Corruption triggered the 2009 Amapatuan massacre in the Philippines
A ‘Lankan Envelope’ is doing the rounds among our scribes too
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 dominated Mindanao. There were 32 journalists and media workers among the 58 people who were brutally killed by a powerful clan called the Ampatuan in the picturesque Maguindanao Province of this troubled region on November 23, 2009.
The background to the incident was extremely complicated and had many facets in numerous dimensions. The dynamics of a protracted conflict, the short-sighted responses of the state, private armies of powerful politicians and clans, exploitation of poverty, political economy of a so-called ‘religious conflict’,etc, were among that long list.
When we consider the aspects of journalists’ safety, it discloses a horrifying story. Filipino journalists have faced many threats and safety issues for many years. And the Philippines is among the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Unlike Syria or any other country within the spectrum, many cases [of aggression against journalists] in this eastern archipelago remain unreported. But on an average, at least one journalist is killed every month.
I was a member of the international team of inquiry team into the Ampatuan massacre. We found some strange reasons why the journalists who were killed had joined the convoy on a risky journey despite repeated threats made by the perpetrators. One reason was that a mayoral candidate was looking for a buffer through the presence of journalists against any potential attacks by his rival who had been holding office of the mayor. The candidate vying for the mayoral seat had received numerous threats from his rival (the incumbent mayor) not to seek nomination and that his convoy would be attacked if he leaves his home [to file nominations]. Yet, the journalists who were well aware of this deadly threat joined the convoy which was their final journey in life. A few months later, along with some media colleagues in Manila and Mindanao, I did my own inquiry into the incident in order to ascertain the real reason why the journalists risked their lives. It was one journalist who divulged the real reasons. The emerging candidate had invited journalists to join his convoy by presenting some cash incentives – contributing to what is called ‘envelope journalism’. “Christmas is 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 their office to bring some extra money for the uninvited journalists,” said another journalist in Mindanao. They all accepted envelope money and joined the ill-fated convoy with the full knowledge of the risk.
Corruption could bring immense problems to journalists, more than to any others in other professions. Therefore, all training programmes for journalists either on ethics or on safety issues corruption is being discussed at length. Journalist are being warned to protect their integrity against corrupt practices.
The reason for me to narrate this six- year- old Ampatuan incident was because of some nasty stories I heard in the East and the North Central Provinces during the past two weeks during my interactions with provincial journalists in those areas. Some follow up inquiries also revealed that the situation was no different to both provinces. Corruption among media personnel – both at regional and national level – has become an epidemic that required urgent attention from all concerned parties.
Bodies of slain journalists being unearthed at the Ampatuan massacre site in Mindanao, November 25, 2009. Picture Courtesy: Nonoy Espina, National Union of Journalists in the Philippines
A simple survey would disclose that more than sixty per cent of the content in the national media – mainly in the local language - is contributed by provincial journalists. In the print sector they are poorly paid, but it is a different story in the broadcast media. On the other hand, provincial scribes are not full-timers either, most have other full-time means of income and journalism is a part time engagement for them. But, this part-time work has become a sound source of income from questionable indirect means, some journalists told me.
“The main activity is blackmail,” said one journalist. Sometimes they would humiliate honest government officials through stories to appease their clients and the victims would never get an opportunity to respond to such doctored allegations. In some instances ‘tough officers’ would be fixed through so-called investigative stories for a negotiated fee from the interested parties. In one such incident in the North Central Province, a journalist had demanded Rs. four million as his fee not to divulge an environmentally damaging commercial project in the broadcast media. ‘The money has to be shared with an individual at the Colombo news desk as well’, he had told his client.
Many are on the pay-roll of politicians, either in the provinces or elsewhere. This is not a unique phenomenon to Sri Lanka, but one that should not be treated as an excuse The media, the Fourth Estate of society, should protect its independence, accountability and dignity to the maximum.
Otherwise 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 the organisers and the request was turned down with zero tolerance. Sri Lanka is yet to reach that level; but when listening to stories from various quarters including some of those at ‘gate-keeper’ positions, we fear for the future of our own society. Yahapalanaya is not only for the government;sectors like the media, too, should follow the rules of good governance. Currently, it is mostly governed by economic or political interests – not by public interest, the bible of journalism. We need a sound system to watch the watchdog and it should be derived from the players in the industry itself. A collaborative discourse such as the “Colombo Declaration” which took place sometime ago, is the need of the hour.