On the Fringes: The life of a ‘compo’ journalist

(Photo by Gino Estella/Bulatlat)
A police man flashes the “peace” sign after almost hitting this reporter. (Photo by Gino Estella/Bulatlat)

I love covering rallies and mobilizations.

There is something about being in the middle of action. In a moment of heightened emotions, there is no telling what one will say or do. In places such as EDSA, Mendiola, the US Embassy or Commonwealth Avenue will you find the smallest stories relevant.

Small stories such as an old lady walking hundreds of miles to protest, or a laborer skipping work to denounce an abusive system; you will meet the politically acute and the illiterate in one setting, united for one cause.

The mobilization is indeed a boiling pot of humanity’s stories in a single setting. However, many things go awry in such a place. Of course, there is the assertion–or pushing through–that the media loves to cover; and what a story to cover, when there is conflict involved.

As a journalist who has mostly worked in the alternative context and seldom in the mainstream, I rely–and relish–being on the ground to tell the stories of those in the grassroots. Thus, I integrate with the crowd, sometimes involving myself a little bit too much.

My favorite place is along the front lines. Activists call the first row the “composite unit” or “compo,” which is tasked to move the crowd forward, as well as protect them from any harm. That is where I can get the best shots, and personally, I prefer to walk with the masses, rather than wait for them at the point where the police await to stop them in their track. Like I said, I should not, but I tend involve myself a bit too much in the front lines.

I do not know. Maybe it is to get a great shot of the events, or maybe I really wanted to see the groups on the other side, over the lines of police blocking them. Either way, with a 40mm lens, I was not left with much of a choice than be at the front lines.

I remember my most recent coverage of an assertion. Progressive youth groups hounded “Citizen Noynoy” at his abode along Times Street. They were calling for his immediate arrest and incarceration for his crimes against the youth and the masses, as they put it, as perpetrator of state neglect.

The small street was lined with iron fences for blockades, and behind those blockades were layers upon layers of police (who were supposed to be serving under a new president already). There were dozens of cameras, and I was (not) surprised to see that it was not only the media who held the cameras. The police–for surveillance, I guess–took pictures of the placards, props, tarpaulins and of course, all the people there, even me.

The program was short, and it only lasted for half an hour. Afterwards, the activists dropped their large tarps and props, and struggled to break through the solid phalanx that is the police and their blockades.

It was tense, and I can bet that it was confusing for everyone there. You shift to an almost immediate fight-or-flight disposition, and you quickly learn that you need to defend yourself and the others, all while pushing through the lines of police.

(Photo by Gino Estella/Bulatlat)
(Photo by Gino Estella/Bulatlat)

There were police threatening to hit the youth activists with their batons, and there were many who made false swipes to deter them as well. Nonetheless, the youth fought back with their placards, and whatever they can get their hands on.

I was right there on the front lines. Beside me was a youth activist, who got a hold of a fern with which he could retaliate, swiping it at the police officer in front of him. The police fought with shields and batons, while the youth fought with placards. By instinct, I tried to break off the impending altercation, along with other people we tried to make sure nobody was hurt.

Moments after, and like clockwork, the police asserted their dominance by pushing the youth back. A policeman behind me was holding two batons, and I was among the people he was pushing away from the street.

His look was threatening, and he seemed as if he was using his two batons as additional threats. I do not know if he wanted to hit me, but before anything could happen, I glanced at his nameplate and immediately shouted his name.

I was almost lecturing him. I roared at him, telling him that I was part of the media. I asked him what his business was, holding two wooden batons threateningly at the youth.

He quickly reverted to another disposition, and as I showed him my press card, he immediately turned apologetic. I was fuming at that moment, and I only wanted all the tension and violence to stop.

In retrospect, it was a moment where I had an ethical lapse. I was in the scene as a reporter, but my human instincts directed me to prevent anyone from hurting anyone or getting hurt themselves. It is in this moment that an ethical conundrum is presented. When the person in front of you is about to be hit by a thick wooden stick, do you report about it or do you help that person?

(Photo by Gino Estella/Bulatlat)
(Photo by Gino Estella/Bulatlat)

As for me, I will go with the section in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics that says Minimize Harm–physical harm, that is. Report about the event, then, help the person. Though, the case might be different for other journalists. They might opt to do the opposite, or something different, of course.

However, police should also be enjoined to minimize harm. Their presence at Times Street could mean protecting the residents, but it could also mean preventing activists from getting anywhere near their former master.

Above all, the police should exercise maximum tolerance. Perhaps the police have heard this all too frequently, but their motto is “To serve and protect”–but to serve and protect whom?

This story of mine is only a story among many. The narrative of the assertion is a narrative that repeats itself. This narrative can only change when its players change as well.

To the media, cover the situation differently. While this dissent between two sides seems reminiscent of war journalism, it most certainly is not a war: it is a group of people seeking to be heard.

That is what I love about covering mobilizations and rallies. It is about people who want to be heard–let us hear them out.(https://www.bulatlat.com)

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