By Melanie Y. Pinlac and Edsel Van DT. Dura, CMFR
Mindanao is in the news again, more than a year after the beheading of 10 Marine soldiers in Tipo-tipo, Basilan and the kidnapping of Fr. Giancarlo Bossi.
This time what initially dominated the front pages and the news programs was the supposed breakthrough in the peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP).
The peace talks between the GRP and MILF had resumed in 2003, three years after former president Joseph Estrada had waged “total war” against the separatist group in 2000. But the negotiations had been repeatedly stalled. When the media reported that the MILF and GRP peace panels had finally agreed on the terms of the ancestral domain aspect of the talks—the biggest hurdle that has blocked the formulation of a final peace agreement—many thought it was peace at last.
But the enthusiasm waned when doubts over its legality and implications were provoked when details of the Memorandum of Agreement were revealed. Several local officials in Mindanao whose barangay were mentioned for inclusion in the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) protested that they had not been consulted. Some senators and representatives questioned the “secrecy” in the drafting of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). Others alleged that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo planned to extend her term by using the MOA-AD to push a shift to federalism through constitutional amendments.
These doubts prompted several incumbent and former officials to file a suit before the Supreme Court, which issued a temporary restraining order last Aug. 4, stopping the Aug. 5 signing of the MOA in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The flap over the MOA heightened hostilities between the MILF forces and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police, and some civilian volunteer organizations in North Cotabato and Lanao, in what many feared would be a repeat of the Muslim-Christian confrontations of the past.
PJR Reports followed the news media coverage of the MOA-AD a week before it was initialed last July 27 until the Arroyo administration announced its cancellation last Aug. 20 (July 21-Aug. 20). The monitor included three major Manila-based dailies (the Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and The Philippine Star); the primetime news programs 24 Oras of GMA-7 and TV Patrol World of ABS-CBN 2; and some major news websites (ABS-CBNNews.com/Newsbreak, GMANews.tv, Inquirer.net, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Center (PCIJ) blogsite).
As expected the press provided daily coverage of the controversy. It also paid ample attention to the preparations for the 2008 local elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)—the first successful and fully automated elections in the Philippines. (See sidebar)
But the usual problems, such as lack of contextualization and in-depth reports still haunted most Manila-based media, a problem that has been noted in past PJR Reports monitors.
Discussing the MOA-AD
The draft of the MOA-AD between the government and the MILF entered the public sphere after several news organizations published the details in their papers and websites. But the press did not adequately explain how the draft was finalized, the exact nature of the meetings on the issue of ancestral domain, and whether civil society organizations and various local stakeholders had been really consulted or not.
“In the first place we have to consider the element of confidentiality within which the peace process was conducted. This already limited the flow of information from the negotiations to the media,” Rudy Rodil, former vice-chair of the government peace negotiating panel and an expert on Mindanao history, said in an e-mail interview with PJR Reports.
“Bear in mind that minority problems, like the issue of ancestral domain, are not something that can be decided or solved by majority vote,” Rodil said.
Some reports pointed out that some persons in the executive department and the MILF were also against the MOA-AD. An Inquirer report (“Muslim, Christians slam land agreement”, p. A1 & A18) last Aug. 4 quoted an MILF official in Western Mindanao as stating that “he did not support giving parts of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi to the MILF.” He said that those who had agreed with that part of the MOA were with the “Maguindanaon-Iranon Liberation Front”, replacing “Moro Islamic” with the ethno-linguistic groups that comprise those MILF leaders who had agreed to the MOA-AD. The claim, however, was not balanced by the views of the leaders referred to, and the report was not followed up.
(The Bangsamoro people are divided into at least 13 ethno-linguistic groups including the Maguindanaon and the Iranon.)
Other aspects not reported
Most of the reports did not review other aspects of the peace negotiations with the MILF, such as the issues of security and rehabilitation and development. In a forum at the University of the Philippines College of Law last Aug. 8, the participants noted that the ancestral domain aspect is just one of the three aspects of the talks. The MILF and GRP had previously agreed on the security and development aspects which led to the agreement on the cessation of hostilities and the formation of the Bangsamoro Development Authority.
Other reports also seemed to imply that the MOA is the end-all, be-all of the peace process. It should have been noted that a Comprehensive Compact would still have to be drafted after the MOA is signed. The Comprehensive Compact is supposed to be signed within 15 months after the Aug. 5 signing of the MOA.
There was also no in-depth or investigative report detailing the possible role of the United States (U.S.) in the peace process. The claims of U.S. intervention were reported by some news organizations, mostly by noting and quoting from a study by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the statements of militant groups such as Bagong Alyansang Makabayan.
Looking into other peace processes
Another shortcoming of the coverage was the inability of many reports to connect the recent developments in the MILF-GRP peace talks to the overall peace condition in Mindanao, particularly its impact on GRP-MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) relations, or, for that matter, on MILF-MNLF affairs. The MNLF signed a final peace agreement with the GRP in 1996, and is in effective control of the ARMM, which would be absorbed by the BJE.
Teresita Quintos Deles, former presidential peace adviser and INCITEGov (International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance) managing trustee, said “media can only do so much…if the government itself did not know and did not think about it (the implication of the MOA-AD on the MNLF peace agreement).” Deles added that media should look into the government’s real agenda behind the MOA-AD and the lack of preparation for its implementation.
A few reports noted the alleged similarities between the resistance to the BJE today and the resistance to the formation of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) and the Southern Philippine Development Authority during the negotiations between the MNLF and the Ramos administration in 1996. The press, however, for the most part failed to explain the similarities and differences between the SPCPD and the BJE.
The Bangsamoro struggle
Because the media mainly focused on the MOA-AD’s constitutionality and the Charter amendments required for its implementation, the historical perspective of the ancestral domain issue was not thoroughly discussed either.
Some opinion writers were the exceptions. They used the history of the Bangsamoro people and the concept of ancestral domain to explain their points for or against the MOA-AD. For example, Michael Tan, an anthropologist from the University of the Philippines, explained the issue of ancestral domain in his Inquirer column. He also briefly discussed the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA). IPRA was supposedly one of the legal bases for the MOA-AD.
But still missing from the coverage were in-depth reports that could have put in context the Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination, and which could have explained the MILF claim on Moro ancestral lands in Mindanao. Neither were there explanatory reports on how the MILF was formed and why it broke away from the MNLF.
Bias against Islam
Some commentaries and reports were obviously biased, which even other journalists noted. Aside from bias against Muslims, Froilan Gallardo, editor of Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro, also noted in a statement that some media organizations tended to use a religious framework by labeling the opposing parties as “Muslims” and “Christians”. He reminded fellow journalists that it is dangerous to to “pit Christians against Muslims”.
Most TV news reports also tended to use the language of their sources, which were laden with bias. Some TV reporters with the military tended to identify themselves with the military. In 24 Oras, two reporters who were covering the military called the rebels “kalaban (enemy)” in their reports. An Aug. 20 report of 24 Oras, for example, showed a male reporter saying: “Nagdarapaan tayo ngayon kasi sunud-sunod yung putok ng sabi nila’y sniper fire mula sa kalaban doon sa mga niyugan na iyon.”(We are stooping down as consecutive sniper shots from the enemy are fired from the rows of coconut trees.)
Peace advocates and other journalists have warned the press before that biased reports could help create additional problems in Mindanao. In an interview with PJR Reports last Aug. 14, Zainudin “Zen” Malang, executive director of the Bangsamoro Center for Law and Policy, said that disinformation and misinformation could “fan the flames of communal conflict.”
Reporting the fighting
To be fair, there were some improvements in the coverage compared to, say, the coverage of the fighting in 2000. The press allotted airtime and space to stories on the situation in the evacuation centers as well as to the victims of the attacks and firefights. The press did not limit itself to sources from Malacañang, the MILF, the military, and the local government units when reporting on the firefights. Although most reports did focus on the shooting war, many media organizations also interviewed civilians, civil society organizations, and a few experts on the effect of the war on civilians and evacuees.
For example, GMANews.tv wrote last Aug. 12 a special report titled “Away from armed encounters, evacuees confront new dangers” explaining the hardships of evacuees in the centers. The online site also posted other reports outside of the monitoring period which focused on the psychological effect on civilians and the poverty exacerbated by the war (“War trauma may haunt Mindanao evacuees for 30 years – expert”, Aug. 26 and “Armed conflicts and poverty: How war has taken its toll on Mindanao”, Aug.22). In the Aug. 22 report, GMANews.TV also mapped the war-torn areas in Mindanao and noted the levels of poverty in those areas.
But the effects on the economy of the conflict were seldom reported. GMANews.TV did post a short report on the effect of the continuing offensive on the economy last Aug. 20 (“Escalating conflict to cut competitiveness of RP”). TV Patrol, meanwhile, reported last Aug. 12 that countries like Australia had advised its citizens to leave the region “due to the very high threat of terrorist attacks”, but did not include its implications on Philippine tourism.