A ragtag media outfit in the southern Philippines shocked the country in 2015 when it aired a video of the killing of tribal leaders in the town of Lianga in Mindanao. In the video, Filipinos saw the horror of how masked men roused children from their beds and forced them to march to the village center to witness the murder of tribal leaders. When the same children went to their school later in the day, they discovered their teacher sprawled in a pool of blood, his head bludgeoned. This July the same independent media outfit, Kilab Multimedia Productions, went back to Lianga to join the same tribe fleeing their mountain homes. The journalists were shooed away by soldiers. Church groups who tried to bring food to the displaced people were barred from getting near them.
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It took an outcry from religious and human rights groups in Manila, the intervention of the Commission on Human Rights, and the visit of a Catholic bishop to end the blockade. "Kilab," which translates as "flash" or "lightning," is a media outfit with only four full-time reporters who say they labor "for the love of country." The group is part of the Altermidya Network
, a 32-organization network of independent media practitioners who don't hide their activism. Kilab managed to cobble together the story of the 2015 Lianga massacre from stringers they trained to document human rights abuses in areas where mainstream media fear to tread. Journalism a crime
A draconian anti-terror legislation, authored by former policemen and soldiers who became legislators, seeks to turn such media coverage into a criminal offense. A draft bill in the Lower House of Congress proposes a 10-year penalty for groups, including the media, that supposedly "glorify terrorists." But even without the law, Filipino journalists are routinely barred from covering social and political conflicts, especially in the provinces. Jaja Necosia of Breakaway Media, another independent outfit, said authorities are "changing tactics" in controlling rural populations that are critical of the government. "During the time of former president [Benigno] Aquino, soldiers and paramilitary forces drove people from communities. Under [President Rodrigo] Duterte, hamletting seems to be the strategy," he said. Soldiers are preventing tribal and village people from leaving their communities or evacuation centers to contact groups in the lowlands. When soldiers lifted the blockade in late July, tribal leaders, Protestant pastors, and a local broadcast journalist who went to the tribal community received a court summons on charges of "human trafficking." Necosia underwent the same experience in 2016 when he was charged, with 15 others, with the "kidnapping and illegal detention" of 800 tribal people who fled their homes in Davao del Norte province. The journalist was covering Manobo tribesmen who went from their mountain villages to seek refuge at a Protestant church in the city of Davao. Necosia was able to take a video of a confrontation between a congresswoman and a woman tribal chief. The charges were dropped in court, but government prosecutors are now appealing the case against the journalist. Attacks on media
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
(NUJP) claims 12 journalists have been killed since 2016 when Duterte became president. The union said at least 195 media workers have been killed since 1986 when democracy was restored after the dictatorial rule of former president Ferdinand Marcos. Of the 195 victims, 103 died during the nine-year rule of former president Gloria Arroyo, who is now Speaker of the House of Representatives. "Threats against media workers are clearly on the rise, especially in Mindanao where security forces misinterpret their authority under martial law," said NUJP chairman, Nonoy Espina. Duterte has imposed martial law across Mindanao until the end of the year following a terrorist attack in the city of Marawi last year. Espina said the union is also receiving "credible reports" of growing self-censorship among media practitioners for fear of harassment by authorities. In December last year, soldiers arrested Sherwin de Vera, a correspondent of Northern Dispatch
, an alternative media outfit in the northern city of Baguio. His arrest came after a barrage of threatening text messages and surveillance by state security forces. De Vera was detained for more than a month on charges of rebelling. He was later released on bail. He said he was "targeted" because of his work on communities opposed to mining. An independent Filipino journalist joins a demonstration in Manila against government moves to stifle press freedom. (Photo by Mark Saludes) Projects with the people
Threats of arrest and harassment by authorities have not deterred independent media practitioners from what they described as "hardship assignments." Kimberly Quitasol, a colleague of De Vera, continues to report on communities threatened by government "development projects" in tribal areas. Among her assignments are joining "fact-finding missions" that verify reports of human rights violations linked to military operations in remote areas. "Fact-finding missions are dangerous activities, especially when soldiers are encamped in the communities," said Quitasol. She described "endless checkpoints, negotiations to let the group pass, asserting that you are a legitimate journalist and that you are just doing your job." Altermidya Network reporters are getting used to the challenges of the job. In recent weeks, three of the outfit's reporters were hurt and five arrested while covering a workers' strike in a province just outside Manila. Breakaway Media's Necosia recalled how he got injured while protecting his camera from being taken by policemen during a protest in the capital. "I was taking photos of a policeman beating protesters," he said. "He didn't like it so he hit me several times even as I was shouting that I was a journalist." The frequent brushes with government security agents have taken a psychological toll on journalists. "We know we have become targets," said Necosia. Kenneth Guda of Pinoy Weekly
said police intelligence agents followed him after checking on colleagues who were brought to a police station. "Press IDs don't give you much protection these days," said Kath Cortez of Davao Today
. She said a military official hounded her when she covered an attempt by displaced people to return to the war-torn city of Marawi early this year. Aside from threats, journalists in the provinces also have to ford rivers and walk for hours to follow up on stories. "Aside from the many military checkpoints, we had to walk three hours on steep slopes with no clear trails, and traversed landslide areas on motorbikes," said Cortez. "It's the only way we get these stories out." For security, they rely on local people whom they ask for tips on how to behave on the ground," said Cortez. Telling people's stories
While mainstream media that cover conflicts hold "debriefing sessions" after every assignment, alternative media practitioners struggle with anger and pain, not so much for themselves as for the people they cover. "We're not visitors in conflict areas," said Cortez. "These are our people." It took Necosia a long time to get over the April 1, 2016, bloodbath in North Cotabato province where three protesting farmers died and more than 116 were injured. "It was very hard to see the farmers fall in front of me," he said. "These were farmers who shared their food with us, and shared their lives in the days before the massacre," he added. Necosia and Bong del Rosario of Kilab took dramatic footage that captured police shooting at fleeing protesters and even those already sprawled on the ground.
For these reporters, there is little of the traditional "distance" from subjects that are being taught in journalism schools. The night after the massacre, Necosia and Del Rosario had to hold back their tears while recounting what they saw. "They asked for food, they got bullets," said Del Rosario of the farmers. "How do you 'distance' yourself from that?" "Nothing has changed," he said when asked how different the Duterte administration was from the previous governments. "We are still harassed. The people are still besieged." The reporters get praised for covering places where mainstream journalists don't go, but they keep themselves grounded. "Our mainstream colleagues care," said Del Rosario. "If they could, they would come with us. But they are answerable to profit-making companies, so there are always limitations." He did concede however that "the media can only do so much." "It's not the media that forces abusive troops to back off. It's the people, the communities who fight for their rights," he added. "Without the people, we have nothing to cover. Journalists should never forget that," he said.