Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 2, Number 16              May 26 - June 1,  2002                     Quezon City, Philippines

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Media and 'Ethnic conflicts':

Reporting without understanding

The phrase "ethnic conflict" is disconcerting. It is, at the very least, misleading, because it tells us that the conflicts that are raging in countries that involve ethnic groups – especially in the Philippines -- are ethnic in origin, as if the very violence that permeates their lives is caused by the same ethnicity that makes them such unique peoples. As if their ethnicity, by and in itself, is the reason why they are being wracked by strife. 

By Carlos H. Conde


When was the last time you heard of one tribe attacking another tribe because of purely tribal differences?  The hostility that one ethnic group shows toward another, at least in this country, is rooted in political- economic reasons, not in their indigenous ethnicity. An Ata-Matigsalog tribe in the Davao provinces would fight their neighbor Manobos not out of some ethnic misunderstanding. In the context of this increasingly difficult times for the country's ethnic groups (thanks to the so-called "development aggression"), the conflict would have more to do with the resources around them that the outside world has been rapaciously consuming. I'm sure the Indonesian participants in this seminar will agree that the horrifying violence in the Maluku islands that we have been reading about is the result of this same predicament that ethnic Indonesians have found themselves in.

But ethnic peoples in the Philippines are right in the middle of these conflicts, and that is because they are the victims of the violence.  No, there's no "ethnic conflict" raging in this country. What is happening is more proximate to ethnocide. The conflict only became ethnic because the victims are ethnic.

Other than that, all this violence is nothing but ethnic dispossession. We are talking about a long history of ethnic dispossession in the Philippines, from the time the Spaniards came to the Philippines, to the Americans’ use of brute force and guile against the Moros of Mindanao in the 1900s, to the more recent news of the Subanens in Western Mindanao being targeted for displacement by a foreign mining company's incursion into their ancestral lands.

Some of the violence that was used for this policy of dispossession, then as now, often bordered on the maniacal and the insane - as maniacal and as insane as the campaign by the Americans in Samar at the turn of the century and as maniacal and insane as the reported abuses by government troops committed against Moro residents in Basilan just recently.

Again, ethnicity had nothing to do with these. If anything, ethnicity and the idea that has been ingrained in us for years and years - that ethnic peoples are not "us," are abominable and are not worthy of our attention – only reinforce this policy of dispossession. It's no different from the principle in warfare that in order for us to effectively vanquish the enemy, we have to really, really hate him. So we make him out as a bandit, a thug, a marauder. He steals and we in the media are quick to call him a "Muslim thief" -- a rather very old habit that is proving to be too difficult to shake off.

Because ethnic peoples are considered by mainstream society, especially the media, as “outside” of the mainstream, they are regarded or written about as non-entities, like some foreign tribe who don't belong with "us," who are alien to the world as we know it. Their existence, let alone aspirations and struggles, is as removed from our consciousness as the idea that, when we really think about it, we were once "them."

Demonizing them and making them look insignificant -- these make the job of dispossessing ethnic peoples a lot easier and less morally reprehensible, at least to the non-ethnic peoples. And to a large degree, we should credit the media for this job well done.

Ethnic Dispossession

This brings me to the main thesis of this paper, that the so-called "ethnic conflicts" in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, don't stand a chance of being reported thoroughly, sensitively and fairly by the mainstream media. Why? Because the mainstream media is, wittingly or not, a participant in the ethnic dispossession that I have just described. 

By depicting them as an aberration, by ridiculing them and, most important of all, by not lending them a voice, the mainstream media does not only strip these peoples of their identities - it sets them up for persecution and dispossession.

The conflicts involving ethnic groups in Mindanao are almost always instigated by government forces or entities with ties to the State, such as multinational mining corporations and the like. The pattern has always been this: the company or the government targets an area for "development," sends in the military to quell any resistance by the natives, divides the ethnic group into factions for easier manipulation, the company or government has its way, the ethnic group continues to resist, the violence continues, with the military's increasing ferocity matched only by the tribe's determination to fight.

This is true in Mindanao, from the time huge logging companies and multinational plantations encroached into Lumad and Moro territories to the time the Lumads in Southern Mindanao resisted the Mount Apo geothermal project and, more recently, the Moro people's horrifying nightmare in Central Mindanao during the all-out war declared by Joseph Estrada.                                                          

Development Aggression

In all this, the military's role is crucial. Indeed, the military's strategy that is consistent with this animal called "development aggression" has remained unchanged over the decades: conquer an area, hold it, then develop it. Except that the "development" that follows, as Mindanao's history has shown, is not for the common folk, let alone the tribes that used to inhabit the conquered lands.

For decades, the military and other vested interest groups have broken the peace among indigenous peoples, setting off conflicts by sowing divisions among them, one faction always on their side. Recently, the military in the Davao areas has organized an “Alsa Lumad” or “Rise, Indigenous Peoples” to pit the Lumads against their fellow Lumads and the New Peoples’ Army over areas being eyed for plantations by big-business interests.

Because the military is the most visible player in this policy of aggression and dispossession, it is inevitable that news or stories about it are gathered and processed by journalists in the defense beat. And here's the rub: most defense reporters in any city in the country tend to make military camps as their bases of operations. This is true at the Southern Command in Zamboanga City, the biggest command of the armed forces, and this is true at the 73rd Infantry Battalion Brigade in Davao City. Inevitably, most of these journalists become cozy with their military sources.

There is no way this relationship will not have an impact on the way news about the military and its perceived enemies are reported. To insist that a defense reporter maintains her so-called "objectivity” while an officer literally peers over her shoulder as she types her story using the facilities of the military, is to believe in the myth of, well, objectivity.

But the defense beat continues to be a major news source in newsrooms, from the national newspapers down to the community papers, largely because stories from these beats are the embodiment of the archaic, not to mention convenient, definition of news: news is conflict -- the more the conflict, the more the news. This is a doctrine that many newsrooms still religiously adhere to to this day. And it fits perfectly with the objectives of those implementing this policy of dispossession.

This relationship helps to explain why a lot of times the stories on so-called "ethnic conflicts" are pigeonholed as crime or insurgency stories - a classification that, by its very nature, tends to result in superficial coverage.

Mindanao: A War Zone

The reportage becomes even more problematic because in the Philippines, Manila – the seat of the political and economic power and base of all national newspapers and radio and television networks – decides what is and what is not news for the rest of the country.

Mindanao, from the point of view of those sitting in front of computers in air-conditioned newsrooms across Metro Manila, is nothing but a war zone, the source of the country’s bad news. And bad news sells. And war sells newspapers and ups the ratings of television and radio networks. Who cares about the history of dispossession in Mindanao? Who cares about the Lumads and the Moro evacuees falling by the wayside in evacuation centers?

In the coverage of the “all-out war” waged by then President Joseph Estrada in 2000, the news slant was dictated by national newspapers and national television and radio networks, in cooperation with the military. Or was that by the military in cooperation with the national media?

The TV and radio networks and national newspapers sent their reporters to Mindanao without so much an understanding of, or a briefing, on what the conflict is all about. Journalists from the Manila-based press ended up like soldiers sent off to a war they did not understand and, to this day, they don’t understand.

The ratings war between the giant networks in the country sent reporters on a mad chase for scoops, to the point of resorting to contrived footages and photographs – soldiers firing off mortars toward an unseen enemy tens of kilometers away – just so they would not receive harsh memos from their bosses in Manila.

Who cared about the victims of the war? TV network reporters passed by evacuation centers almost daily but didn’t bother to stop because they were rushing to get to the nearest military camp for yet another “visual” effect.

In Manila, television and radio networks dished out surveys, the results of which showed how people – in Metro Manila that is – supported the war. For who had access to telephones in those surveys? How could the networks have ignored the fact that Metro Manila media cannot and should not decide the fate of Mindanao?

In Mindanao, efforts by Mindanawon journalists to report the war from the eyes of the Mindanao people; the efforts to bring the two warring forces back to the negotiating table; the victims of the war  -- were laudable but the desk in Manila preferred stories of the sort churned out by television networks.

At the height of the other war in 2000 – the war against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu -- one editor in chief of a national newspaper even told her deskpersons, “Let’s be patriotic, okay?” as if the bandits were of another race and country. As if it is less patriotic to report the truth that the entire half a million population of Sulu -- not the 500 or so Abu Sayyaf members -- were the victims of the war policy.

Big Business

Ignored by the national press was the fact that big business – those who were eyeing the Morolands for plantations of exportable crops -- stood to benefit from the displacement of the residents.

But it is not only in the big, shooting wars that big business gets its message across. Too often, the involvement of big companies in these conflicts is seen by reporters mainly through the business prism, thus, the focus, invariably, on whether this or that company is losing because of the conflict. Rarely do we read stories from the mainstream media about the effects of a company's actions on ethnic communities.

Without doubt, the sides of the military/State and big business are amply represented in the mainstream media's reportage of these so-called "ethnic conflicts." Seldom heard are the voices of the other side - the victims’.

Exacerbating the situation in the Philippines is the reality that most news organizations wouldn't spend additional resources -- assigning a reporter to go to the area of conflict to report such “ethnic conflicts.” As such, the stories that plumb the depths of these conflicts are few and far between.

Although there have been attempts mostly by nongovernment groups to try to improve the coverage by mainstream media of conflicts, these are subverted by the dynamics in the newsroom that tend to ignore these consciousness-raising attempts.

For example, if a reporter is sent to a seminar on reporting “ethnic conflicts,” he is not encouraged to put it in practice because 1) the news outlet cannot afford to devote a week or two of the reporter's time to do a thorough story, 2) the structure in the newsroom is such that a reporter is assigned to a beat and is expected to comply with a story quota every day (on the average, three stories a day), thus precluding any attempt to go deep on the story. If by chance the defense reporter is sent to one of these seminars, he would be hesitant to, at the very least, be fair and balanced, because that would mean offending the sensibilities of the military sources whom he relies on for stories day after day.

This is especially true in Manila and in Mindanao, where most of the news comes from government sources, mainly the military.

A Skewed Picture

The result of all this, of course, is that the mainstream media presents a skewed picture of these conflicts. We only have to ask our Moro brothers, whose complaint against the mainstream media is probably second on their list of complaints (No. 1, of course, is the government). This, in turn, can result in a number of things, among them:

1) the government would tend to deal with the conflicts or how to resolve these superficially;

2) the public, because of the lack of depth of the media's coverage, would think that there isn’t any problem with the ethnic sector;

3) the lack of a thorough, balanced and fair news coverage would embolden the government, the multinational companies, and the military to maintain the status quo or, in many cases, intensify the conflict.

Mindanao's experience with the Moro rebellion is the perfect case study for the last point. Talk to any Moro leader or rebel and one of the first complaints he would have is how the mainstream media has been distorting the picture in Mindanao, how it has been promoting mainly the perspective of government.

So can the mainstream news media be held responsible for the perpetuation of the policy of dispossession against ethnic peoples? I would say, yes, partly. It is the unstated role of the news media to prevent violence and conflicts. This is the essence of telling the news as it happened and, in a larger sense, of checks and balances in a democracy, where a free press is crucial for its flowering. But the way it is in the Philippines, the news media, because it rarely points out the defects in the government's policies affecting ethnic groups, not only emboldens the forces that instigate these conflicts – it absolves them of wrongdoing.

The rise, therefore, of “ethnic conflicts” – or, to be more precise, the continuing dispossession of the ethnic peoples in the Philippines  -- is attests to the failure of one of democracy's supposedly strongest pillars. That, or we are deluding ourselves in believing that what we have is indeed a democracy. Bulatlat.com

(The is the country report presented by the author at the Regional Seminar on Media and Ethnic Conflicts organized by the Singapore-based Asian Media Information and Communication Center last May 22-24, 2002, at the AIM Conference Center, Makati City. Some changes have been made. The author acknowledges the assistance of Ms. Carolyn Arguillas for the preparation of this report.)

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