotypes.

“When challenged or given the opportunity to serve, I really would like to help a group that helps Mindanao and specifically the Muslim communities,” he also says, citing his past reports on the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines East Asian Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) as examples.

Reporting in and about Mindanao certainly has its own unique set of challenges, as Philippine Star journalist John Unson who is based in Cotabato, knows all too well.

“Working in this part of the country, you have to cover everything,” says Unson. “Most important is the Mindanao peace process to address this nagging secessionist conflict being waged by the countries Muslim communities that comprise seven tribes.”

He says he always makes sure to write his stories in a manner that will not infringe upon sensitivities of any warring parties. But he also makes it a point to start his day with a prayer at dawn.

Macabalang meanwhile credits his survival to principles of his Muslim faith. He reveals that at one point, he would travel with a group of Muslim preachers known as the Jemaah Tabligh and even adopted their style of wearing long white robes.

“They are pious,” says Macabalang, nodding his head at two journalists who excused themselves from the interview to perform their afternoon prayer. “Now I drink wine, I gamble because of my fighting cocks.”

“Anyway,” he says,  “this self-imposed discipline… we (Muslims) call it the four practises of the Caliphs…Sabr, Syukr, Zikr….” But he ends up laughing as he fails to recalls the last principle.

Macabalang admits he has firearms and that “I have killed, but only in retaliation for what they did”.

Unson himself says he is a trained “gunslinger journalist” who survived an attack in May 1999 – faced with two assailants – shooting one on the shoulder and another on the leg.

“Prior to the incident,” he says, trying to recall what may have triggered the attack,  “I had written articles on drug trafficking and illegal logging. While I was also writing for the local paper here, a drug warlord had felt agitated over another story and assumed that it was written by me even though it had no byline.”

These days, Unson says he suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome after years of working in a high-stress environment. But just like Macabalang, he is on a “crusade” to educate young journalists who he says are seemingly unaware about “possible dangers in their reports”.

John Paul Jubelag, publisher of the local newspaper Mindanao Bulletin, also feels the added responsibility of looking out for journalists. He says he has even become extra cautious after the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre that had 32 journalists among the victims.

“I tell my reporters, ‘Just be sure that the report they bring to us (editors) are true and accurate’,” says Jubelag. “That is my way of giving them security.”

“If we publish something that is not true, people will get angry at us,” he reasons. “I keep on reminding them, be sure that your impartiality always prevails. Once you go to either side, your safety will somehow be compromised.”

Lawyer Caesar S. Europa argues as well that these are standards that should be set within the media circle itself. With such criteria, there would be less reports that are intended only to smear any individual for any reason and that could result in the smear target taking vengeance either through physical means or libel suits.

In other words, fair and truthful reporting is among the best defences against impunity. –

[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Alyaa Abdul Aziz Alhadjri, a journalist of the Ant Daily, Malaysia, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killings in the Philippines.]

Click this photo to see all of Alyaa Alhadjri’s photos for the 2014 SEAPA Fellowship.

Alyaa Alhadjri's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014
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