The State of the Bakwits (S.O.B.), a joint coverage of Mindanao and Manila journalists held on June 29 to July 1, 2009 was intended to focus public attention on a humanitarian tragedy that we believe has not been given the attention it deserves.
Coming from different media organizations in Mindanao and Manila, we issue this collective statement in view of the disturbing checkpoint incident on June 30 and certain pronouncements of the 6th Infantry Division’s spokesperson about the organizers and participating journalists.
The coverage was prompted by persistent and alarming reports of alleged human rights violations like food blockades, illegal arrests, disappearances and summary executions; and that non-government and humanitarian organizations, even media, were also reportedly being prohibited from going to evacuation centers presumably to protect them from hostilities between government troops and rebel forces.
We came to validate these reports and to get a solid grasp of the actual situation in the evacuation centers so that concerned authorities will be able to appreciate more fully, and respond appropriately to, the complex problem of internal displacement in Maguindanao.
We found some of the answers even before reaching the evacuation centers.
On Tuesday, June 30, as we were proceeding to the evacuation sites in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, soldiers of the Army’s 46th Infantry Battalion stopped us along the Cotabato-General Santos highway in Barangay Bagan, Guindulungan.
Those in the lead car of our nine-vehicle convoy were asked if we were from the media. Not one of the soldiers could tell us why we were being held. All they could say was we would be “released” when they receive “clearance” from Colonel Medardo Geslani, commander of the 601st Infantry Brigade.
When contacted within the first five minutes of what turned out to be a 46-minute standoff, Geslani’s superior, Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton, commanding general of the 6th Infantry Division, said he would check with Geslani. Cayton said he was informed by Geslani that he ordered the journalists stopped because of ongoing “clearing operations” to ensure our safety from roadside bombs.
A day earlier, an improvised explosive device blew off in Barangay Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, killing two persons and injuring eight others.
The checkpoint personnel said nothing about “clearing operations.” Curiously, it was just the media vehicles that were stopped at the checkpoint.
If, indeed, there were IEDs on the roadside, why should media be given ‘preferential protection’?
And if, indeed, security was the main consideration, they could have notified us even before we had left Cotabato City for Maguindanao since the organizers had been coordinating with the military panel of resource persons who confirmed participation in the subsequent forum in the afternoon of June 30.
We also would like to correct pronouncements made by the spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ponce, who sent out text messages to reporters claiming that the journalists who were participating in the State of the Bakwits coverage were given “pocket money” by one of the organizations involved, which he alleged was connected to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The invitation clearly states who the organizers are.
Efforts to discredit our coverage by attempting to discredit the organizing groups will not be viewed kindly by the public especially since the case of the bakwits is a matter of national and international interest. For did we not rank first among all countries for having the “biggest new displacement in the world,” contributing 600,000 to the 4.2 million total of newly displaced in 2008, according to the April 2009 report of Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre?
We assert that trying to mask the magnitude of this crisis by stifling the free flow of information and the people’s right to know can only worsen the current problem.
We agree with, and appreciate the statements of both the government and MILF peace panels during separate interactions with us, that the peace process should be accompanied by transparency.
We also believe that the achievement of a just and lasting negotiated resolution to the generations-old conflict besetting the Bangsamoro is possible only when all stakeholders are granted adequate access to information about and participation in the peace process.
This is why we are saddened that there remain elements of government who are trying to curtail access to information about the problems plaguing the Bangsamoro and the roots of the age-old conflict that continues to cause so much suffering, as well as vilify those who seek to uncover the truth surrounding the situation and explain these to the people.
This much we have learned from our experience as a people who lived through and eventually overcame 14 years of dictatorship: you can neither hide the truth forever nor allow it to be hidden.
ANY MORE ATTEMPT TO CURTAIL OR CONTROL THE FLOW OF INFORMATION VITAL TO THE PEOPLE’S UNDERSTANDING OF THIS CONFLICT, WILL DEFINITELY NOT SERVE THE CAUSE OF PEACE.
FR. EDUARDO VASQUEZ, OMI
Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD)
MA. AURORA FAJARDO
Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP)
The Peace and Conflict Journalism Network (PECOJON)