A gun for self-protection, anyone?

[For 'Argument over Guns' story] Soldiers in full battle gear escorted the SEAPA Fellows when they visited the Ampatuan Massacre site.[For 'Argument over Guns' story] Soldiers in full battle gear escorted the SEAPA Fellows when they visited the Ampatuan Massacre site.
[For 'Argument over Guns' story] Soldiers in full battle gear escorted the SEAPA Fellows when they visited the Ampatuan Massacre site.
 

[This is a sidebar story to ‘Witness Protection Key to Fighting Impunity‘ also by Kyaw Ye Lynn]

SHARIFF AGUAK, Philippines – A vehicle carrying five Filipino soldiers was waiting for us at a military check point on the way to Shariff Aguak, the capital of Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines.

“They will escort us to the massacre site,” said Aquiles Zonio, a General Santos city-based correspondent of a national newspaper who escaped the 2009 massacre that killed 58 people, including 32 media workers.

The soldiers were fully equipped but they seemed ill at ease for their duty when we arrived at the check point on the way to the spot where the 58 men and women were slaughtered and later buried in mass graves on a small hilltop.

Nearly 200 people, led by the members of the Ampatuan clan, are facing trial for the carnage.

“The gunmen stopped the convoy here,” said Zonio, pointing to what was then the Ampatuans’ militia check point. It is now a checkpoint of government security personnel.

One morning five years ago, a convoy of six vehicles carrying journalists, lawyers, and relatives of then Buluan Vice-Mayor Esmael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu were heading towards the provincial election registrar’s office when they were stopped and abducted by about a hundred gunmen.

The convoy included Mangudadatu’s wife and sisters who were going to file his certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao. The journalists were there to cover the event.

“This is the way to the massacre site,” said Zonio, as our vehicle turned left and entered a narrow lane just beyond the check point.

Along the small lane that is under construction, we saw uniformed military guards stationed at certain points while some were walking, possibly returning from their duty posts.

As a first-time visitor to the southern island of Mindanao where nearly a million loose firearms from communist insurgents and Moro rebels are believed to be continually changing hands, we felt unsecure throughout the ride. This despite assurances from local authorities that the region is safe for visitors and investors alike.

“It’s safe here not only for reporters, but also for investors. We have enough security. All the gunmen you see in the town are police and military personnel,” Governor Mangudadatu assured us.

Although this region is known for politicians employing private armies, Mangudadatu says he has no private guards. But he admits that the place has many loose firearms, and is a bit nervous about it.

“Actually the president (Benigno Aquino) called me twice last year saying ‘Toto, I am going to lift the state of emergency in your province’ but I said him no sir. We don’t want to see people using guns again,” the governor told us when we met with him at his office in Shariff Aguak.

But guns are still around the place, serving to dispel local authorities’ assurances to visitors and investors that the province is safe.

Many people, journalists included, are carrying guns for self-protection even in the cities.

“I carry my gun mostly when I go out for work,” said John Felix Unson, correspondent of the Philippine Star, when we met him at a café in Rajah Buayan.

Because he writes about sensitive issues like corruptions and illegal logging which may involve some government officials and influential people, Unson said his life is in constant danger so he needs to protect himself.

“How could you rely on them for your security here?” he said, referring to local police personnel.

Because of the spate of attacks on journalists especially in the provinces, and particularly after the Maguindanao ambush, carrying a gun for self-protection has become commonplace.

Newsmen who receive death threats after writing stories implicating powerful people in wrongdoing have little hesitation arming themselves. But there are still a handful of reporters, especially the younger ones, who find the practice unnecessary.

“I don’t think we need to carry a gun for safety,” said Garry Balantay, a General Santos city-based  journalist who has worked for GMA television network for about five years now. “It is not a good idea, I think.”

But he says he has nothing against those who feel the need to carry a gun. As for him, he will leave his safety in the hands of the police.

“Even if you have a gun, you can’t always protect yourself if a criminals wants to do something wrong to you. It’s better to report to the authorities and get protection if you received threats or saw a potential attack,” said Balantay.

Ali Macabalang, a Manila Bulletin correspondent in Cotabato city, says practices and beliefs with regard to owning guns differ depending on one’s age, work and experience. He supports those who carry guns for self-protection because he does too.

“Those who take the contrary view have not tasted the pain from bullets,” says Macabalang, a veteran newsman who says his gun had saved his life twice from aggressors. He bears scars on his neck and forehead from these two attacks.

Not too long ago, carrying a gun was rare among journalists, who relied on their status as non-combatants to protect themselves, even in war zones. Traditional wisdom says a journalist must take care not to appear to be the enemy or a spy and maintain the reputation of an impartial journalist.

 “Journalists covering conflicts should never carry arms or travel with other journalists who carry weapons. Doing so jeopardizes a journalist’s status as a neutral observer and can make combatants view correspondents as legitimate military targets.” This reminder from the Committee to Protect Journalists is found in a handbook on reporting in dangerous situations.

But the changing conditions are raising new questions on security for media practitioners, and reporters are arming themselves in conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, media reports say.

The Philippines is no war zone but the relative ease in getting guns and lawlessness in some areas have provided the excuse for many people to arm themselves for protection.

Whatever others say, Macabalang pointed out, as long as the country has a weak rule of law, a justice system that moves at a snail’s pace, and a culture of impunity that allows continued killings of media personnel, only a gun will make him feel safe.

“There is a saying, ‘when you are in Rome, act like a Roman’. I’m in an area where shooting a journalist like a chicken is the trend, so there is no choice, but to learn how to shoot,” he said.

“For me not only shooting, it’s killing that befits the aggressor,” Ali whispers.

[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Kyaw Ye Lynn is a Burmese Journalist, working as desk editor for Popular Myanmar News Journal Burma, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.]

Click this photo to see all of Kyaw Ye Lynn’s photos for the 2014 SEAPA Fellowship.

Kyaw Ye Lynn's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014