December 2006
Political Predictions
First Person

Confronting peace, battling stereotypes

(My journey as an empowered journalist)

This essay was solicited by i Report, the online magazine of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for its current series on political predictions. The views expressed in the essays included in this series do not necessarily reflect those of the PCIJ or any of its staff members.

JUST AS I wear different hats as an activist, journalist, or trainor, depending on the task at hand, I also have to deal with layers of identity: Maranao, my tribal affiliation; Moro, my valiant ancestry; Filipino, my passport nationality; Muslim, my faith. To make matters more complicated, I am a woman in an evolving community that many say is also confused. At the very least, they say, it has to contend with three laws: the traditional and customary law, Philippine law, and Islamic law.

But perhaps to too many people, I am defined only by my hijab (head covering), which also makes them think of “war-torn” Mindanao. The truth is I saw the conflict’s physical ill effects up close only in 2000, when I had a chance to work with broadcast journalist Howie Severino on a World Bank-funded documentary on it. And while I am as steeped in the lore of the Bangsamoro struggle as any other self-respecting Muslim Filipino, my main concern years ago as a probinsiyana sent to Manila for university was simply to be accepted — and eventually fulfill a dream to become part of CNN.

Yet even after earning my degree, I had to struggle to be part of mainstream society. In fact, my determination to enter media became stronger because I could not even get one foot in the door in the major local networks. Armed with my resumé and dressed to impress (with only my hijab as my proud acknowledgment of my roots), I had applied to all the broadcasting companies around Quezon Circle. I submitted letters and waited for calls for interviews. But there was not one response.

I realized that the more fundamental wars — jihad as we Muslims call them — are in the realm of the mind. Indeed, even the restiveness in Mindanao has its roots in the fact that we allow ourselves to be closeted or victimized, or become blind to what is not right. This does not happen just in the streets or in the battlefields. Injustice can start within our very homes or schools or dormitories when there are unspoken walls — gender discrimination, cliques based on regions and class, centrist and Western curricula, Manila-controlled economy and media.

The so-called peace process to end the strife in Mindanao has been going on for more than three decades now, and it will probably be far from winding down in 2010. The recent slapping incident involving a Muslim house representative and a restaurant supervisor is a grim reminder of our failure in communication because of a difference in value system. To the food servers, this was just an ordinary meal. To the Muslim lady legislator, any hint or remnant of pork that somehow makes it to her mouth is cause for rage. Religion to her is political.

Hearing about the incident led me to recall a recent paper on media bias that points to a “sin of omission,” when Muslim concerns and issues are ignored because of sheer lack of coverage. This sin has resulted not only in ignorance, but also in intolerance.

For sure, Muslim-Christian mistrust has a very long history. But it is also partly due to Moro distrust against the Western educational system (perceived as Christianization) that has prevented the formation of a Muslim intellectual corps that could bridge the gap and communicate thoughts and ideas — perhaps even form publications to cater to the central authorities in Manila, intellectual and financial elite, and the rest of the outside world. This also explains the lack of an intellectual tradition among Moros; there are no written treatises, journals, or any similar publication about Moros, by Moros.

I DON’T intend to be frozen in the past. Like many of the elders in my tribe, many Moros have a tendency to romanticize the Bangsamoro struggle as all-too-perfect, the picture of unity. But even Muslim Mindanao is not a monolith; it is a vibrant mosaic of peoples who see issues and situations through their own unique lenses, and whose opinions should count even if it goes against those who have louder voices.

I also believe that rallying for a political utopia of equality is one thing, and doing something about it is another. I can relate to what happened to a Muslim friend who had graduated from De La Salle University and promptly went back to her hometown in Lanao. She and I had read the same alternative material: that we, the Moros, were once a civilization, part of sultanates in the 14th century that traded and sold spice and raw materials to Europeans. Now that trace of civilization has been demoted to a tribe among a patchwork of ethno-linguistic groups across Mindanao.

My friend returned to Lanao a proud Moro. But it was a frustrated friend who faced me later; she said that all the things she fought for (in the Bangsamoro struggle), she did not find among her people. Instead, they were feudal, patronizing, apathetic, corrupt.

We have been wronged. But for us to achieve justice, we must also know how to be just and to admit our own mistakes. This includes acknowledging that there has also been discrimination against the Christians, who we drove away in the belief they were stealing our lands. Weren’t the Christians, Muslims, and highlanders all victims during the forced migration from the North to the South by the colonizers? Wasn’t this forced migration merely repeated during the Marcos regime? Aren’t we Muslims also settlers who demand equal rights when we occupy lands in Manila and other places in Luzon, as well as in Visayas?

My becoming part of the media also became part of my mission to help bridge the gap of ignorance between Muslims and Christians. And I took on that mission with the recognition that the battle for Muslim-made media also takes place within our community. Muslims need to foster public debate and encourage people to speak up to expand the circle of stakeholders, as well as enforce accountability. But since they often do not have the capital for their own media needs, Muslims must know how to lobby for support from the outside.

As for my own foray in media, my experience with the Quezon Circle media clique showed me I had to offer more than those who were vying for the same posts I was eyeing. So I went back to school to get a master’s degree in International Studies as well as a law degree. I knew that pursuing a career in media meant I would have to go against tradition and divest myself of all the fears and insecurities that came with being a mobile Muslim woman. I also knew that I just had to do it.

Writing was liberating. It was my venue for expressing my freedom. But that was not all: as the only lady Muslim journalist in mainstream media, I was able to provide voice and face for the legions of invisible minorities. With our Muslim youth group, we arranged press conferences and published an English-language publication that was distributed around Metro Manila. We created a website about Muslims. When the “war on terror” began to worsen the Muslim-Christian gap, I sought to show one of the major impacts of that war by writing stories about people whose lives the label “terrorist” had started to wreak havoc on.

In our fast globalizing information society, news cannot be just about the five W’s and one H. It is about context, consequences, and change. Peace journalism is about creating transformation — and it lifts my spirit to hear that readers have been inspired to reach out to the less fortunate because of the stories we write. Whenever I chance upon a screening of “Bagong Buwan (New Moon),” a film by respected film director Marilou Diaz Abaya that I was lucky enough to be part of, I also never fail to feel the emotions it stirs up among the audience. The movie has been appreciated as well by viewers abroad, and I can only hope that it has prompted them to see Muslims in a new light.

We hope the messages imparted by the stories we cover do not merely reflect alternative reality. And we hope that links are being made and that relationships are created, thereby contributing to the dream of one humanity.

I HAVE received so much from my work, which has enabled me to meet heads of state, travel across Mindanao, experience many of our country’s other islands, even offered a grant at Oxford University to study the causes of terrorism. And of course there was that documentary, which showed me not only the bullet holes in the walls of an abandoned masjid (mosque) in a Maguindanao town, but also how communities came together so that the process of healing would be hastened, and with less pain.

In the end, our documentary — which is still being replayed to policy-makers and advocates — revealed what a “peace process” is really all about: people rebuilding their lives, like Babu caring for her children while her husband the rebel guerrilla is away, community worker Mike mapping out the needs of the evacuees, and former Moro rebels being hired to work for banana factories, alongside Christians and highlanders. At the same time, it highlighted the importance of reporting good news, which can give people hope and boost their confidence.

We certainly need good news in Mindanao. After all, our population will continue to grow, but our economy and employment will not increase as much that in Luzon. The frustrated unemployed could only become potential recruits to underground movements that have made peace so elusive here. Yet even as the military chase suspected terrorists across Mindanao and turn tens of thousands of families into refugees, barangay chairpersons in Sulu are making sure that water gets to their constituents each day while a mayor has created a spiritual town in Barira, where gambling and liquor has been banned.

In the meantime, we are seeing the emergence of an assertive generation of Muslims — women included — who want space and recognition. Educated and dynamic, these young Muslims are cynical of Manila ‘s peace talks and frustrated with the autonomy project. They are, however, more eager to fight in the boardroom or in Congress rather than in the battlefield. They can become crucial participants in peace-building, their talents and ideas harnessed to help address the growing needs and demands of the many who are marginalized. At some point, authorities should realize that peace talks should involve not only politicians, the military, and monitors, but also the people from the affected communities, along with the new generation of Muslims who can offer new and fresh ideas that can lead to real transformation in the lives of their people.

The dole-out mentality should be phased out. While international aid remains welcome, it has to be channeled toward strengthening a local technocrat base from the ethno-linguistic groups. This is one of the major ways that Muslim Filipinos can address conflict: by determining their own economic destiny, on their own terms.

This aspiration for self-determination needs a spirited exchange between Manila and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Goods and ideas have to flow so that wealth is created. I see my role in media as helping lessen the distance between peoples, informing citizens of the opportunities for mutual exchange, and celebrating the differences so that unity is created in an environment of respect.

I am proud that Muslim journalists in Al-Jazeera International are doing well. Someday I hope to break into pop culture and break the box of stereotypes of “angry Muslims” — maybe even host a TV show and become a local Oprah Winfrey. For she not only features the powerless and the powerful, she elevates the spirit. Yet even if I remain a mere dot in the local media industry, I know I will be leaving behind chronicles of those who otherwise would have continued to be faceless, stories that I hope will be read someday by people thriving in a peaceful land.

Samira Gutoc, 31, is a free-spirited Sagittarian who is part of a pioneering Muslim media team that manages the Moro Times, attached to Manila Times, the first national media supplement on Muslims published every last Friday of the month. If you want to help in the cause, she asks you to subscribe and help link them to advertisers. Email her at