This article looks back on Bulatlat‘s commitment to human rights reporting and how it has remained true to truthtelling.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
The years 2004 and 2005 were crucial for Bulatlat.
As an alternative media, it was expected to actively report on the worsening extrajudicial killings – at least one activist killed per week – and other forms of human rights violations under a bloody counterinsurgency campaign spearheaded by the now-convicted former General Jovito Palparan Jr.
While these were covered by Bulatlat, human rights stories seldom hogged the headlines in the dominant media. This situation was similar to the early days of the late President Corazon Aquino, where, in the guise of upholding “news values” and blindly working on the narrative that “democracy” has been restored, human rights violations were no longer considered newsworthy.
However, as experienced by Bulatlat and other alternative news media organizations, such assumptions have been challenged through the years.
News values, as taught in journalism schools, refer to various characteristics of certain events and issues that make it newsworthy. These include timeliness, relevance, prominence, conflict, sensation and exclusivity. However, communication experts argued that “exclusivity” may “add value for producers” and “can override other news values.”
But a more pressing hand that defines news values and newsworthiness is its ownership – and how it undermines the media’s responsibility in truth-telling. And as such, the likes of Bulatlat were born and continue to be relevant in the wake of gross disinformation under yet another looming authoritarian rule of President Duterte.
Birth of Bulatlat
The very birth of Bulatlat was, in a way, a challenge to how the dominant media define conventional news values. Its establishment, much like the rest of the alternative media groups in the country, was an effort among human rights defenders and press freedom advocates to ensure that the voices of the people are amplified toward social change.
Hounded by reports of corruption and other political excesses, President Joseph Estrada bullied the Philippine media into reporting his administration in a good light. He used his office to attack and stifle press freedom – such as the filing of a P101-million libel case against The Manila Times, and calling for an advertising boycott against the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Such a political climate affected the dominant media’s reporting, aggravating its already poor treatment and underreporting of people’s issues.
This served as a fertile ground to establish an alternative media outfit. Meetings that led to Bulatlat’s founding began in 1999. In February 2001, shortly after Estrada’s ouster, the then weekly online news magazine Bulatlat released its first issue.
Bulatlat’s founding under such circumstances is not at all surprising. A marginalized population, according to a book titled Alternative and Activist Media, is likely to be dissatisfied with how mass media are faring in reporting issues that concern them. As such, they seek out alternative media or create their own.
The then newly-established online news aimed to report the people’s issues in a “light” manner but with “a bit of spice”. Its articles were posted on the website and circulated primarily through “promo e-mails” that went with a promise to “go beyond the headlines” and “explain events through a nationalist perspective.”
Bulatlat’s first issue
In the beginning, Bulatlat focused on news analyses. Soon, more types of reports were published such as news features and breaking news, especially with the rise of social media that evidently changed the Philippine media landscape.
In 2009, Bulatlat ceased from becoming a weekly publication. Breaking news is immediately uploaded to the website after coverage while a more in-depth report may be submitted if deemed necessary shortly after.
However, the initial assessment of its then editors and staff found the articles too “dry” or “kulang sa libog” (lacking in passion). As such, there were suggestions to publish blind items and rumors, which Bulatlat never did.
Multimedia efforts – such as short documentaries and slideshows – were also produced and uploaded to Bulatlat’s social media accounts. These allowed more room for its journalists to expand their story-telling and provide their readers another perspective on issues affecting them. Videos and slideshow productions also gave them the opportunity to provide a human face to the statistics behind gross human rights violations.
One of Bulatlat’s first video outputs.
Among the recent additions to Bulatlat’s growing and expanding content is a comic strip series titled “Martin’s Purrspective” illustrated by its editor Dee Ayroso. Martin, a cat, is based on one of Bulatlat’s former reporters, the late Alexander Martin Remollino.
The comic strip expressed what Bulatlat cannot otherwise say in its reports and editorials, covering diverse topics from the Kidapawan killings to the nearly impossible humidity during the summer.
Defining news, challenging structures
Bulatlat’s definition of news begins with its advocacies, which its founding editors and journalists have identified and later posted on Bulatlat’s website.
Bulatlat’s advocacies are:
• The fight for truth and justice
• For freedom
• Against all forms of repression
• Against the abuse and misuse of power by the country’s top political leaders
These advocacies stemmed from the revolutionary and progressive tradition of the Philippine press, from the days of the Diariong Tagalog, La Solidaridad, and Kalayaan to the Ang Pahayagang Malaya and the rest of the mosquito press under dictator Marcos. These papers played an important role not only in providing its citizenry the country’s real state but also in mobilizing them towards pushing for genuine change.
On the ground, these advocacies also help Bulatlat’s editorial team in defining what is newsworthy and which stories to prioritize.
Teodoro belied that advocacy or activism has no space in journalism. He said the dominant media, mostly owned by a few conglomerates, take great measures to conceal their corporate interests, affecting their “capacity to report, interpret and analyze issues and events of public concern.”
He said that this has resulted in the “information crisis” in the Philippines, despite the deluge of news available for public consumption.
As such, to answer the question: “why is this news?” as merely “it just is” proves to be too simplistic and wanting of the political, social, and economic context where media thrive. News being churned out by the dominant media are “reflections of organizational, sociological and cultural norms combined with economic factors.” Stories, too, that are considered as “costly to pursue” are less likely to make it into the news.
In defining newsworthiness, a big contributing factor in Bulatlat’s reporting is its unique beat system, where its journalists are deployed to cover “sectors” and “issues” instead of sending them to government agencies or deploying geographically. This has allowed them to become more familiar with the sectors and issues they are covering and make sense of what is happening.
Bulatlat, as in similar alternative media outfits, has also challenged the conventional structure that runs in the Philippine dominant media. Its media ownership and editorial hierarchy affect its reporting and the framing and treatment of news.
Communication expert Noam Chomsky has long pointed to how the concentration of media ownership in the hands of few conglomerates greatly affects its editorial decisions and practices, creating “filters” to its content. As such, this has resulted in a decrease in the trust of its intended audience.
For the alternative media, on the other hand, its ownership is not a hinder in its reporting.
Instead of being owned by a corporate conglomerate, Bulatlat is managed by a group of press freedom icons, human rights defenders, and esteemed media practitioners, collectively known as its Board of Editors.
At present, the majority of its editors and reporters both began their interests in journalism as then campus journalists and as activists. Their respective backgrounds have helped them tremendously in framing their reports from the perspective of the people (Ellao, 2019).
Their activist backgrounds have also helped them shape their writing style and in the gathering of data.
Bulatlat’s editor-in-chief Benjie Oliveros, a student activist during the days of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law rule and a long-time human rights worker, brought with him his strong human rights advocacy and contributed to the institutionalizing of the news agency’s effort to provide a human face to victims of rights violations.
Having an activist background has also helped Bulatlat journalists in their gathering of data and how to interpret it. Apart from this, it has also helped them reach out to various progressive groups as they have friends working for these organizations.
For those who do not have activist backgrounds, however, it was the weekly discussions and their continuing coverage of marginalized sectors that equipped them with enough political consciousness being demanded by the brand of journalism that Bulatlat is espousing.
Bulatlat Beat System
• Indigenous Peoples
• Overseas Filipino Workers
• Urban Poor
• Women and Children
• Human Rights
• Agrarian Reform
• National Sovereignty and Patrimony
Editors and reporters meet on Mondays for issue planning, where the staff may be able to level off on various political and social issues and farm out stories to pursue. Collectively, they discuss how to frame its reports.
Initially, reporters were supposed to submit their reports by Wednesdays. This, however, was eventually moved to Fridays as reporters found it difficult to meet it. They also banked on getting more chances of being reprinted by a national daily over the weekend as these are considered “slow news” day for the dominant media.
Sans the immense resources available to the dominant media, Bulatlat has turned to social media as its primary means of reaching out to readers. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were maximized. Podcasts and live interviews were also produced and aired via LiveStream.
Prior to social media sites, Bulatlat distributed their content through e-mail groups. In fact, three months into its founding, Bulatlat had 147 e-mail subscribers.
One of the strengths of Bulatlat is how its journalists are “rooted” in various people’s organizations, making them aware of their causes. These groups have a high appreciation of Bulatlat’s work and role in the Philippine media landscape.
Building context and redefining news values
In nearly two decades, Bulatlat has become a forerunner in the Philippine media landscape in providing context and in finding a pattern, especially when reporting human rights violations.
Teodoro pointed out in a speech he delivered at the AlterMidya – People’s Media Network’s third national congress that in the age of combating disinformation, “fact-checking alone is not enough.”
A piece of purported news, he added, maybe “factually correct” but absent of context, “which is a frequent failing of Philippine media,” will lead to the “media audiences’ failure to understand the meaning behind the news.”
He also stressed that “prominence,” one of the conventional news values, “often consists of reporting whatever the powerful say” that is bereft of context and interpretation. He said that this results in the marginalization of the poor and the oppressed in the reporting of the dominant media.
Below are among the issues that Bulatlat consistently reported on and has, over time, built context and pattern.
• Hacienda Luisita and agrarian reform
Bulatlat followed the plight of the struggling farmers of Hacienda Luisita, the more than 6,000-hectare estate owned by the Cojuangco-Aquinos.
The plight of the Luisita farmers best exemplified the failure of the government’s land distribution program, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, with its owners having a big political and economic clout, including the use of the presidential platform twice to retain their control of the land.
Bulatlat has published works on Hacienda Luisita, even prior to the infamous massacre back in 2004. It took great lengths to explain the “stock distribution option” (SDO), where so-called corporation “stocks” have been provided to farmers instead of the actual land as provided in the government agrarian reform program penned under the first Aquino administration.
Bulatlat provided sharp critiques in its reporting as Luisita farmers received pittance while the Aquino-Cojuangcos continued to have control over the land under SDO. These critiques were based on the paper trails dugged by its then reporter Dabet Castañeda-Panelo, which she painstakingly collated from both government offices and old newspapers where government notices were published, and the narratives of the Luisita farmers.
Generally, the dominant media had a “hands-off” policy on the issue due to the big political and economic clout of the Cojuangco-Aquinos. After the massacre struck, however, the struggle of Hacienda Luisita was already too big not to be reported.
With limited research and given the complexity of the issue, particularly, the SDO, journalists for the dominant media relied heavily on press releases being churned out by the government to cover up the failures of its agrarian reform and the role played by state security forces in the gruesome massacre.
Bulatlat’s reporting from the perspective of the struggling farmers made all the difference.
Today, its continuing works in chronicling the struggle of the Luisita farmers continue to be cited by both the dominant media and the academe. It has also been recognized, through its 2006 report titled, “For Land and Wages: Half a Century of Peasant Struggle at Hacienda Luisita,” by the prestigious Jaime V. Ongpin for Execllence in Journalism.
Apart from Hacienda Luista, Bulatlat has also covered several issues on land reform, which continues to be widely underreported by the Philippine dominant media. These include the plight of farm workers in Negros and the Coco Levy farmers to name a few.
• Mining and the rights of the indigenous peoples
Large-scale mining and its impact to the rights and welfare of the indigenous peoples have also been among the issues tackled by Bulatlat.
The underreporting of the impact of the large-scale mining on both the environment and the indigenous peoples in the dominant media may be traced to the corporate interests of its media owners. For one, business tycoon Manny V. Pangilinan, through MediaQuest, owns TV 5 and its subsidiaries, and has corporate shares in national daily papers such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, and BusinessWorld.
Bulatlat, on the other hand, has been following the plight of indigenous peoples as the government continue to give way to these large-scale mining operations. It has reported on the extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, threats and harassments, massive internal displacement, to name a few.
The plight of the indigenous peoples, particular the Lumad, began having national prominence after the Lianga massacre in 2015, where two tribal leaders and a school administrator where killed by paramilitary forces.
• Human rights violations and Palparan’s trail of blood
Since its founding, Bulatlat has put prime importance in reporting human rights violations and in providing a human face to the victims so they do not end up as mere statistics.
Human rights violations, whenever reported by Bulatlat, is always coupled with the victim’s stand on various issues affecting her or his immediate community, his or her advocacies, and the threats and intimidation she or he has faced in the past.
These details put into context the circumstances of the human rights violation and most especially the motive behind it.
Its persistent reporting on cases of hurman rights violations has made it a repository of updates on prominent cases such as:
• the enforced disappearances of University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, and farmer-activist Jonas Burgos, and
• the trail of blood of then Col. Jovito Palparan Jr., who is now convicted for kidnapping and serious illegal detention in relation to the disappearance of Empeño and Cadapan.
• Transport crisis
As the dominant media grapple to make sense of today’s transport crisis, Bulatlat, on the other hand, has long provided sharp critiques to the lack of public mass transportation in the country.
It has published several special reports on how privatization of the MRT Line 3 has led to its deterioration.
Bulatlat also contributed to a sharp commentary on the ever-increasing oil prices – where the dominant media is only quick to blame peso and dollar exchanges, per the official government line. Meanwhile, the alternative news agency has exposed how international speculative dealings and the value added tax affect oil prices in the country.
Based on the examples provided above, Bulatlat persistently covered issues that are frequently underreported in the country, per the dominant media’s set of news values.
With Bulatlat’s brand of journalism, reports are framed to seek how this will affect the lives of the people on the ground. They also ensured that these issues are popularized well so that many will be able to understand it.
Still, it remains a challenge for both Bulatlat and other alternative media outfits on how to produce more in-depth reports that will popularize or investigate issues affecting them. Apart from the issues identified above, other sevaral key areas of public concern such as labor and health remain wanting in terms of available in-depth reports.
Defending press freedom
Press freedom goes beyond the freedom of being able to air or publish reports. It is deeply rooted in the people’s right to know issues affecting them.
However, in covering the issues of the marginalized as part of its mission of upholding the people’s right to know and press freedom, Bulatlat also had its own share of vilification and attacks.
Under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Bulatlat was branded as “enemy of the state” in the infamous “Knowing the Enemy” of the military.
It was once again vilified when the military justified the 2013 arrest of physicist Kim Gargar, where they said he must be a New People’s Army guerrilla since he is married to a “leftist” journalist, referring to Bulatlat’s former reporter Ina Alleco Silverio.
This writer, on other hand, has also been subjected to surveillance, following her reports on the impact of mining to fisherfolk communities in Negros Occidental, and sexual harassment and red-tagging by one of the lawyers of soldiers implicated in the enforced disappearance of Empeño and Cadapan, which was assailed by media groups both here and abroad.
Red-tagging news agencies such as Bulatlat is an attack to those who are critical in making sense out of what is happening around them. These attacks have been present even during the days of the Spanish colonial days where those who dare to be critical are deemed as erehe.
The most recent of attacks against Bulatlat was in the form of cyber-attacks, particularly the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS). This refers to the “malicious” attack to oversaturate a targeted machine – in this case the server of Bulatlat – to shut down the website.
Through the Sweden-based Qurium Media Foundation (2019), the cyber-attacks were traced two tech companies, whose infrastructure was used to carry out the DDoS.
A civil complaint has been filed against these two tech companies before a Quezon City trial court. Apart from Bulatlat, three other alternative media groups – AlterMidya, Kodao Productions, and Pinoy Weekly, filed the said case, which they described as “orchestrated and well-funded.”
The cyber-attack carried out against Bulatlat is not only an unlawful deprivation of property but also denial of their freedom as media institutions. It exemplified the repressive conditions that media is being subjected to under the Duterte administration.
International media groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists noted the “shrinking space for free press” . Among the documented cases are 11 cases filed against online media outfit Rappler and other gross rights violations such as cases of threats, harassments, and even killings of Filipino journalists.
20 years ago today, @bulatlat was established by progressive journalists, academics & rights defenders. We look back at those 2 decades with gratitude for the Filipino people. pic.twitter.com/T6gYMNV6L1
— lenolea (@LenOlea) February 7, 2021
As it stands, Bulatlat remains a go-to site of fellow journalists and researchers who are interested in people’s issues. It has also garnered the nod of several awards-giving body both from media peers and the academe.
Overall, Bulatlat has high hopes of contributing to the people’s aspiration for genuine change by affirming its commitment to truth-telling and accuracy, by exposing the rotten system, inspiring readers, and chronicling the people’s struggle. Upholding these, in its truest form, is the defense of press freedom.
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This article is part of a book titled, “Readings in Press freedom and Right to Information,” published by Alipato Media Center.