Journos caught in the line of fire

Editorial, Normal

The National – Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Along with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, writes BBC’s KATE MCGEOWN


THE risks were made only too apparent in November last year, when more than 30 reporters and cameramen were among 57 people killed in the province of Maguindanao – the largest murder of journalists ever recorded anywhere in the world.
While that is an extreme example, it is not an isolated one.
Since the Maguindanao massacre, another five journalists have been killed – and during the nine-year term of the previous president, Gloria Arroyo, 105 members of the media lost their lives.
For Malu Manar, a radio reporter for the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation in the notoriously-violent region of western Mindanao, the risk is just a normal part of the job.
“I am sorry but killings here are a very ordinary thing – politicians, media … it is ordinary,” she said.
A slender, straight-talking woman in her early 40s, Malu’s job is to report on the local bombings, shootings and disappearances while trying to avoid the very things she is reporting about happening to her.
She has to negotiate a delicate path between the communist rebels from the New People’s Army, Islamic insurgents from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the police, the army, private militia groups, politicians and would-be politicians, influential private families – like the Ampatuans, who are accused of the Maguindanao massacre – as well as a whole range of private gangs, extortion groups and business leaders.
It is a tightrope from which she could very easily fall – and be accused of favouring one side at the expense of another.
Malu says most people respect her neutrality, but not always.
“An army officer once accused me of supporting the communist guerillas, which I said was a lie.”
And, then, there are those who do not openly accuse her but let her know they are not happy in other ways – through threatening phone calls and text messages or by sending people to follow her.
“Threats are part of everyday life,” she said, adding that she has had threats of various kinds since she started writing about electoral fraud in 2000.
But one incident, in 2005, proved too much.
“They tried to abduct my two daughters in school. A week before that incident, they ransacked my house and attempted to rape my maid,” she said.
“I had to leave Cotabato city because my daughters were involved.”
She never found out who “they” were, but she knew they were serious, so she moved three hours away to where she lives now.
“It is safer here in Kidipawan. I’ve had five threats on my life since 2005 but it is not too bad.”
She knows all too well what can happen.
A close friend, Bong Reblando, was killed in the Maguindanao massacre, and two of her colleagues at the radio station – a husband and wife team – were shot dead on their way home from work several years ago.
She herself was most scared when she was captured by Islamic rebels in 2004.
So, what makes her risk her life every day to do this?
“We have a role to play … it is our commitment to the public to tell the truth,’ she said. “Nothing will stop me doing this.”
And, it is not just Malu who has this conviction – despite all that the family have been through, both her teenage daughters want to be journalists.