Covering Maguindanao

Terror, fear hinder journalism

THERE was a time my colleagues at the PCIJ threatened to print shirts that said “I am not JJ” in front and “Neither is she my friend” at the back.

The (hopefully) feigned betrayal stemmed from the stories I was writing at the time about the Ampatuan clan, how its members wielded power, and the sorry state of public education in the province of Maguindanao.

Gallows humor made the fear bearable back then, but now it has become clear that what I was dealing with was no laughing matter. In one barbaric, gruesome Monday morning, the monster created by clan wars, warlords, and the tacit approval – and exploitation of it – by high government officials claimed the lives of over 40 people, among them women and journalists, in one of the province’s lonely roads.

Maguindanao is a beautiful province. But its clear rivers and streams and green fields are red with the blood of some of its own people, as these had been in far too numerous instances in the past.

For now, Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, solicitor general of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM, of which Maguindanao is part, is calling on media to be fair and not to preempt the investigation into Monday’s carnage.

“We are looking at different angles,” she told PCIJ in a brief phone interview Tuesday. “We are looking for the culprit and let’s wait for the result of the investigation.” She declined to make any other comments.

MIXED MESSAGES. Poverty and war hardware are a heady mix in Maguindanao. File Photo by Jaileen F. Jimeno, PCIJ

MIXED MESSAGES. Poverty and war hardware are a heady mix in Maguindanao. File Photo by Jaileen F. Jimeno, PCIJ

How does a local journalist cover Maguindanao? Based on what I witnessed while doing fieldwork for my stories last year, carefully – very, very carefully, as one would circle over a bomb that may or not go off.

One local journalist, for instance, had flatly refused my request for help in getting a face-to-face interview with Maguindanao’s Andal Ampatuan, the clan patriarch and chief executive of the province. The journalist had once accompanied a foreign colleague in interviewing the governor; when that story yielded an unflattering picture of Ampatuan, the local journalist was summoned to a dressing down in the old man’s mansion. He calmly took the barrage, convinced he could have faced much worse.

A handful of other local journalists also warned me against crossing the Ampatuan clan, but they were helpful enough to get me in touch with Norie Unas, the provincial administrator. Unas told me that the governor would not agree to an interview.

Ampatuan rarely goes to the capitol. It is the capitol, via Unas, that goes to Ampatuan. The governor conducts business in his mansion just across the newly-built capitol.

Almost every month, the old Ampatuan and members of his clan go to Manila, but his security cordon remains as tight as that in Maguindanao. The same is true for other officials in ARMM. I counted four security people assigned to an ARMM department head who I interviewed in Manila.

Journalists, of course, rarely have any security detail – even in places where having one could be a good idea.

Needing a picture for the story I was doing on education in Maguindanao, I asked a photographer in the region for some shots of students or schools there. What he sent were “happy pictures” of students seemingly drowning in books and other resources. He said he had taken them during one of those school visits arranged by local officials.

The pictures didn’t quite go with what I had seen and written about — the dismal state of education in the province. And so I requested other shots, but was rebuffed politely. It was explained to me that even while the photographer was based in a city several provinces away, the risk would be the same.

I needed other pictures for my story about the Ampatuans, and I stumbled upon a photo of some members of the clan with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in Malacanang. But the photographer refused to have his work associated with my story, saying the Ampatuans knew he had taken it.

It is not difficult to appreciate the fear. Despite having asked Unas for permission to take pictures of the façade of the newly-built capitol, I was only able to take half a dozen, most of them embarrassingly ugly. The capitol’s fatigue-clad guard kept on shooing me away, and my camera was no match for his armalite.

A Manila-based journalist also recalls instructing her cameraman to take footage of the expensive 4x 4s in the ARMM head office’s parking lot – and ending up with no shot. Armed men who ordered them to leave the area made sure of that.


CONVOY OF FLASHY CARS. A trail of the latest four-wheel drive snake through the hinterlands of Maguindanao, the second poorest province in the Philippines as of 2003 official data. File Photo by Jaileen F. Jimeno, PCIJ

Sheer ignorance may make non-ARMM journalists willing to go farther than their local counterparts, but wariness soon creeps in. While locals refer visiting journalists doing stories on Maguindanao to two hotels in Cotabato City, the suggestions come with comments that one can easily be traced in these places. Locals also make it a point to say that although Cotabato City is closer to Shariff Aguak, the capital of Maguindanao, than Tacurong City, the latter’s larger population can be a refuge.

Visitors to Maguindanao are advised to be indoors before it gets dark, a dictum closely observed even by locals. And while there is greater anonymity in taking public transport, the presence of tanks and clumps of uniformed and armed men in many areas do not calm the nerves of someone not accustomed to them.

For sure, covering Maguindanao poses unique problems. A hit-and-run tactic by parachute journalists prevents them from staying informed and updated, but local journalists may not want to venture far enough either because they fear their whereabouts can be traced. A source, meanwhile, can be easily threatened, no matter how high his or her position in government is.

These became apparent to me while I was there, but I was reminded of this again weeks before my stories on Maguindanao and the Ampatuan clan were to come out: The PCIJ suddenly received word from a fellow journalist that a member of the clan was making inquiries about me.

That prompted someone in the PCIJ to buy me a shirt that said, “Every time I have a great idea, I get into trouble.” – PCIJ, November 2009