Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Journalists and women as safety shield

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Opinion/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
IF I COULD GET HOLD of even only one of the perpetrators of the Nov. 23 broad daylight mass murder/massacre of 57 human beings, 30 of them from the media, I would ask only one question. (And I shudder to think that I know the answer to my own question.) My question would be: What or who made you think or believe that you could commit this evil deed and get away with it?

I cry out, de profundis: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, how have we come to this? For the 21st century or for just this decade, the Philippines can now claim a day of horror, a day of evil of its own to remember: 11/23.
People used to say the name of the month and day to be remembered, such as Sept. 21 or 
Aug. 21, or invoke numbers to never forget, such as P.D. 1081, to conjure up images of blood and terror. Or they use them to remember some significant event, like Nueve de Febrero (name of a street) and Mayo Uno (Labor Day).
Now we abbreviate the dates and turn them into catchwords, logos or tattoos so that we will never forget, because there are too many to not forget. Tragedies like 9/11. More than the sound and the look of the numbers, there is something about them that should make us remember and vow to never allow these evil to happen again.
We’ve run out of superlatives to describe the massacre that was so well planned and so swiftly carried out in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, on 11/23.

I write about this horror even though, in the past days, so much have been written and said about it. I want the story to be part, not just of my journalism files, but to be part of me as a human being who happens to be a journalist. I share in the grief in a very profound way. I burst into tears as soon as I learned about what happened to the journalists and to the many who thought they were safe being with them.

The more than 50 victims did not die in a battlefield or a bomb blast or by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were, in fact, in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. And they were murdered one by one.

Their killers made sure none of them would make it alive to civilization to tell the gory tale. The mass graves had been dug ahead of time. A backhoe was on standby to move the earth and immediately cover the corpses and the vehicles. What a massive undertaking indeed. But the mastermind and perpetrators believed, they felt very assured, that they could get away with it. With impunity.

Evil forces were lying in wait for the convoy to pass through that stretch of road while on its way to the Commission on Elections. The whys and hows of that fateful road trip is well known by now. Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu’s wife Genalin, accompanied by supporters, lawyers and a horde of journalists, were on their way to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for governor that would challenge the powerful warlord Ampatuan clan. Mangudadatu stayed behind. The convoy was waylaid. The rest is bloody history.

It used to be that there was safety in having journalists and women in risky undertakings. They act not only as safety shield, journalists could also be witnesses to unfolding events and later be counted upon to tell the truth about what they have witnessed.

When Sen. Ninoy Aquino came home from exile in 1983, he had journalists with him. Moments before he was assassinated he told them to watch out. It could be over fast, he said. Those last moments and the moment he was shot were recorded on video and on voice recorder. The tape recorder of Time magazine’s Sandra Burton was on when the shots rang out as Ninoy descended from the plane. Photojournalists on the ground captured images of Ninoy bloodied on the ground.

Now we are waiting to hear the sound of the massacre that was supposedly recorded on audio tape by one of the victims. I hope this recording exists.

There is safety in women and in numbers. Bare breasted women from indigenous tribes have confronted military men who protected infrastructure projects that would destroy ancestral lands. Weepy whistle-blower Jun Lozada surrounded himself with nuns who acted as his security cordon when he testified about the alleged payoffs that involved government officials.

Toward the end of the martial law years when repression of the media again intensified, the women journalists came out with damning article after damning article to expose the abuses of the Marcos military regime. We thought we were invincible. And despite the series of interrogations meant to cow us, we continued to dare. The military backed off when we haled them to court.

That feeling of invincibility now belongs to the past. Here in the Philippines and in many dangerous places abroad, women journalists are as unsafe as their male colleagues. I think of Russian journalist Anna Politskaya who was murdered recently, of our own Marlene Esperat who was gunned down before her children. Nuns who braved the wilds and the barricades have been brutally killed, shot at close range. I think of Sr. Dorothy Stang who defended the Amazon forest and the indigenous communities of Brazil. I think of the Maryknoll missionaries who were killed in El Salvador and the nuns in East Timor.

Journalists are sometimes thought to be intrepid survivors, the last ones left standing. Although many have died in the crossfire, they were not the targets. Those who survived brought us stories and images of historical events. Movies about these events usually have journalists weaving in and out of the scenes. They do not die like the protagonists. They grow old and write memoirs, books and historical novels.

Somehow 11/23 changed all that.