Coverage of the BBL (7-14 April 2015): Bias and Prejudice against Bangsamoro

FORM APRIL 7 to April 14, the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) recorded 71 reports in three major newspapers in the country (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star) and 23 segments in primetime television news programs 24 Oras, Aksyon and TV Patrol on the Bangsamoro peace process and the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

The news articles reported the following subjects and developments: the continuing Congressional investigation on the Mamasapano incident; developments in the peace negotiations between the government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); and the aftermath of the “all-out offensive” conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) from February 25 to March 30.

The clash between government forces and various armed groups on January 25 in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao — which left 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF), 18 MILF combatants and at least five civilians dead — caused Congress to halt the then ongoing deliberations on the BBL, an action which threatened to scuttle the GPH-MILF agreement.

The BBL would create the Bangsamoro political entity, replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The Philippine government had been holding talks with the MILF since 1997. On March 27, 2014, the negotiating panels of each side signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). The BBL was scheduled for passage by June 2015.

Processes and perspectives

The scope of news is often narrower than the events that drive the editorial agenda. On a daily basis, journalists report the news from the limited lens of what has occurred in the 24-hour cycle, its telling enclosed within the funnel of circumstances of the day. This narrow scope excludes any information about the longer process that has brought matters to the present point. CMFR has noted the limitation of this news convention, calling for its review and revision, especially when it involves news which deals with policy and legislation, and other efforts to change historical conditions.

The proposed BBL is one such development. To reduce its coverage only to the current voices raised for or against it is to limit public understanding of the law as a groundbreaking policy to create an autonomous region and the profound significance of such a development in our history as a nation. Without this context the coverage is disconnected from its background and its history. The resulting loss of perspective renders public utterances and official statements, the grist of the news mill, as mostly static, hardly helpful to a public trying to figure out where they stand on the Bangsamoro issue.

Mamasapano triggered the open expression of long-standing prejudices against Islamized Filipinos. Perhaps, there was little understanding of the terms of the CAB, since it was cheered by the news media as an event in 2014. The BBL after all would be one of the results of the CAB.

But the initial coverage of the clash among various armed groups, including the police and the MILF, in Mamasapano revived deeply embedded stereotypes of the Moro in the mind of many Filipinos. Believing the MILF to be the cause of the deaths of 44 SAF officers, the outcry reflected a belief that the BBL would be unjust. More clearly, the emotional treatment of the tragedy, limited for the most part to the loss of SAF commandos, prevented a more rational response — which was to await findings about the facts of the incident.

CMFR found that the coverage of the Mamasapano incident played a role in the formation of public opinion against the MILF and against the BBL — causing a dramatic turn-around in public attitude which moved from  acceptance of the signing of the CAB only a year ago to anger and hostility — including calls for the rejection of the further talks with the MILF. (See “Media coverage of the Mamasapano Clash: Unethical, inflammatory and sensationalized,” March 4) Before any of the facts had come to light, the emotional hype in the coverage of the deaths and the extended funeral rites of the 44 SAF officers drowned out the later revelation of the deaths as having resulted from a “botched operation” by the police.

The dominant ethnic and linguistic groups in the capital region hold the overwhelming advantage over government and media. Coming from the middle class and the well-to-do, a national elite seems to have held on to a colonial mindset about Moros as pirates and plunderers. There was scant reference in the news to the serial measures of injustice suffered by these communities as the national government declared much of their land as frontier country open to homesteaders and plantation owners moved in from outside Mindanao.

Few are aware that the deprivation of Muslim communities has continued through the failure of several administrations to address their needs, not to mention the periodic conduct by some administrations of “all-out-war” campaigns. Mayor Joseph Estrada, a proponent of the latter when he was president, revived this call with unabashed zeal and received disproportionate media coverage for it.

There are junctures in history when political leaders need to decide what may not be popular with the public. They need to reach out and persuade and create a critical mass for what they believe is right, gaining the consent of the governed for a policy course. The discussion of critical and controversial policy is legitimate news, to help citizens understand the terms of the debate. The press and news media are crucial instruments for this purpose, and CMFR’s media monitor provides findings that can be helpful for policy makers as well as the public as consumers of news.

The question for the Philippine press at this time challenges the conventional notion that the so-called objectivity required by journalism makes the news media merely “neutral transmitters” of news. This has enforced journalistic resistance to the idea of playing a role in the development of sound laws and progressive policy. But the kind of news citizens gets do determine their outlook on various things, such as the adulation of celebrities and entertainment figures. Public opinion matters; it is a force that exerts influence on political decisions. Because of this influence, those in the news need to be aware that the sensational treatment of news can create impressions that cannot be erased easily with corrections; and that partisan forces can influence and drive the news agenda. Social media, which issues from the faceless, nameless public, now serves as an indicator of public opinion. But social media can be manipulated, driven by paid users, providing pre-packaged opinion.

Shaping the news agenda

Congress went on scheduled recess from March 21 to May 3. But the House held special sessions to resume hearings on the Mamasapano incident on April 7 and 8. The Senate held hearings on the BBL on April 13.

The issues and concerns presented by the members of the Senate Committee included in the order of their questioning, as follows:

  1. The trustworthiness of the MILF based on the group’s alleged responsibility for the Mamasapano deaths; the use of a nom de guerre by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and the legality of the documents he has signed, as well as the issue of compensation he and the MILF had received from government;
  2. The legality or constitutionality of BBL provisions providing for Bangsamoro constitutional bodies; the creation of a police body in the proposed Bangsamoro region; wealth sharing percentages; and the block grant or automatic appropriation;
  3. The passage of the BBL as an opening for secession by the Bangsamoro from the Philippines, which also relates to the issue of trust.

The television news channels covered the proceedings of the Congressional hearings live. The news reports, both in broadcast and print, provided a narration of the proceedings in the Senate and in the House.

The sources of information were limited to the officials who presided during these hearings, the committee members who spoke or raised questions, and the resource persons who were invited to testify before these bodies. (See Table 1.)

Other public figures speaking on the issue were also given space and time. But because of the typical frame of “he-said-she-said” which lines up quotes from sources, the coverage lacked the more factual analysis of what caused the Mamasapano incident and the necessary reference to the history of the Bangsamoro and the Constitutional provision on autonomy which addresses historic injustice. Other voices — the framers of the Constitution, civil society groups who have worked on these issues and other independent sources — were barely in the news.

At this time, four groups investigating Mamasapano had already released their findings. These had been reported by the press weeks before the hearings resumed. The reports were in agreement in finding infirmities in the conduct of the SAF and in the accountability of Police Director General Alan Purisima, who had already resigned from the post.

However, the hearings seemed intent on reviewing the incident for the purpose of fault-finding and blaming the MILF:

“Who was the one that came to us? Attacked us? We plotted a route that we will not be passing and far from MILF community. You all saw the area was very open. They (MILF fighters) even crossed rivers to attack my men.

“Instead of the ceasefire directive being helpful in stopping the gun battle between the 55SAC, it aggravated it,” Napeñas told the congressmen. (“‘MILF fired first, executed SAF,’” Star)

“The schism between police and military officials surfaced in all its rawness on Wednesday when the Special Action Force (SAF) accused the Philippine Army of holding back artillery fire, which could have saved the lives of police commandos during the Jan. 25 Mamasapano clash, to save the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).” (“‘Peace process’ blamed | SAF commander to Army colonel: Man up, sir.” Inquirer)

And the news reports carried the same.

TABLE 1. Sources (April 7 – 14, 2015)

Charts1

Because of Mamasapano, the hearings were conducted in an adversarial mode. Manifestations and questions by certain senators and congressmen were spoken with open and undisguised hostility. (See Tables 2 and 3.)

The news reports mostly gathered quotes from Senators Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Francis “Chiz” G. Escudero, Vicente “Tito” C. Sotto III, and Representative Karlo Alexei B. Nograles (First District, Davao City) on Iqbal’s use of alias:

“Beyond the legal implications, it calls into question the MILF’s good faith in entering into the peace agreement. Why deceive the Philippine government in this way?” (Marcos)

“…maliit na bagay lang ito. Mas malaking bagay ang peace process. Mas importante ang BBL. Kung totoo po iyon, bakit hindi ninyo mapagpagbigyan ang maliit na bagay (…this is a small thing, the peace process is a larger issue. BBL is more important. If this is true, why can’t you accommodate this small request)?” (Escudero asking Iqbal to reveal his name)

“The BBL is a very important piece of legislation. I prefer discussing it with persons that I know.” (Sotto)

“The revelation that Mohagher Iqbal is not a real name proves that the signing of the peace agreement started on the wrong foot…. There was no absolute transparency and honesty on the part of the MILF peace negotiator. Kung talagang sincere ang negotiations dapat lahat tayo all cards on the table, walang tinatago (If the negotiations are sincere, all of us should lay our cards on the table, no secrets).” (Nograles)

Those who spoke to clarify and provide a different perspective were in the minority. Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona III provided an explanation to help understand the concern, but his colleagues largely ignored it and the news media hardly referred to Guingona’s intervention.

The Inquirer gave the most space to Guingona’s manifestation explaining the use of alias and how the Senate should view it in relation to the BBL discussion:

“Guingona reminded everyone at the hearing that it is ‘faulty to use any (law) or (legal concept) on somebody who is actually rebelling.’

“Guingona said Iqbal had been using a nom de guerre since 2001 and Iqbal and the MILF had ‘never repudiated it.’

“He stressed that his fellow senators should understand the culture in Mindanao, that while there is a peace agreement in place, ‘the security issues are very, very complex.’

“’I do not see any problem with Mr. Iqbal using the present alias as long as we continue the peace process until its final end. And Mr. Iqbal has said that once the final end is achieved, they cease to be a revolutionary (group) and they will voluntarily submit to the laws of the Republic,’ Guingona added.” (“Most MILF leaders using aliases,” Inquirer)

Other news reports also gave space and airtime to the clarifications of Senate President Franklin Drilon and GPH Peace Panel Chair Prof. Miriam Coronel- Ferrer.

TABLES 2 and 3. House of Representatives and Senate Sources (April 7 – 14, 2015)

Charts2

Charts3

Documenting bias

During the period monitored, the news reports were biased against the Bangsamoro peace process and the BBL. Sources that oppose the policy and/or challenge certain sections of the proposed law dominated the conversation. Those cited most in the news were against the provisions of the BBL for various reasons:  the legality and constitutionality of the BBL as well as the trust factor in dealing with the MILF. (See Table 4.)

The press rarely presented the viewpoints of those directly affected by the issue: people in the ARMM and in Mindanao for example. There were stories that reported sources welcoming the peace process and the passage of the law, but these were relegated to the inside pages, indicating the importance given to these views. (“Mamasapano students appeal for peace,” “All-woman peace mission to dialogue with legislators,” “Sulu, North Borneo Sultanate wants say in BBL consultations,” “Peace generates jobs, Duterte tells graduates,” “Maguindanao royal houses back BBL;” Bulletin) In contrast, there were more views opposing the BBL and the Bangsamoro peace process on the front pages. (See Table 5.)

This imbalance gave the overwhelming impression that the draft of the BBL was in its key provisions lacking in legality or were outrightly unconstitutional. But the press hardly explained the basis of the criticism. Particularly “problematic” BBL provisions were mentioned in passing, but the news reports neither cited or explained the proposed law. It seemed enough simply to raise questions on the BBL’s validity and its worthiness of public support. (“Senate panel keen on removing 3 BBL provisions,” Star) And yet providing context on the opposing views, the consensus of opinions and identification of solutions would have helped lawmakers and the public understand the available options and address complex policy needs.

CMFR categorized news reports that tackled the events related to the Mamasapano investigation and the military offensive against the BIFF as neutral. The news reports provided facts and updates, and did not reflect a particular interpretation of the events.

TABLES 4 and 5. BIAS (April 7 – 14, 2015)

Charts4

Charts5

The review of coverage included developments related to President Benigno S. Aquino III’s invitation to five public figures who would later call themselves the Peace Council. The articles were straightforward reports of names and the wording of the President’s invitation, with some positive remarks quoted:

“’There is an attempt, there are requests for collaboration and cooperation between the Council of Peace and the Friends for Peace. And I do not see any problem with that as long as the parallel tracks we are doing is on the BBL and the mandate. And the mandate is to make sure that the BBL is within the constitution,’ said Quevedo.

“(Cotabato Archbishop Orlando) Cardinal Quevedo, expressed hopes that the BBL will not be rejected in the wake of the Mamasapano incident.” (“Quevedo also invited to Council of Peace,” Bulletin)

“’For those who fear that they are not independent, we can categorically assure you that this national peace summit is a conclave of men and women who genuinely seek peace,’ presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda earlier said.” (“No EO needed for National Peace Council convenors,” Star)

“A statement from the council released to the press on Friday quoted former Ambassador to the Holy See and Malta Howard Dee as saying at the council’s first meeting that their ‘overarching goal is peace with justice and development in Muslim Mindanao: A political peace settlement that addresses the injustices inflicted on the Bangsamoro religious, cultural and political identity as a people.’

“’After all, they had their political identity before there was a Philippine nation,’ Dee said.” (“Peace body to work in clusters,” Inquirer)

In the interest of transparency: Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, is the sister of CMFR Executive Director Melinda Quintos de Jesus.