‘Kung may mawala, may papalit’

JUST a few weeks after the Maguindanao massacre, thin and frail-looking Margie Pusanso came knocking on the door of Freddie Solinap, publisher of the Koronadal-based weekly Periodico Ini, to ask for her old job back.

Margie had worked briefly as a part-time reporter, before leaving for what she thought were greener pastures as a call center agent. But now, Margie wanted back in.

Mahal ko ang trabahong ito,” the 22-year-old Margie says, while covering the 40th day commemoration of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre at the main rotunda, known as the “Roundball,” in Koronadal, South Cotabato.

To some, it would seem like a death wish. The massacre that claimed 31 media workers also claimed the lives of five employees of Periodico Ini: Rey Merisco, John Caniban, Arturo Betia, Noel Decena, and Rani Razon.

It was a lot of casualties for any news organization, but more so for one as small as Periodico Ini. In just one day, Solinap says, he lost all his reporters. Like many other small local newspapers that exist with a small multitasking staff, Periodico Ini’s sales and office people also doubled as journalists. For example, Betia also doubled as marketing director; Decina as circulation manager; and Razon as sales manager. With five deaths in its small family, the periodical, crammed into the second floor of the Koronadal public market, is survived by only two other employees – the first was Solinap’s wife, and the other, the office secretary.

Kung sa field na nagtratrabaho, 100 percent sila,” Solinap says. “Kasi ano sila, sa marketing, pero at the same time reporter din.” [If you are looking at field personnel, I lost 100 percent. They were marketing people who doubled as reporters.]

Pusanso does not claim to be unafraid; she declined to have her photo taken, or be interviewed with a videocamera. After all, Maguindanao was less than an hour away from Koronadal, straight down the national highway with nothing in between her and the killers save for those terrible checkpoints. Yet, in stepping into the shoes of her fallen colleagues, she now approaches her job with a sense of fatalism.

Andito ka sa mundo kasi gusto mo talaga gawin ang ginagawa mo.” Pusanso said. “Once mamatay ka, end na ang purpose mo sa Panginoon,” she said. [You are in this world to do what you love doing. You die only because God’s purpose for you is over.]

But it is not just Pusanso’s future that is under a shadow; the massacre had cut a terrible swath through an entire generation of reporters in the Socksargen area, effectively crippling small and struggling local papers and casting a dark cloud over a small community of journalists that has long been overworked, underpaid, and now, angry, and terrified.

Isang generation ng mediaman ang inubos ng masaker,” says Jacob Oquendo, who lost his father Catalino and sister Cynthia and several media friends in the massacre. [A generation of mediamen was lost in the massacre.]

Yun ang problema ngayon, kung may second liners pa tayo,” Oquendo said. “Ma-eencourage pa ba ang mga bata na graduate sa mga schools to take up the cudgels for their fallen comrades? Kasi maraming nawala eh. Ilang paper, mga independent papers.” [The problem now is whether we have second liners. Can we still encourage young graduates to take up the cudgels for their fallen comrades? There were a lot of people lost, and many of them were from independent newspapers.]

Almost half of the media casualties came from nearby General Santos City, a sprawling coastal community more known for catching tuna and training boxers, than for burying reporters. Rommel Rebollido, the Philippine Star correspondent in GenSan, estimates there are 70 mediamen in the city, most of them working for the one dozen local newspapers and radio stations. Unfortunately, most of the massacre victims belonged to the small, independent, family owned weeklies that were barely surviving even before the massacre.

When Francisco Ian Subang Sr. was killed on a hilltop in Ampatuan town on Nov. 23 2009, he left not only a wife and three children, but also a fledgling newspaper. As publisher of the Socksargen Today, Subang pulled the paper through its growing pains, at the same time shielding his children from the pains and worries that came with his unsteady profession. We found his eldest son and namesake, Ian Jr., desperately fighting the wind to light a candle by his father’s grave at the Forest Lake cemetery in Gensan.

More than a month after the massacre, the 22-year-old Ian is still waiting for a sign from his late father. “Kailangan ko ang guidance ni Papa,” Ian says. [I need guidance from Papa.] Friends and family have been telling him to step into his father’s shoes, but Ian is uncertain; he has no background or experience in journalism. He does not know how to write, or to manage. “Sinasabi nila ipagpatuloy ko ang newspaper ni Papa. Magparamdam lang si Papa, ipapatuloy ko iyan.” [They tell me to continue Papa’s newspaper. If he gives me a sign, I will do it.]

Moreover, Ian recalls how his father had always shielded his family from his work, as if afraid to let his loved ones get a glimpse of the dangerous world that he lived in. “Kasi si Papa, ayaw nyang subukan ko ang pinaghirapan nya.” [Papa would not let me go through what he went through.]

Ian recalls how his father struggled to keep his paper afloat, and feed his family at the same time. It was never easy then; finance-wise, both paper and family were always teetering on the brink. It certainly won’t be any easier now.

Ironically, Ian says that his father gave his family in death what he could not give them in life. With the outpouring of support and assistance from all over the world, the family has finally had some measure of relief. “Yung nakamit naming na insurance ngayon,’ yun ang pangarap niya sa amin, na makapagaral, makapagtapos, at magkaroon ng magandang trabaho,” Ian says. [The insurance benefits we got fulfilled what he had hoped to give our family, like education and a good job.]

While Ian ponders his future waiting for a sign from his late father, Solinap is pushing on. He is encouraging his son, who is in college, to be a journalist.

Ang anak ko, kinakausap ko,” he says. “Nasa college pa, ineencourage ko na ituloy ang pinagsimulan ko, ano man ang mangyari.” [I talked to my son who is in college. I encouraged him to continue what I started, no matter what happens.]

May misyon tayo, magbigay ng tamang impormasyon sa tao na kailangan nila,” Solinap says. “Walang makapagpigil sa atin. Namatay man ang mga kasamahan ko, walang makapag pigil. Tuloy ang operation ng aking newspaper.” [We have a mission, to give the right information to the people. Nobody can stop us. Even if my colleagues died, no one can stop us. My newspaper will still come out.]

In the month since the massacre, Periodico Ini has published two issues. Most of the issues merely carried government notices; but still, Solinap says the newspaper is struggling back on its feet with new hires like Pusanso.

Oquendo says some families of the Ampatuan massacre are taking it a step further. Some of them are planning to organize workshops to encourage young people in the region to take up journalism, to take the place of the fallen. “Ang sabi ng mga natira, we will be planning to conduct workshops sa naiwang families, kung gusto pa nilang ituloy,” Oquendo said. “We encourage these people na ituloy ang journalism sa Socksargen.” [The families say they plan to conduct workshops for those who want to continue the work. We encourage these people to continue the journalism work in Socksargen.]

Kasi kailangan may mag-rereport. Yun ang important component ng democracy para mag function,” he adds. [We need someone who will report. That’s an important component to make democracy function.]

On the 40th day after the massacre, as families of the victims gathered to light candles and remember their dead, a few of those left behind still saw a glimmer of hope in what is left of the decimated media community.

Okay lang kung may mawala,” says one colleague of the fallen. “May papalit.” [It’s okay if we lose some. There will always be some others who will take their place.]