COMMENTARY: The Media and Mindanao: The Dangers of Psychological Embedding and Armchair Punditry


Alan Davis/IWPR   
Sunday, 31 August 2008 12:40
MINDANAO (MindaNews/30August) — In times of crisis, thinking often bunkers down and simplifies. Groups express no doubt and offer no quarter. Extremism blooms swamping calls for restraint and careful consideration.
 

In such times, media can act like the uranium core of a nuclear reactor. Pushed fully in, it can trigger a highly destructive chain reaction — providing the means and opportunity for countless and combustible neutron politicians and pundits to whiz around exciting and enraging others.   This seems to be happening in the Philippines with the crisis here in Mindanao. The Manila-centric media have their excitable neutrons of their own — those columnists and talk radio hosts who help provide an unstable mass which dominates the public space when it comes to discussion on where to go next now that the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) is in limbo.

The question we need to ask these pundits on the airwaves and in the populist print is how many of them are taking time out to come here to listen, learn and see for themselves at first hand the things they are talking about? How many are platforming their own personal prejudices in place of helping audiences to understand and appreciate more? What are their practical suggestions? War and killing?  

Save for some very honourable exceptions the media may be in danger of psychologically embedding with rising anti-Moro elements. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) committee said precisely this at the press conference I attended over the weekend at Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat. But of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? Certainly the killing of civilians and reported atrocities committed in Lanao del Norte by MILF forces only helps to fan the flames and may well turn out to be a massive own goal for the rebel leadership. It is also of course a crime against international humanitarian law.  

The MILF leadership say they are revolutionaries and therefore don’t recognise Philippine law and will not surrender the suspected commanders. But international law is something else entirely. It was itself cited by the MILF leadership in front of me and others on Saturday in defense of the legal status of the MOA-AD.  

The looming crisis was though best brought home to me on Sunday driving by the grounds of an old cassava starch plant off the main highway near Aleosan in North Cotabato. There I saw 120 new recruits drawn from surrounding barangays being put through basic drill parade by a Philippine Army sergeant major. These were new members of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (GAFGU). Their guns have yet to arrive but given their basketball outfits and the crowd of giggling youngsters watching, this might have been a typical Sunday afternoon warm-up for a game. Unfortunately, their appearance and training presages something far more serious.

 

Ironically, the faces of these new GAFGU recruits along with plain clothes gunmen I took to be MILF forces seen cycling down very isolated and poor barangays in Liguasan Marsh — these were the only combatants and would-be fighters I saw over a three-day weekend who were not more than happy to stop awhile and talk. As individuals everybody is warm, friendly and generous. It is when they retreat into groups, bunker down and listen to the propaganda on all sides that the trouble starts.  

Five miles further down the national highway from the impromptu training camp, you come across thousands of evacuees camped out on either side of the road under blue and orange tarpaulins which were gifts from aid organizations to refugees during the last humanitarian crisis which followed on from war here several years ago. When you are as poor as these people, you throw nothing away, not even old World Food Program rice sacks that can be ripped open and turned into impromptu shelters from the heavy rains. Many of the refugees have been there for two weeks and more — and most are refusing to go home fearful both of what they might find and too of being caught once more in the middle of the fighting.  

The fighting was going on over the weekend and could be seen from an army observation post on a ridge less than a forty-minute jeep ride down a riddled track that leads off south from Midsayap into the huge flooded plain that is the Liguasan Marsh, a stronghold of the MILF.  

The Maguindanao town of Datu Piang is currently reachable from the north only by small pump boat after a road bridge collapsed — or by air via an OV10 light bomber. The aircraft and artillery were both in action yesterday afternoon. From a distance of one or two miles away, the OV10 are tiny black specks and virtually invisible yet the sound of their 500-lb bombs going off is unmistakable as are the black plumes of smoke rising in the windless air. Being under or too close to them is something of course to be avoided at all costs — yet one unconfirmed report on Saturday said a mother and child had been killed by such an attack on Friday.

In many respects while people might still manipulate and exaggerate, the closer you get to the frontline, the more humanity you often see. The closer to battle, the more you hear people speak openly, honestly and truthfully as they see it. By contrast, the further away you get, the more inane people become and the less they have to say. 

In Manila where it is safe, people speak and are heard far too much. By contrast, here in places like North Cotabato and Maguindanao where the crisis is, civilians, soldiers and Moro rebels are heard far too little. 

The Philippine media could do a lot worse than try and redress the balance. (The author is the director of the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project and the Special Projects director of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.) (MindaNews)

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