Media role in narrowing gap between ideals and realities


Ali G. Macalabang

In medical parlance, patients theoretically know best the particular painful parts of their bodies that physicians ought to examine and diagnose with corresponding types of therapies.

This theory befits application to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). For purposes of discussion, let us simulate BARMM and its residents as the patients, the journalists as the conveyors of pains and ills in the region, and the administrators in regional and national levels as the physicians.

To narrow down the simulative spectrum, let us classify the journalists in two types – those residing in or closely covering the region; and the external counterparts in national and foreign networks. We shall categorize authorities in two levels – those managing local government units within and regional officials; and the higher or national judicial, legislative and executive branches of governance.

Because of prescribed independence from the three government branches, the media is called the “fourth estate” of the broad society.

In journalism, we have a general belief that the closer access of reporters to sources, the higher degree of reliability on their news articles. I used the term “general” because we also entertain the belief that in an instance of exposing anomalies in localities, outside reporters sometimes present news more accurately in terms of naming erring public figures. Reason: Resident reporters usually “fear” proximate intimidations by misbehaving officials.

The BARMM is now in infant stage, born out of years of peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that led to the forging of the Framework of Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) in 2013 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014.

The FAB and the CAB served as man basis in the enactment in July 2018 of R.A. 11054 (Bangsamoro Organic Law or BOL), which set up the BARMM in early 2019 in place of the 29-year old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

ARMM was created in 1990 by virtue of R.A. 6734 in pursuit of the 1976 accord in Tripoli, Libya between Malacañang and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), replacing the Western and Central Mindanao autonomous regions established by the Marcos government in 1978.  The ARMM charter was amended by R.A. 9054 after MNLF Chair Nur Misuari inked a final peace accord (FPA) with the Ramos government in1996 that installed him governor in 1997.  

Shortly after signing the FPA and placing Misuari in the ARMM leadership, the Ramos government also launched in 1997 peace talks with the MILF in cordial processes oft-stalled by disagreements by negotiating panels. The peace talks fizzled out then the succeeding administration of President Joseph government declared “all-out war” and let the military “capture” the MILF main enclave called Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao.

Then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo replaced Estrada as result of the “EDSA Revolution II” and allegedly instigated the creation of the so-called “MNLF Council of 15” to overrule the leadership of Misduari, who was decrying alleged failed by the state to fulfill the provisions of the1996 FPA, and installed Dr. Parouk Hussin as ARMM chief.

The Arroyo government continued peace talks with the MILF, which remained opposed to the ARMM as a solution to the Mindanao conflicts. It forged with the MILF the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) in Malaysia in 2008. But the Supreme Court nullified the MoA-AD, prompting the MILF field forces of Abdullah “Bravo” Macapaar and Ustaz Ameril Umbra Kato to attack civilian communities in Lanao del Norte and in Maguindanao and North Cotabato, respectively.

The Arroyo regime responded with another “all-out war” that led to the military capture of the new MILF main base in the Buliok complex spanning parts of Maguindanao and North Cotabato. Having established strong political tied with Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., the Arroyo backed the election of Zaldy, the governor’s son, as ARMM governor in succession to Dr. Hussin, who and his “MNLF Council of 15” also decried non-fulfillment of the FPA.

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, when elected President n May 2010, revived the peace process with the MILF leading to the forging of the FAB in 2013 and the CAB in 2014. While Congress was on the verge of passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), President Aquino allowed the Special Action Forces of the Philippine National Police to operate against Indonesia bomb-maker Zulkifli “Marwan” Bin Hir in clandestine operations on Jan. 25, 2015.

The bungled police action left 44 police commandos, 16 MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and five civilians killed. Despite MILF’s reasoning about “lack of coordination” by the commandos under its existing truce with government security establishments, Congress was swayed by public outrage over the “massacre of SAF 44” to archive the BBL.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, when elected President in May 2016, pursued his campaign vow to renew peace talks with the MILF, and the 18th Congress toed the line by passing R.A. 11054 or BOL in July 2018. The BOL drew overwhelming ratification in plebiscites in January and February 2019, redounding to the creation of BARMM with 63 villages in North Cotabato and this city becoming part of the new autonomous region.

On March 29, 2019, President Duterte formally installed the BARMM bureaucracy and the members of the 80-seat regional parliament he earlier appointed. He named MILF Chairman Ahod “Hadji Murad” Ebrahim as interim Chief Minister.

While instituting internal arrangements, the BARMM cabinet and parliament began formal operations by gradually phasing out the personnel and bureaucratic structures of the defunct ARMM governance, and started legislating regional codes on civil service, administrative, education, electoral system, taxation, local government. And other measures required in full-blown autonomous governance.

 The phase-out of ARMM structures winded up in December 2019, and the BARMM parliament style government started recruiting personnel in different ministries and fixing operational grey areas it inherited from the abolished autonomous entity. Barely two months of take-off, when the global Coronavirus pandemic struck.

Restrictive social movements and diversion of much national resources by the central government to address the spread of the COVID-19 disease have reportedly affected the parliament grill for the regional ordinances and the implementation of the BOL’s two main thrusts – the normalization and political or government tracks.

The normalization track was able to decommission some 12,000 of the MILF’s 40,000-combatant members, and started transforming those decommissioned to peaceful and productive civilian life. The parliament has passed only the administrative and civil service codes, and is still crafting and deliberating other codes required in building full autonomous governance.

A “mid-term review” by the Mindanao People’s Caucus, an NGO assisting for years in the Mindanao peace process, brought to fore in November 2020 the issue of “lack of time” for the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the 80- seat interim ruling body of the BARMM, to finish mandates before the election of regular parliament members in a scheduled 2022 local, regional and national polls.

Chief Minister Ebhrahim and the BTA, taking into account the MPC’s review and recommendation for extension in the BTA interim term, adopted a resolution in mid-November 2020 urging the national government, particularly Congress to postpone the 2022 regional elections to 2025 to extend the interim administration’s lifespan.

Members of the House of Representatives responded by filing four bills and two senators introduced two bills for the same purposes, after national executives led by President Duterte’s expressed concurrence about the shortness of the three-year mandated BTA interim operations.

Various quarters of peace stake holders from Muslim. Christian and indigenous people’s (IP) sectors including even North Cotabato Governor Nancy Catamco and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo alongside four governors and lawmakers in BARMM rallied the extension, even as supporters reportedly mustered 1.2 million online signatures calling for the President to certify as “urgent” a harmonized bill.

Senate President Tito Sotto and House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco have reportedly assured to swiftly deliberate the extension call upon receipt of a Presidential certification. They were quoted as assuring to hold special sessions after Congress adjourns sine die by June 4.

In the debate accruing from the extension call alone, local, national and international media entities are equally split on the pros and cons of the issue.

But the crux of the matter does not lie only in the extension call. Even if the BTA is given an additional three-year term lifespan, I see more compelling challenges for the media sector to narrow down the disparity between the ideals of BARMM autonomy stipulated in the BOL or CAB and the realities happening in the areas of regional governance.

With due respect to well-meaning members of the Manila-based national and international media entities, their ways of interviews and reportage about the BARMM usually portrayed generalities that are more often than not anchored on their networks’ popularity contest. For lack of direct knowledge on the true conditions of BARMM residents and ills in the regional agencies, they fail to draw national authorities’ accurate remedial measures.

For me, the primordial role of the media is to narrow down the reality in BARMM and the provisions of law concerning regional autonomy.

It should be emphasized that the national government, particularly the Aquino government, had called the ARMM as a “failed” experiment for autonomy because the media failed to drumbeat the fulfilment of legal provisions enabling an ideal autonomous government.

BARMM should not become another “failed” experiment. It has better mechanisms in addressing the ills confronted by the past autonomous administrations. One mechanism is the role of the Inter-Governmental Relations Body (IGRB) that facilitates focal efforts in the devolution of national assets and power to BARMM and prevents recurrence of past lapses by the central government.

If the BARMM government fails also – God forbids – in obtaining all assets and powers mandated by laws, the media can be partly blamed.

In a nutshell, this column represents my stride in taking the cudgel to organize a cohesive Bangsamoro Press Corps as a potent vehicle to continuously persuade the national government into fulfilling all its mandates under the laws and existing peace agreements. AGM


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