Abu Sayyaf in Bohol: Media Tame and Not Inquisitive
ON APRIL 11, police and military clashed with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Inabanga, Bohol. The bandit group’s presence took Boholanos by surprise, with the firefight displacing hundreds of families as the security forces attempted to flush out the ASG members.
The ASG’s foray into Bohol surprised and alarmed many: while the ASG has kidnapped tourists in a Palawan resort and claimed responsibility for bombings in Manila, their activities of late have been limited to Mindanao. The incident surfaced some concerns about the government’s capability to secure the country against terrorist threats, the efficiency of the military’s intelligence network, and its capacity to patrol and safeguard the country’s waters, among others.
Media picked up the incident but the coverage merely reported it as an event, with later reports failing to ask probing questions and look beyond statements to the press.
CMFR monitored reports from the newspapers Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and news programs 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), News Night (CNN Philippines), and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2, as well as relevant news websites from April 10 to 26, 2017.
Media’s coverage of the incident recalled the movements on the ground as security forces pursued the ASG bandits. Alongside updates on the operation were backgrounders on the group’s activities in the past. Updates on the death toll from both sides were provided, most notable of which is the death of Muamar Askali alias Abu Rami, a junior ASG leader who the military claims was directly involved in the beheading of Canadian and German nationals in April and June 2016, respectively.
Unsurprisingly, most of the media report relied on statements made by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) officials. Local government officials were also approached for information on the affected communities such as when reporting the evacuation of displaced families.
Coverage stopped briefly from Maundy Thursday to Black Saturday and resumed on Easter Sunday. Towards the end of the monitored period, supplemental reports on the situation in the affected areas were given, as well as about other relevant developments in the pursuit of the ASG members on the run. Information on the identified bandits also appeared in reports.
Media reports immediately latched onto information provided by military and police officials. But by relying too much on official statements, the coverage missed out on other relevant aspects of the issue which could have been brought to light and explored further.
For instance, reports could have probed military officials on why troops only acted on the threat when the ASG was already in Bohol, despite the fact that they have been receiving intelligence reports days before the clash and have been monitoring the bandits when they were reportedly still in Mindanao. In relation to this, the US Embassy released a travel advisory on April 9 citing “unsubstantiated yet credible information” about a kidnapping plot by terrorists in the Central Visayas area, which the AFP downplayed.
CNN Philippines’ News Night anchor Pia Hontiveros did ask AFP Public Affairs Chief Col. Edgard Arevalo why the military didn’t just block the bandits to prevent them from reaching Bohol, but she only got safe answers. Arevalo responded by saying that the military acted on validated information and insisted the security forces were successful in thwarting whatever it was the ASG had planned to do.
Similarly, in reporting later developments, media did not press PNP Chief Ronald Dela Rosa to explain his allegation that Police Supt. Maria Cristina Nobleza and ASG member Reneer Dongon were lovers. The two were arrested and accused of attempting to rescue straggling bandits who were still on the run in Bohol. Initial reports on the topic carried Dela Rosa’s words without question and used the “love” angle, which may have trivialized an otherwise serious matter. No one bothered to ask how Nobleza’s connection with the ASG managed to slip under the noses of not only police but also military intelligence.
Nobleza would later confess that she and Dongon were married, with no less than Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan—the target of the botched Mamasapano operation in January 2015—officiating their wedding ceremony.
While military officials hailed the operation against Abu Sayyaf members a success, it doesn’t change the fact that the bandit group successfully managed to evade the AFP. Was the Bohol infiltration a ramification of inefficiency in the military’s intelligence network? What could be improved and learned from the incident? These are some of the points that Rappler explored early on in the coverage.
Departing from most of the coverage’s calendar reporting of the pursuit operations, Rappler’s “Bad or good intel: 5 questions on Abu Sayyaf presence in Bohol” listed related points of discussion on the Bohol incident. The report made an effort to look at other aspects of the issue such as the effectiveness and efficiency of the military’s intelligence network. Although briefly, the article also brought to light the need to boost the country’s naval assets—a point which was not explored by reports.
Here and elsewhere in the world, the threat of terrorism is a great cause for concern. The incursion in Bohol by members of the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group, although brief, brought to light possible issues and vulnerabilities in the Philippines’ security measures. While the media is expected to report on the effects of such incidents, it must go beyond just reporting the damages incurred and the casualties. The press must be on the lookout for other possible issues and point out areas for improvement, but this can only be done if they go beyond parroting what was said, and start asking hard questions, demanding for real answers instead of motherhood statements that give no details and hardly explain anything.