By Ranga Kalansooriya –
In three weeks from now, November 23rd to be precise, the Philippines will commemorate the infamous Ampatuan massacre that took place in the conflict affected region of Muslim Mindanao. There were 32 journalists and media workers among the 58 victims who were brutally killed by a powerful clan called Ampatuan in the picturesque Maguindanao province of this troubled region on November 23, 2009.
The story is extremely complicated and has many facets in numerous dimensions. The dynamics of a long protracted conflict, the short-sighted responses of the state, maintaining private armies by powerful politicians and clans, exploitation of poverty, the political economy of a so-called “religious conflict,” and the list can continue. But when we consider the aspect of journalist safety, it discloses a horrifying story.
Filipino journalists have been faced by numerous threats and safety issues for many years. It is among the most unsafe countries for journalists in the world. Unlike Syria or any other country within the radar spectrum, cases in this eastern archipelago remain unreported. But on an average, at least one journalist is killed per month.
I was a member of the international inquiry team into the Ampatuan massacre and we found out some strange reason for the ill-fated journalists to join the targeted convoy that took up a risky journey amidst repeated threats by the perpetrators. To cut a long story short, one mayoral candidate sought a buffer through the presence of journalists against a potential attack by his rival who had been holding office of the mayor by then. The emerging candidate received numerous threats from his rival (the Mayor) not field his nominations, and his convoy would be attacked if he leaves his home to file nominations. The journalists were well aware of this deadly threat, yet they joined the convoy – which was their final journey in life.
*Bodies of slain journalists being unearthed at the Ampatuan massacre sight in Mindanao, November 25, 2009. Picture Courtesy: Nonoy Espina, National Union of the Journalists in the Philippines
A few months later I along with some media colleagues in Manila and Mindanao did my own inquiry into the incident in order to ascertain the real reason for the journalists to risk their lives by joining this convoy. It was one media person who told us the real story. The emerging candidate had invited journalists to join his convoy by presenting some cash incentives – what we call ‘envelope journalism’ in our newsroom jargon. “Christmas was coming, so we had to find some extra money,” said one journalist who had a narrow escape. In fact the invitation had been only for 18 journalists, but after hearing the envelope story, 32 had turned up. The aides of the candidate had to go back to the office to bring some extra money for the uninvited journalists, said another journalist in Mindanao. They all joined the ill-fated convoy after receiving ‘envelopes’ – of course with the full knowledge of the risk.
Corruption could bring immense safety risks for journalists, more than to any other profession. Therefore, all training programs for journalists – either ethics or safety – the issue of corruption is being discussed at length. They are strictly warned to protect their integrity against these malpractices.
The reason for me to tell this six year old Ampatuan incident here was some nasty stories I heard in the east and north central provinces during the past two weeks where I had some interactions with provincial journalists in those areas. Some follow up inquiries from elsewhere revealed that the situation is no different to those two provinces. Corruption among media persons – both regional and national level – has become a social epidemic that requires urgent attention from all those concerned parties.
A simple survey would disclose the fact that more than sixty percent of the content in national media – mainly in the local language – is filled by the provincial journalists. In the print sector they are poorly paid, but it is a different story in the broadcast media. On the other hand, these provincial scribes are not full-timers, they mostly have other full-time means of income and journalism is a part time engagement for them. But, for many of them it has become a sound source of income from indirect means, some journalists told me.
“The main activity is blackmailing for not to expose the story,” said one journalist. They, sometimes would humiliate honest government officials through their stories to appease their clients and those victims would never get an opportunity to reply to those doctored allegations, it is said. In some instances these tough officers would be fixed through so-called investigative stories for a negotiated fee from the interested parties. In another such incident in north central province, a journalist had demanded Rs four million as his fee for not to divulge an environmentally damaging commercial project through his investigative segment in the broadcast media. The money has to be shared with an individual at the Colombo news desk as well, he has told his client.
Many are in the pay-roll of politicians, either in the provinces or elsewhere. This is not a unique phenomenon to Sri Lanka, but that should not be taken as an excuse as well. If media is the fourth estate of the society, its independence, accountability and dignity should be protected to the maximum. Corrupt journalists and editors would dig the grave of their own society.
At a recent media event in Islamabad I saw some journalists openly demanding money from organizers and the request was turned down with zero tolerance. Sri Lanka is yet to reach that level, but when hearing these stories from various quarters including some of those at the gate-keeper positions, we fear of our future of the society.
Yahapalanaya is not only for the government. Sectors like media, too, should follow the rules of good governance to the letter. But now it is mostly governed by economic or political interests – not by public interest which is the bible of journalism. We need a sound system to watch the watchdog and it should be derived from the industry players themselves. A collaborative discourse such as “Colombo Declaration” which took place sometime ago, is the need of the hour.