In all her years working as a journalist in Mindanao, Inquirer reporter Julie Alipala must have seen, heard and experienced the worst that combatants can inflict on one another and on the innocent: killings, shootings, ambushes, massacres.
But surely, even this background could not have prepared her for being labeled a “terrorist,” complete with a photo of her, on the Facebook page “Huwag Tularan (Don’t Emulate).”
The trigger was Alipala’s recent report on the statements of family members of seven slain men that they were not terrorists, as the military had claimed. The men, the family members said, had merely been setting out to gather fruits. The men supposedly died in an “encounter” with soldiers, and their bodies were lined up in a row; the Western Mindanao Command claimed they had been killed in a “legitimate encounter,” and described them as members of the bandit group Abu Sayyaf known for its kidnap-for-ransom activities locally and abroad.
As the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said in a Sept. 17 post, the website screen-grabbed the headline of Alipala’s report along with her photo, accompanied by the commentary: “Magkano kaya ang binayad kay Julie Alipala? Pati teroristang Abu Sayyaf pinagtatanggol niya! Certified bayarang kulumnista. (How much was Julie Alipala paid? She is defending even the terrorist Abu Sayyaf! Certified paid columnist.)”
The accusation was followed by comments accusing Alipala of being a terrorist and agreeing with the “paid journalist” tag. Some even wished, said the CMFR, that “she be raped by the Abu Sayyaf.”
Anyone who has ever followed or participated in news threads on Facebook and other social media sites should be aware by now of the risks inherent in engagement. The most common risk is that which Alipala now faces: attacks by usually faceless and nameless folk who take advantage of the anonymity that social media affords to malign and mischaracterize, threaten and intimidate anyone whose views they do not agree with.
As a journalist, too, Alipala is surely aware of the limits put on the exercise of the journalistic profession. Being sued for libel is but a mild form of intimidation. The Philippines has earned the reputation of being one of the “deadliest” arenas that journalists can work in, as the growing number of reporters, commentators and even freelancers killed by disgruntled subjects can attest.
This is why—as the Inquirer has urged the Presidential Task Force on Media Security in a letter copy furnished the heads of the Armed Forces, the Philippine National Police, the Western Mindanao Command, as well as of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Commission on Human Rights —that the scurrilous claims against Alipala be looked into and the veiled and outright threats to her life and well-being be investigated and their authors prosecuted.
The posts against Alipala included suggestions that she be ambushed or subjected to “tokhang” (the Visayan term for house-to-house inspection but which has since become a code for summary execution). The hand of certain sectors of the military is being seen in this campaign of intimidation, even if Alipala diligently included the side of the military in her original report.
What exactly was Alipala’s grievous “sin”? Was it her refusal to swallow, with nary a question, the military’s claim against the seven men? Was it her insistence on listening to and reporting on the version of events as narrated by the grieving families? If so, she was merely living up to the standards of the journalistic profession, which call for reporting both or all sides of a story. This is being fair. This is telling the truth.
And this is what being a journalist is all about. Apart from the CMFR, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and Suara Bangsamoro, a civil society organization, as well as many independent journalists, have come forward to defend Alipala, her reporting, her career, and her adherence to the obligations that every journalist must pursue. We call on authorities to investigate thoroughly not just the killing of the seven men, but also its consequences, including the attacks on Alipala. We urge them to get to the bottom of who planned and executed the “weaponizing” of the internet against a journalist hewing to the tenets of her profession.
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