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‘Confetti reporting’?

/ 09:26 PM October 07, 2011

“Abu Sayyaf” gunmen in ski masks dropped off  kidnapped US citizen Gerfa Lunsmann at the pier of Maluso, Basilan. She limped to the town hall. The 42-year-old Filipino-American was snatched from Tigtabon islet, off Zamboanga City, three months back.

The ASG still holds her 14-year-old son Kevin Eric, and nephew Romnick Jackaria, 19. Other hostages include an Indian, Malaysian, Japanese and some Filipinos. Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat turned over Lunsmann to US Embassy officials. Pro forma denials of money changing hands were issued.

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Is this “A Wilderness of Mirrors” all over again? Eduardo F. Ugarte of Monash University, Australia, used that title for his study on “The Use and Abuse of the ‘Abu Sayyaf’ Label.” He takes a hard look at why many journalists in Southwestern Mindanao “are highly dependent on official sources for data.” Willy-nilly, some become “vulnerable to disinformation.”

“Media became a battleground of lies and deceit and propaganda tool both for rebels and the military,” the paper points out. Meanwhile, ASG gunman Adzhar Mawalil who, in 2007, beheaded seven Filipino workers, was nabbed this week.

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From June 2007 to June 2008, the government portrayed the ASG as a loose assortment of two-bit bandit gangs, with shattered command and control structure. Their numbers were down and their influence confined to the interior of Basilan and Sulu, it said. There were no links to international terrorists, then at their weakest.

“They’re on the run,” President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo boasted in 2001. “Soon, they’ll reach the end of the road.”

But the pendulum swung to the other extreme from June 2008 to January 2009. The ASG was depicted as a powerful Islamist terrorist group linked to international terrorists. Flush with cash from kidnapping and smuggling of shabu, new ASG recruits could rampage at will from Tawi-Tawi to Metro Manila.

At the “Shangri-La Dialogue” in Singapore, then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said ASG members were down  to 400 from 1,270—“a welcome decrease.” But a 2009 military report disagreed, saying that 400 meant “a disturbing increase.”

“So marked are the dissimilarities that to say these images of the ASG differ would be an understatement,” Ugarte marvels. Indeed, “to delve into official accounts of the ASG is to slide into the ‘labyrinthine’ Orwellian ‘world of double-think”’—a reference to George Orwell’s novel of dictatorship “1984.”

“[Here] two plus two equals five,” the study notes. “Membership numbers are thrown around like confetti.” The ASG is concurrently big and small, strong and weak, brazenly prowling Manila and cowering in the hinterlands of Basilan and Sulu, tied to and cut off from international terrorist groups, “ideological and mercenary in character, cash-rich and impecunious.”

Both government and rebels put their own spin to exacerbate these contradictions. This is the setting where the press must break free from  Orwellian “double-think.” It needs to hold sources to account for their inconsistencies. How well is the press doing?

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Most media accounts of ASG forays are based on material provided by the police, military and government, the Monash analysis concludes. Press conferences at AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) are cheaper, practical and convenient.

When a major story breaks, Manila media would “parachute” staffers to augment local staff. Often unfamiliar with “the region’s  broader troubles… (they are) less capable of critiquing official intelligence—and more susceptible to propaganda.”

Do some journalists turn “propagandists”? If so, “this is not born of an outright conspiracy, hatched in smoke-filled rooms between government officials, media proprietors and other  powerful groups,” Ugarte notes. Instead, this often “arises from capacity of government to foist its agenda.” Its “framework of assumptions” can smudge “inconvenient facts from public inspection.”

“The ongoing Muslim separatist insurgency and its violent backlash make Southern Philippines perilous for journalists. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility classifies Zamboanga Peninsula and Sulu Archipelago among three divisions with the highest percentages of ‘media killings.’ The area’s unsettled conditions restrict freedom of movement. [They] make investigative work highly hazardous. In Sulu, media reporting is limited by the pervasive atmosphere of violence. Local correspondents face danger should they try in-depth investigative reporting involving powerful local figures.”

Given deadlines they must meet, it is not surprising that, at times, journalists embed themselves with military officials. You don’t get kidnapped. Remember what happened to broadcast journalist Ces Drilon and the ABS-CBN team? They tiptoed to Sulu for an arranged interview in June 2008. They ended up  paying what locals dub “extended board and  lodging.” No interview to boot.

As seen in Basilan and Sulu, media practitioners can “internalize the government’s ‘framework of established dogma.’ ‘Right-thinking people’ typically ‘operating with integrity and goodwill,’ will ‘adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements’—and sometimes self-censor.”

Analyzing coverage of the ASG does not “imply that political Islam has not set down roots in Southern Philippines.” This is a valid question. But the study argues that the ASG label, and the Islamist threat it evokes “have been and are being exploited by power holders in the zone to advance their personal and institutional interests.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com )

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