Ampatuan (Philippines) : When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo placed the restive southern Philippine province of Maguindanao under martial law, Freddie Solinap was at a loss on how to report on the impact of the controversial decree.
Solinap, publisher of a five-year-old weekly newspaper, lost five of his seven staff two weeks earlier when a total of 57 people were brutally massacred in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao, 930 km south of Manila.
Thirty-two of the victims were journalists and media staff, who mostly worked for local newspapers, magazines and radio stations. Some were provincial correspondents of national publications and television stations.
“My editor and two reporters were the ones that really moved around to cover news events and developments,” Solinap said. “But they are now dead and I need to hire new people.”
The slain journalists were covering what would have been a major development in local politics in Maguindanao ahead of nationwide elections next year.
They had joined a six-vehicle convoy of relatives and supporters of Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, who sent his wife and two sisters to file his certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao amid threats against his life.
Dozens of journalists were invited to cover the event as part of security precautions taken by Mangudadatu’s family, as he became the first politician to challenge the ruling Ampatuan family in almost 10 years.
Christopher Cobb-Smith, a media safety consultant tapped by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to help investigate the mass slaughter, said the journalists should not have been a target in the attack even though they were travelling with the Mangudadatu’s convoy.
But he lamented that the media’s growing influence in communities around the world has exposed journalists and other staff to attacks by groups that want to stop them from their work.
“Journalists are never a legitimate target,” he told DPA, as the CHR team took a break from collecting more evidence at the remote hilltop massacre site surrounded by breathtaking views of green, rolling hills and clear-blue skies.
“Sadly, journalists are becoming more at risk now because the media is having much more international impact,” he added. “News media is more influential so unfortunately, some people see that there is a reason to impede the freedom of journalists working in the
Nearby, police crime scene investigators tagged items recovered from three shallow graves where some of the victims had been hastily buried, including a pair of pants, a wallet of a television crew member, lipstick, bags and slippers.
Smith, who has worked with international news companies for the past 10 years to investigate murders of journalists and provide advise on safety precautions, said the massacre in Ampatuan town was the first mass killing of journalists anywhere in the world.
“I’ve looked at extra-judicial killings, the deliberate targeting of journalists but nothing on this scale anywhere in the world, not for the past 10 years,” he said.
Smith said part of his job was to make recommendations for news companies on what precautions must be taken when journalists go to high-risk areas, but he was having difficulty assessing what happened in Ampatuan town.
“What do I recommend? Don’t join political convoys?” he said. “The journalists should have been safe travelling with a political convoy in an area where there was no overt combat risk. This was completely unforeseen.”
Despite the threat, Smith said arming journalists was never a good idea since this would “compromise their impartiality.”
Since the attack, a number of local journalists in and around Maguindanao have opted not to report on the aftermath of the massacre. Radio stations in nearby Cotabato City did not even break the story on the day it happened, while correspondents for national newspapers have opted to remove their bylines from their stories.
“What will I do with my byline if I’m dead already?” one reporter said.
Solinap, the 40-year-old publisher, said it was normal for the media to feel fear after the mass killings of colleagues, many of whom had covered more dangerous events including bombings and fightings with Muslim separatist rebels.
“But we have to go on reporting about things that the public needs to know,” he said. “This is a public service. We all know the hardships and threats in our job. This has been my life for the past 21 years, I’ll probably die doing this too.”