Letters to the Editor

Citizens take part in truth-telling in Boto Mo, iPatrol Mo: Ako ang Simula

- Arlene Burgos -

MANILA, Philippines - We were supposed to carry as main story for TV Patrol, our 6:30 p.m. news program at ABS-CBN, the good news last Monday. Filipino Efren Peñaflorida, who has been educating street children through a mobile “classroom” contained in a pushcart, has just been picked the CNN Hero of the Year.

These days when we have been struggling to pick up ourselves from the destruction wrought by Ondoy and Pepeng, and are exhausted at many government agencies’ ignorance of the words “basic social services,” Peñaflorida is a ray of light.

And then close to broadcast time, a mosaic of a gruesome mass murder story began taking shape from various news sources. An army spokesman confirmed on ANC that 21 bodies were found after gunmen attacked a convoy consisting of the wife, relatives, supporters of a Mindanao politician on their way to file a certificate of candidacy on his behalf. The army spokesman’s audience, this time including journalists who have weathered coverages of coups, hotel takeovers, kidnappings couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Dozens more were missing and unaccounted for from the waylaying – including journalists who have accompanied the entourage to cover the submission by the politician’s family of his candidacy papers.

When the politician went on air to tell his story, his voice would be etched in history as the one that told the world of, possibly, the worst story about the Philippines. The world will also learn later that here, women are raped, mutilated, shot dead by the dozens, alongside the men; camera-bearing journalists are never spared from attacks; and then backhoes would be used to scoop the dead bodies onto a waiting grave.

On Monday evening, this was the story we told the country, the world about Maguindanao – a poor province in the heart of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao torn by warring clans, and now severely scarred by deaths and threats of revenge or retribution.

When the dust from the firestorm of the previous night’s broadcast settled, journalists began trying to make a sense of the event, and to figure out a way to tell Tuesday’s story with more clarity – and visuals.

Among the first pictures of the crime scene used by ABS-CBN was a photograph by a citizen. Sent via email to the Boto Mo, iPatrol Mo: Ako ang Simula (BMPM) hours after the supposed carnage, the picture showed at least three bodies near a white van, bloodied and surrounded by fatigue-wearing men.

BMPM, ABS-CBN’s election-focused citizen journalism project, does not use unverified photos, videos or any other submission. But the letter sender had not returned with a response on BMPM queries about his contact details or whereabouts. Maria Ressa, ABS-CBN Senior Vice President, herself a veteran journalist, gave the marching order. ANC Chief Operating Officer Glenda Gloria, another seasoned journalist, was to make a final check on the photo information; reporters on the ground also have it on record that investigating officials have reason to believe the van showed on the photo was among the convoy vehicles. The photo ran on all ABS-CBN platforms and shows.

Ressa has very specific instruction to protect the Boto Patroller – a citizen journalist who tips or volunteers news materials like photos or videos. “These Patrollers are risking their lives to report this,” she said. Given the Maguindanao background, no argument will hold up against that statement.

Later in the day, another Boto Patroller would inform BMPM a community near the crime site had known about the impending attack as early as Nov. 20, 2009, the official start of the filing of candidacies. The informant was trembling on the phone, afraid for his life, when he was called by BMPM for verification on his claim. His information spurred many questions from BMPM. It may have implications if authorities would really want to get to the bottom of the carnage. But as far as this Patroller is concerned, he just wants to chip in his share to the truth-telling about the massacre.

Several more citizens are talking, giving tips, bits of information about the murders. They don’t claim to know everything; just enough truth to tell their story.

Ressa could not have been more right. These Patrollers are risking their lives. But from where they are reporting, they are not. To the contrary, it seems these citizens are seeing an opportunity to live, tell their tale.

They are snapping pictures of their realities, ‘texting’ their truths, taking a stand, contributing to the conversation, and making sure they have a voice in it.

This is ABS-CBN’s brand of citizen journalism. It’s simply not the kind you manufacture so you can broadcast something on your 6:30 p.m. news.

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