Column: The end of “media” as we knew it

Published on November 23, 2010–the first anniversary of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre.

I do not wish to add to the unbearable burden of the families of the victims of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre, especially those who lost loved ones who were not media workers, with another reflection on the massacre’s implications on Philippine journalism. The horrific killings—57 bodies recovered, one still missing—reveal more about life in the Philippines than the state of the media: The Philippine polity as an anarchy of families (to borrow Alfred McCoy’s evocative book title); the role of violence in society; the wages of greed; the coopting of much of the country’s security forces; even (in the case of the unfortunate victims who
merely happened to be driving by) the very gratuity of life when you are poor
or not powerful.

I try to keep all this context in mind, but I am also bound, as a journalist, to recognize that the senseless killing spree cut the history of journalism in the Philippines in half, like the sun at noon. Before it, the time was A.M., or ante massacre; now we work, and are conscious of working, in the P.M.—post massacre. The sense of one era ending, and a new,unsettling one beginning, was already strong when the full scale of the massacre was revealed a year ago; it is palpable now.

A contrast may be instructive. Two months ago, at the seventh edition of the Media Nation forum, I shared perspective-setting duties with a few other journalists. I tried to connect the controversial media coverage of the Aug. 23, 2010 hostage-taking at the Luneta, at that time still the subject of fierce debate, with the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. My main point could be summed up simply enough: A history of journalism in the Philippines written years from now will likely not mention Aug. 23; it will certainly dwell on Nov. 23.

The Ampatuan massacre was not only the worst single loss of journalists’ lives in recorded history; it was a direct attack on, perhaps even a death blow to, the very concept of “media,” as this has come to be understood since at least the last years of the Marcos dictatorship.

I can think of at least three characteristics of “media”—in the singular sense that many of us use it, whether in English or Filipino or any other language—that lay bleeding and backhoed after the Ampatuan rampage.

Media as a source of protection. The journalists asked to join the convoy bearing Toto Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy were expected not only to provide coverage but to provide a form of protection to Mangudadatu’s relatives and proxies. The size of the media contingent may have been unusual, and a reflection of the riskiness the journalists assigned to the coverage, but in essence this was what many whistleblowers, witnesses against powerful families or syndicates, opposition politicians and others similarly disadvantaged have come to depend on from media: protection in terms of publicity and documentation.

Media as an institution of immunity. The intrepid journalists who joined the convoy knew full well that, in Ampatuan-ruled Maguindanao as well as in many other areas, the life of an individual journalist did not amount to much. Too many journalists, most of them in the provinces, have fallen victim to motorcycle-riding assassins. But those who agreed to go with the convoy must have thought that, with three dozen media workers all together, an attack on them would constitute an attack on media as an institution itself, and hence was somewhat improbable.

Media as a substitute for government. The journalists who rode to their death did so because, as in so many other similar instances, the profession they belonged to was regarded as a substitute for government. When government security forces failed to guarantee the convoy’s safety, the obvious alternative was media.

Media, understood in these terms, lay riddled with bullets after the shooting stopped. Perhaps the third aspect, that of being a substitute for government, will prove the hardiest and the one most likely to survive. The first element, that of being a source of protection, may be the first to succumb to its many wounds. We can judge this for ourselves, when we evaluate calls for live TV coverage of the trial of the massacre suspects. The notion that greater exposure for the witnesses will be in their best interests may still sound logical, but after what happened to the journalists who mediate that very exposure, the idea must ring hollow to the
witnesses now.

Several years ago, a friend once told me, her brother had almost been the victim of a crime. He was at a gasoline station somewhere in the southern part of Metro Manila, and there was an attempt by several men to either rob him or abduct him (my memory fails at this point). I remember very clearly what happened next, in my friend’s story. In the middle of the criminal attempt, a woman rushed out of the gas station’s mini-mart, held up her media ID, and shouted, in Filipino: “Hey! What’s happening over there? I’m with the media.” (The original, as I remember it from the story, was even more emphatic: “Media ako”—I’m media.)

At that, the criminals stopped what they were doing, and fled.

I am certain that this kind of story has been repeated many times; I am less certain that it will have the same effect now, on either journalists-with-IDs or criminals-caught-in-the-act. The Ampatuan massacre has changed everything.

The whistleblower behind the NBN-ZTE deal, Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada, enriched our vocabulary of corruption with his flair for the dramatic phrase. Perhaps his most enduring contribution is the concept of unmoderated greed, which he applied to the Arroyo family and its many associates. I think it applies to the Ampatuan massacre too. It turns out that unmoderated greed fed that most ambitious, most ruthless, of all powers: violence.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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