Maute in Marawi: Hazy Information at the Outbreak of Crisis
VIOLENCE STRUCK the province of Lanao del Sur anew when government troops clashed with the Maute group in Marawi City on the afternoon of May 23. Residents of Marawi, Lanao del Sur’s capital and the largest city, took to social media to share what was going on. After a few hours, reports in the traditional media confirmed the clash between government forces and the Maute group.
The firefight was still going on at nightfall. At 11 p.m. Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana held a press conference in Moscow, Russia, where they were traveling with President Rodrigo Duterte on the first day of a four-day state visit. Abella announced that Duterte had declared martial law in Mindanao and that the president was cutting short his trip and flying back to Manila in a few hours.
The Maute group first captured media attention in November 2016 when they seized Butig town in the same province. Tracking their movements in the province after the Butig episode, the military resorted to airstrikes against the group.
CMFR monitored primetime and late-night newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol and Bandila, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and Saksi, TV5’s Aksyon and Aksyon Tonite, and CNN Philippines’ News Night and Newsroom), three leading broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin) and some online news sites from May 23 to 25 in order to assess media coverage.
As in most cases of covering an ongoing clash, it takes time for the media to get to the area of battle. Typically, reporters have to struggle to get clear information about the situation on the ground. This inherent difficulty was reflected in the initial reports on Marawi.
Stories in the first few hours of the firefight were hazy and often conflicting. The initial reports said members of the Maute group attacked Marawi City, but the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) quickly issued a denial, saying a military-initiated operation attempting to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon triggered the firefight.
The outbreak of violence was not included in the rundown of primetime newscasts on May 23 but was reported during the first half of the programs. There was little information on the specifics of the outbreak, the number of combatants and the area affected. Of the 6 pm newscasts, CNN Philippines’ News Night attempted to get more details about the situation hooking up anchor Pia Hontiveros for a live interview with Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra. Hontiveros asked how many armed men were fighting the military and the police, and if he could confirm reports that the Maute group had taken over a hospital and raised the ISIS flag there. Gandamra, however, could not give any confirmation.
Most reports did not carry background on Marawi, on the population affected by the fighting, its geographical location and other descriptions that could help the public to the damage and the casualties involved. Reports also had little information on civilian casualties. Aksyon Tonite was an exception, painting a fuller picture of the city and its people.
Aside from sketchy details on the ground, government and military sources gave conflicting statements about the Maute group and its link with the Islamic State or ISIS. During their press conference in Russia, Lorenzana clearly said that the Maute Group could be considered an ISIS group. But the following day, the AFP released a statement which said the situation had stabilized and that the armed men the military was dealing with were not ISIS but members of a local terrorist group. Eventually, the group was referred to as Maute-ISIS after the president declared martial law in Mindanao.
Since the first day of the crisis, government officials had claimed that the situation was under control. Reports first quoted National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon who said that the military was “in full control of the situation.” AFP Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año also said the same thing in an interview via ANC, and so did Lorenzana back in Russia.
However, during a press conference, Press Secretary Abella was asked point-blank if the military was in full control of the situation, he gave a disingenuous answer: The President, he said, had “full confidence” in the AFP and PNP’s “management of the situation.” Abella did not say that the military was in control. “And so that is why he is returning also to the Philippines and so let us continue to trust in the process,” Abella said.
With no available footage of ground zero possibly due to inaccessibility, many media organizations relied on images posted on the Internet during the first day: these showed armed men roaming the area, a black flag being hoisted on a police vehicle and fire breaking out in one of the buildings with no specific information on exact locations. The number of armed men fighting the military was also unclear.
On social media, #PrayforMarawi trended for hours as netizens talked about the developing crisis. Clips and images were also freely shared, as was information which unfortunately were unverified. They included claims of beheading, the killing of a child, the burning of several establishments and alleged text messages coming from friends and relatives who were in the city, describing what was happening.
The public’s hunger for information and for visuals during a crisis can lead to spread of lies and fake news. Via its Facebook account, the Inquirer posted some photos on May 24 which were supposedly taken in Marawi, with the caption saying that these were provided by a contributor. However, netizens were quick to point out that the pictures were actually taken during the 2013 Cotabato City bombing. Acknowledging that the paper had posted the photos without having completed a verification process, the Inquirer issued an apology. Several netizens on Twitter and Facebook tagged CMFR about PDI’s use of the photos.
The following days saw relatively clearer reports on the ongoing clash. By May 25, TV reporters delivered their stories from Marawi City, providing counts of casualties. Number of enemy combatants was still unclear. Media also covered the stream of evacuees from the tormented city.
With the difficulties of the initial coverage, CMFR lauds several efforts of the media. Online sites such as Rappler and news.ABS-CBN.com published timelines on May 23 which provided a chronology of events and helped the public piece the narrative unfolding in Marawi.
On television, Aksyon Tonite utilized graphics in providing geographic references and information regarding Marawi City and its population.
In a report, Philstar.com captured conflicting statements given by government sources regarding Maute and ISIS (“Confusion over conflicting statements on Marawi crisis”). It also noted that Lorenzana claimed that the Marawi City Hall was burned; Gandamra denied this.
Two weeks since the crisis broke and military said it was in full control of the situation, members of the Maute Group remained holed up in Marawi City. “Precise” aerial bombardment continued to flush out members of the group. Despite the lack of clear information on the situation as the crisis developed, the media treaded carefully, avoiding releasing information that could not be verified, and taking care not to focus attention on terrorist groups or to share visuals and information that could be used for propaganda.
Media need information — credible, solid information — to be able to do their job. Perhaps, government should think about assigning a skilled point person who can do daily briefings and updates. But this should not prevent the media from seeking other reliable sources of information.
It is precisely during such crises, especially when reporting conflict and violence, that the media have a duty to provide clear and accurate stories that inform the public, without adding to the confusion and the suffering, without spreading even more terror.