By Ali G. Macabalang
The Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) in partnership with concerned entities held last Monday, Nov. 29 its 7th and final episode of serial webinar on safety measures in covering the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic and next year’s synchronized national and local elections.
Dozens of journalists from southern Philippines including the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) joined the virtual convergence, and were lectured on safe media reportage of events in the pandemic and the May 9, 2022 elections by Dr. Freddie Gomez and veteran journalist Joe Torres, respectively.
Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco, PTFoMS executive director, opened the webinar with a briefing about the task force’s feats and thrusts, and presented statistics on reported cases of killing and violent threats among members of media in the country.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, Presidential Communications Operations Office Sec. Martin Andanar, Cabinet Secretary Carlo Nograles, and PIA Director General Ramon Cualoping III, among others, delivered messages citing the importance of learning basic steps for safe media practice amid the pandemic and in events related to the 2022 polls. They hinted at improved government care for press freedom and safety under the Duterte administration.
On Nov. 25, PTFoMS Executive Assistant Juliet Solis called me up to invite me into the webinar. I assured her of my participation, even as I described the event’s timeliness in my desire to reveal to the public, notably for colleagues in the media, about recent incidents that indicated recurrence of violent threats in my media practice.
Later in the day, John Aquino, also of the PTFoMS, called up to say the task force had emailed to me a form to fill up concerning basic details indicating threats.
In both calls, I asked Ms. Solis and Mr. Aquino that I would take the opportunity first to briefly reveal my plight in an appropriate segment of the webinar, before I would submit the filled-up form alongside my narrative and other annexes.
In the webinar’s open forum, moderator Pia Morato allowed me to talk concisely about media threats and two recent signs of recurrence in my practice. I pointed out the need for cohesive actions in promoting the welfare of journalists and protecting them from induced threats or harassment vis-à-vis my case.
I corroborated the PTFoMS’ campaign for the passage in the Senate of a version of a House bill enacting a national Media Welfare Act, which seeks to address the age-old insufficient income and lack of benefits among field media workers. I said that while they were motivated professionally to provide media coverage, the 32 journalists who died among 58 people killed in the so-called 2009 “Maguindanao massacre” were equally desirous to earn money.
In the BARMM, I said, the insufficiency of income and lack of protection for journalists, which ACY-CIS Partylist Rep. Rowena Nina Taduran wants addressed in the House Bill she authored, were twin factors behind the creation of the Bangsamoro Press Corps (BPC) on April 17, 2021 in Cotabato City.
I persisted in initiating the formation of the BPC because of my belief that after the infamous massacre and the birth of BARMM, the number of media workers in the autonomous region has increased more than 100 percent; that most of the neophytes seemed so aggressive in field coverage ostensibly to earn additional income but lack orientations on proper ethics in journalism.
I mentioned in the webinar about the BPC’s current efforts for the creation in BARMM of a regional version of the task force and for the possible enactment by the autonomous parliament of a regional Media Welfare law.
As a long-serving media worker for 44 uninterrupted years and a wounded survivor of an ambush in Cotabato City, I painstakingly pushed for the BPC formation, thinking anxiously about a possible repeat of election-related threats and deaths among new media workers in the autonomous region.
My premonition turned right. But the subject of threats is me. The corresponding narrative follows hereunder:
Last October 4, I covered at Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao the formal forging of political alliance among the SIAP and Ompia parties of Lanao del Sur with the MILF-led United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) and stayed overnight in a Cotabato City hotel. The following morning, my driver-escort Joey Aballe and son Mohammad-Ali discovered that my car’s left window shield was broken. My car prominently bears media signs.
I decided not to reveal to the public or report officially the incident to the police because I thought it was just a petty act by a drunken or nothing-to-do passerby. Nonetheless, I informed a few friends in civil authority, saying that the incident could be a warning by somebody staunchly opposed to the participation of the UBJP in the 2022 elections.
The UBJP has fielded full-slate candidates in Cotabato City and Maguindanao where incumbent elective executives had opposed openly and covertly the campaign for extended transitional period of the BARMM government and also protested against the intervention of the regional party in the forthcoming local elections.
At 4:30 in the morning last Nov. 12, a big man wearing black dress, jacket and helmet barged inside my bedroom in our residence in Kidapawan City. When confronted by our first year high school daughter, who was awake, the man allegedly claimed he was asking if our mini-store annexed outside (which is equipped with a buzzer for customers) was already open.
Amid our daughter’s protest and cursing against the unprecedented intrusion and while trying to awake my sleeping wife, the man (believed armed as indicated in his protruded waistline) went out, hurriedly rode his parked motorcycle and fled. I was outside at the time of the incident, having a huddle with friends and relatives-in-law in a house nearby our concretely fenced residence.
My wife informed me upon returning home hours later that the man could be looking for me, thinking I was inside the room because my car was parked in our garage. She and our daughter said the man did not take or tinker with any of the valuables, such as a laptop and cellular phones, scattered at our receiving room.
I went on a retreat from daily media works for a week to soul-search and evaluate the implications of the breaking of my service car’s window and the intrusion in our residence, and decided for my daughter and wife to make a blotter of the Nov. 12 incident at the Kidapawan City police station.
I have also opted to take both incidents seriously because these indicated similar signs that preceded my ambush on March 20, 1995 along Santos Street in Cotabato City. I was wounded in the nape from one of several bullets fired at me by a gunman while I was driving my car. Nash Maulana, a correspondent then of the Philippine Daily Inquirer was with me and wounded in his knee on which slumped when hit by a bullet.
The ambush happened while I was writing for the Manila Bulletin and serving concurrently as first executive director of the now defunct Bureau of Public Information of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The mastermind in the ambush, as I suspected and corroborated by investigators, was a top local politician who felt slighted by some of my news stories in the Inquirer and later in Bulletin. The official was later convicted of graft and corruption and has been at large.
Sometime in 1988 while writing the Inquirer, a distant relative Maranao politician (who was benefiting from perks given by a an OIC-regional chairman of the defunct Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook appointed by then President Cory Aquino on full-fledge status after I exposed his complaints of being just a “pawn” by his predecessor, assaulted me physically inside a popular restaurant in Cotabato City.
That assault started my stance to arm up. Since the crime was publicly exposed nationally, I filed a case in court. On the verge of court preparations for arraignment, the relative-politico brought his clan elders and yielded P30,000-cash indemnity for me to withdraw the case. On pleas by one of my siblings and mother accompanied by the father and aunt of the attacker, I settled for the out-of-court settlement and left all the “blood money” to the brokers. But I told them I would never withdraw the case with assurance I will let it be archived.
Foreign TV journalists from France and Germany as well as the UK-based Reuters, for which I was writing also, had made news presentations about the physical assault and my ambush.
Before both attacks happened, I received threats via different means, including mailed envelopes containing words such as “your days are numbered” written in blood- like ink. One envelope contained one live bullet with a note “you are dead.”
The threats prompted me to avail of official security escorts – a policeman and a soldier whose constant presence helped force threats to gradually fizzle out. I let go of the soldier-escort and retained the cop. But in my 1995 ambush, I believed that my movements were being monitored by the mastermind in cahoots with a traitor in my flock, that I was driving my car personally with only my unarmed civilian escorts sans the police officer. I was armed alone but could not fire back at the gunman because I was steering the wheel. I was on my way out of the BPI-ARMM office to shuttle Nash Maulana of PDI and take our arms for an event in the evening.
I did not file any case about the ambush after sensing that the NBI, military intelligence and police investigators learnt that the mastermind was a very influential political leader backed by a Moro revolutionary front, despite official orders by then President FVR, who knows me in person. I opted to seek justice in my own way, and partly succeeded.
I believed the recurring threats against me stemmed from my news stories and social media posts that publicized a lot of information ordinary (or playing-safe) journalists won’t reveal about open and covert efforts from political camps opposed to the birth of BARMM under the leadership of the MILF due to vested interests.
I am submitting this piece to the PTFoMS for record purpose, with a prayer for assistance in my quest for protection by way of detailing to me at least one cop and a soldier to freely exercise press freedom. Death may happen to me any time with the permission of Allah (SWT) with or without escorts, but I believe the presence of security troops will make attackers think twice.
I close this piece with a prayer for the Senate to pass the bill enacting a version of the House-approved bill ob Media Welfare Act. I also hope the BARMM parliament will look into passing a regional version pending the Senate action.
The creation of the PTFoMS is a legacy of the Duterte administration in the global drive for free press. The passage of laws for the welfare of journalists will be an added feather to such legacy.
May Allah (SWT) through proper authorities save free press and protect journalists. Ameen. (AGM)