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The Role of Media: The Mindanao War and the Moro Peoples / Internal Refugees
by Cris M. Gaerlan Jr.

(This paper was presented to the Workshop on Media & the Internal Refugees held at Bangkok, Thailand, sponsored by the WACC at the height of the Estrada Administration's All Out War campaign in Mindanao)


The phenomena of internal refugees in the Philippines have been haunting the Moro or the Muslims of the Philippines since the Marcos dictatorship up to the present times.

In 1970's the Marcos dictatorship waged war against the Moro people. This war reached genocidal proportions claiming 200,000 dead and a hundred thousands more of Moro families and communities displaced and relocated to Manila and even as far as Sabah, Malaysia.

Three decades afterwards, the Moro people faced the similar consequence. Once again the Moro people becomes Internal Refugees, uprooted from their communities. The administration of former President Joseph Estrada declared an "All Out War" against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front killing in effect a standing 4-year-old Peace negotiation with the Moro insurgent force.
Mobilizing 70% of the whole strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the government unleashed hell by launching assaults using its Air, Land and Sea firepower to identified bailiwicks of the Moro insurgent forces. The massive deployment of government troops to Mindanao virtually transformed the island into a military garrison. The Government proudly boasts that only a military solution can solve the problems of Mindanao.

The Government flaunted the success of its military campaign. After months of fierce and intensive military operation, the government claimed victory over the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. With much braggadocio, the Government said that it had already neutralized the military capability of the MILF and the capture of the MILF's main camp, Camp Abubakar, was its trophy.

Behind the military victory that the government claims is a sad reality. Intensified fighting has produced waves of refugees. Government figures showed 300,000, while independent sources coming from non-government organizations would reveal more than 500,000 families displaced and are now cramped like sardines in evacuation centers. By whatever figure it will take it still spells catastrophic.

The evacuees are dispersed in evacuation centers in the provinces of Cotabato, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte. According to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, an individual evacuee needs to have, in monetary value, 140 pesos a day for relief provision. But the department said that government funds intended for relief services have already been depleted. The Department of Health on the other hand said that immediate psychosocial rehabilitation should be provided for mental disorders that are being experienced by many evacuees, especially the elderly, women and the children due to trauma.

Body count of the casualties of war reached to thousands of combatants from both sides. Not included in this statistics were civilians killed in crossfire or by indiscriminate bombings and shellings. Also gross human rights violations are committed in the conduct of military operations in pursuit of this war: A number of people have been arrested without warrants, harassments, food blockade, looting, burning of houses, summary executions, etc… has become a rampant practice during military operations.

Compounding the situation is a sinister scheme that tends to resurface the ugly head of divide and rule tactic. Muslims are pitted against Christians; Muslims against its fellow Muslims (i.e. the mobilization of the MNLF integrees to fight the MILF) Christians against Christians, etc… Fringe groups like the vigilantes are being formed to foment racial hatred and sow animosities. Activities of these groups are conscious efforts to muddle the conflict and provide smokescreen to the real motives behind this military campaign.

Presently, thousands of Moro internal refugees are still languishing in evacuation centers. They hope to return to their communities to rebuild their lives. However, they could not return to their abandoned communities for the military are already encamped in these areas. Now that the Philippines is facing an intense political and leadership crisis, the case of the Internal Refugees is being left out and is now slowly being neglected and forgotten.

I. The Media

The Role of Media in the War in Mindanao

Almost thirty years ago Philippine media suffered its most devastating setback. With the declaration of Martial Law, former Pres. Marcos effectively silenced all broadcast stations and newspapers, plunging the country into the blackest silence in history. Marcos had instructed the press and defense secretaries to take over and control the mass media "for the duration of the national emergency." This control lasted nearly 14 years, to the very end of Marcos's long rule.

Philippine journalists remember the first months of martial law as among the darkest. Media Advisory Council regularly sent out instructions on what stories should not be used because they were not conducive to "an atmosphere of tranquility." Thus, stories about the Moro rebellion that engulfed Mindanao were killed. There were no reports of atrocities that were being committed against the Muslim people, gross violations of human rights went undocumented.

The assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983 reawakened Philippine media and gave it a new voice. From hereon it regained its stature as the freest press in Asia. It became the main road that led Filipinos to EDSA, and the inevitable downfall of Marcos.

There was no turning back now. Media had become more than mere purveyor of news. It also began to educate the people of the histories of atrocities committed during the Marcos era. It opened the eyes of a people heretofore misinformed of the events that had been taking place before the country's reawakening.

But a second look at Philippine media today may really make us think - is it not taking a step backwards from that giant leap in '83?

On the surface this may not seem to be the case. Reporters and cameramen are now always at the front lines of almost every military offensive in Mindanao. Even a news blackout that had been arbitrarily declared during the height of the hostage crisis in Jolo did not deter the them from bringing the news out to the rest of the country and the world. But what news does the media bring?

Unwittingly or otherwise, the media has contributed to the creation of a myth - the myth that presents Muslims as enemies of the state. Media is now playing a great role in widening the divide between Muslims and their own country, projecting the conflict as a religious war, good versus evil, Christian against Muslim, the government versus forces wanted to establish an Independent Mndanao Islamic state. As mass media reports on the present situation, it ignores the historical context of the Mindanao conflict, to the point of influencing public opinion and condoning, if not actually encouraging, acts of cultural violence against the Muslim people.

The extensive media coverage of the "victory" of the Philippine Armed Forces in Camp Abubakhar further instills in people's minds that "war is the only solution" to the problem in Mindanao. And hunting down suspected terrorist and not surprising only Muslims are arrested with out warrants. And should the people wonder?

In September of 2000, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility published a study on how media failed to educate the public on the Mindanao crisis. The study involved analyzing news reports and opinion columns from five Metro-Manila based broadsheets over a three-month period, from March to June of this year.

From a total of 1,428 news articles and opinion columns about the Mindanao problem, it was revealed that the overwhelming source for 1,055 of those articles was the government. The Abu Sayyaf was the source in 72 of the articles; the MILF in 67; the business community in 18, civil society 37; the religious sector 38; and others, 141.

For mass media, it has become the number one story. Since mass media is the main source of public information on the crisis, it may be presumed that much of what the public has come to know about the crisis, as well as their sentiments on the main protagonists, come from mass media. This makes mass media a crucial factor in public understanding of this crisis, and therefore, in the public's opinions as important inputs in governance.

Aggravating this situation is the individual reporter's own beliefs and biases, the quality and quantity of his sources, as well as a newspaper's editorial policy. Those convictions and biases most individuals have on the Mindanao problem shape the kind of news stories that appear on the front pages, as well as the opinions that see print in the opinion and editorial sections.

In effect mass media has caused the public to equate the word "Muslim" with "bandit", "kidnapper" "terrorist", and "murderer," portraying Muslims as a barbaric people. Mass media has reduced the followers of Islam to a people bent on overthrowing the government, and that these enemies of the state deserve this mutated form of ethnic cleansing.

But not all is lost. Attempts at combating these biases have been made. In the Senate a bill has been passed that will penalize any media practitioner who uses the word "Muslim" in a derogatory sense.

III. The Media and the Moro people

Venue for Moro people in national tri-media remains limited. This reality causes the misrepresentation or lack of representation, lack of information and access to the media and other sources of information by the Moro people. This problem is due largely on the following reasons.: the language barrier, accessibility and availability, and cultural nuances. On the other hand, sources or alternative means for obtaining and circulating information are sorely lacking, if not altogether absent.

On Language Barrier

As a legacy of our colonial past , Philippines uses English as a common medium of communication. Though it insists on the use of Tagalog as a national language, English remains to be widely used in formal communication forms. By whatever form, be it English or Tagalog, majority of the Moro people still has difficulty in reading, how much more understand it. As statistics would show, the Muslim areas are top in the list in the hierarchy of rate of illiteracy.

The Moro people are composed of 13 different ethnolinguistic groups. Though united in one common religion, Islam, each tribe within the Moro people speaks different dialect. In this context, how could the Moro understand the news or information given by the established media, in print, radio, or TV broadcast? This situation naturally renders the Moro people ignorant of their rights or the developments going on around them.

On Access and Availability of Media

The general public gets information through the tri-media coming from the national center. National TV stations are based in Metro Manila but have transmiters and stations on the local areas. However, most of the Moro areas, especially in far flung and remote areas couldn't access TV broadcasts largely because of the absence of electricity. Circulation of national newspapers only reaches City- centers; very few reach the rural areas. In Mindanao there are 83 AM radio stations. However only 14 of the 83 AM stations are in the Moro areas: Cotabato-Maguindanao - 6, Lanao del Sur - 3 and Sulu has 5.

On Cultural Nuances

Discrimination against the Moro people is an existing reality. This further cements the prejudice of the Moro people on media establishments. Due this, the tendency of an ordinary Moro is simply to ignore the media. As a result, Media information is threated with prejudicial generalization. This happens most especially if the information provided is talking about them or their situation, if a Christian institution owns the media establishment and even if the reporter is a Christian. A news or information is to be believed only if a Moro reporter provides it. In the present media establishment, there is only a handful of Moro media practitioners.

Today, in the time of the Internet and satellite broadcast, people in the rural areas in Mindanao still rely on hand-held two-way radios, mostly unlicensed, as a means of passing information from one community to another. The only alternative media they can get hold of are those produced by local publishers, and there are only few of them. It is here where media can atone for its unwonted discriminatory acts against the Moro people.

There is a great necessity to develop alternative media for the Moro internal refugees in Mindanao, these victims of war who have limited sources of information, and no means by which to change the prejudicial attitude that have been directed at them since time immemorial. This is where media can do its part. It is high time that media should take its next giant leap since 1983 and again portray its role as educator and promote understanding among people.