Media coverage of the Mamasapano Clash: Unethical, inflammatory and sensationalized

THE CLASH between government forces and various armed groups on January 25 in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao, lasted approximately eight hours. Forty-four Special Action Force (SAF) troopers were killed. In the aftermath, the deaths ignited passions, raising calls for justice and vengeance. It took some time for the press to report that several Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters and community members were also killed, including a 5-year old, and that a number of villagers had to evacuate their homes. The incident immediately halted the ongoing discussion in Congress of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), threatening to scuttle the peace agreement between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the MILF. Worse, the incident, thanks to grandstanding politicians and the uncritical media, has inflamed passions towards war.

The political fallout includes calls for President Benigno S. Aquino III’s resignation from groups such as the National Transformation Council, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Gabriela Philippines, Migrante, Youth Act Now, Anakbayan, League of Filipino Students, Kadamay and Kapederasyon. The Senate held four public hearings and the House of Representatives held one. The crisis also revealed currents of hostility between the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), with its attendant implications on national security and public order.

In the center of these disturbing developments were grandstanding politicians from whom one can expect little — and the media, whose practitioners should have known better.

Misinformation and even disinformation, sensationalism, as well as lack of context characterized the coverage — the kind of reporting that for its ethical lapses inflames an already volatile situation that in fact it helped create.

The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) monitored nine newspapers (BusinessMirror, BusinessWorld, Malaya Business Insight, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard Today, Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Daily Tribune, The Manila Times and The Philippine Star), four news programs (9TV’s Network News, ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s Aksyon), and selected news websites from January 25 to February 25.

Day-to-day reporting

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The Mamasapano incident dominated the headlines and was for weeks the top story of these news organizations. A month has passed since the incident happened but investigations and finger-pointing among government officials and agencies are still ongoing.

Government agencies scrambled to hold separate inquiries, further indicating the difficulty of ascertaining facts about the operation. At least eight agencies and institutions are conducting fact-finding missions: the international monitoring team of the peace process, the MILF, the PNP Board of Inquiry, the AFP, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Senate of the Philippines and the House of Representatives.

Through their day-to-day reporting, the media organizations contributed to the progress of these investigations. However, the plethora of unconfirmed details and opinions projected as established facts muddled the Mamasapano story to such an extent that much of the public was left confused, disoriented, and misinformed. Worse, the reportage stoked the long-standing prejudice and antagonism that many Filipinos hold against Moros.

Initial news reports were unclear on why and how the encounter happened. News reports called it a “law enforcement operation” but everything else was left to speculation. Was the secrecy of the operation — which meant other government forces on the ground did not know about it — a crucial factor? Without any effort to confirm with multiple sources, the news reports mentioned the USD 5-million (PHP 220-million) reward for information on and/or capture of Marwan by the US government as the reason the “PNP’s bypassing coordination with the AFP and the MILF.” The number of casualties varied depending on who was speaking, government officials or the MILF.

The Tribune quoted an unnamed police official in a January 31 report that Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles allegedly advised the President not to send reinforcement for the “beleaguered” SAF troopers. “If the President could make a call so early in the morning to Deles so she could in turn call on the monitoring teams to call for a ceasefire, why can’t he make a call to ask the Armed Forces to send reinforcement for the beleaguered SAF personnel? Because he was advised by Deles not to do so. They were so obsessed with the peace agreement, they want to save the Bangsamoro Basic Law as they believe it was the last piece for Aquino to earn the Nobel Peace Prize.” The Tribune went ahead with the report without getting Deles’ side on the issue. Deles later denied her involvement as she herself did not know about the operation.

MindaNews made sense of the situation on the ground, validating information and seeking interviews from concerned parties. Its news report, which came out only a week after the incident, has remained accurate; with no other sources making contrary claims. (“In pursuit of Marwan, deaths in the marshland”)

Later learned

The PNP had deployed the 84th, 55th, 45th, 43rd, 42nd and 41st Special Action Companies — all in all, 392 SAF troopers — to arrest or neutralize Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan) and Basit Usman, who had multiple warrants of arrest for the deaths and injuries allegedly caused by their supposed involvement in bombings both in the Philippines and in other neighboring countries, with Marwan being accused of involvement in the deadly 2002 Bali, Indonesia bombing.

The area of operations has been described as “marshy, criss-crossed by rivers, with wide open cornfields and irrigation canals.” It is in Mamasapano, where the MILF, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and private armed groups have a significant presence.

According to the results of the PNP Board of Inquiry released on February 9, the 84th Special Action Company (Seaborne) killed Marwan in Barangay Pidsandawan. They came under fire as they were exiting the area. The 55th Special Action Company, the SAF blocking force, lost 35 of its 36 members in the firefight in Barangay Tukanalipao. (Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident)

The CHR reported on February 4 that “The violent incident of January 25, 2015, in Mamasapano left 44 Philippine police forces, 18 MILF combatants and at least 5 civilians including a 5-year old girl dead, and an undetermined number of other combatants and civilians wounded. As of February 1, at least 1,500 families have been displaced. All of these occurred within the context of an ongoing peace process and despite the protocols that have been put in place to prevent incidents such as this.”

Limited sources of information

A number of factors led to the outcome of the Mamasapano incident. Unfortunately, the media coverage missed the opportunity to present its complexities. Obviously, there were few sources who could testify to what actually happened, but the media hardly noted this lack in continuing to report opinion and speculation.

Particularly troubling was the use of confidential sources. A number of news reports cited “unidentified,” “anonymous” and “unnamed” sources for their narratives of the events that happened on and/or led to January 25. Although acceptable in some instances, especially when the safety of sources is concerned, in most of these cases of faulty attribution, the sources’ reliability was questionable and the information disclosed could have been verified through other sources.

In a repeat of past coverage, government sources dominated the news reports. Such government agencies as the PNP, AFP, DOJ, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG),the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and its heads were the usual sources. Both the news reports and the commentaries liberally quoted members of the Senate and House, while egregiously ignoring MILF and other Muslim sources, such as Mindanao communities, civil society organizations, and other individuals advocating peace.

The news reports and commentaries reported the suffering, fears and grievances of the slain SAF commandos’ families, while the sentiments of the MILF members and their community in Mamasapano barely made either print or broadcast news.

“Us” vs “Them”

The Mamasapano incident caused a quick turnaround in the positive public sentiments for peace that in March last year were encouraged by the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) between the GPH and the MILF, among other reasons through the quality of media coverage.

Reports on the Mamasapano clash revealed the extent of deeply held anti-MILF and anti-Muslim biases among both the media and the majority Christian population. Because the media dwelt on the death of the SAF 44, and the grief of their families, any call for restraint and sobriety was interpreted in the social media as reflecting partisanship for the MILF. Any attempt to clarify the perspective of the MILF was being dismissed as attempts to “speak for the MILF,” and interpreted as hostility to the SAF 44.

This was the case in the reporting of the meeting between Deles and Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., during which she was reported to have said that the SAF should also be held accountable for the incident. The Times on February 15 reported, “Besides ‘passionately’ defending the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in her conversation with Sen. Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles also argued that accountability should be exacted from the side of the police commandos who stormed the rebel lair on Jan 25 in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao province.” (“Deles: SAF should be held accountable”) The Times published on the same day carried the headline “Deles clears MILF | Gov’t peace adviser says SAF men stormed rebel territory.”

The report was based on a digital copy of the conversation between the two officials. Marcos and Deles did not know that the meeting at the senator’s office was being recorded. The audio file was posted in social media, claiming that the meeting on January 26 was to “’whitewash’ the investigation” on the Mamasapano incident. Both officials released statements clarifying what the meeting was about and emphasized that the claim that Deles was after a “whitewash” was a falsehood.
(“Deles assails misinformation, calls for accountability and truth in Mamasapano incident“; “Statement on audio recording circulating in social media“)

The recording of the conversation was problematic as well. Information acquired through illegal means should not be used by the media as is, and should be validated by the parties concerned.

Most news organizations used the words “massacre,” “slaughter” and “carnage” to describe the fighting that left at least 67 people dead. The use of these imprecise and emotionally-laden terms compromised the public’s appreciation of what happened, and contributed to demands for vengeance and even the resumption of the failed “total war” approach to conflict.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chief Abul Khayr Alonto said it was a “disservice” to the combatants to describe the encounter as a massacre: “As a veteran of the Mindanao war, I wish to express our indignation in the use of the word massacre in describing the incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Those 44 police SAF commandos who were part of 392 fully geared combatants that entered the MILF base command alongside their bounty hunter informants and civilian military guides, 17 mujaheeden were killed—all in the line of duty.” (“MNLF: Mamasapano clash not a massacre, both sides fought valiantly,” Inquirer, February 2)

Trivializing grief

Some TV news segments made a spectacle of the families’ private moments of sorrow to point fingers and lay blame, even when facts had not yet been ascertained: for example, showing a close-up shot of a crying wife with an accompanying voice over — “Galit po (kay President Aquino) kasi po sila na nga ang biktima, sila pa ‘yung sinisisi nila. Hindi sila susugod sa area na ‘yun kung wala po ‘yung commanding officer na nagsasabi sa kanila (I’m mad at President Aquino because he blames the victims. They will not go to an area without a commanding officer’s order).” In the same segment, an obviously distraught daughter was also displayed on camera, and her sentiments aired: “Papa, miss na miss na kita (Papa, I miss you very much).” (January 29, 24 Oras)

The next day, another TV news segment aired a video of a mother crying and screaming: “managot na ang dapat managot. Namatay na ang anak ko (Those accountable need to pay for what happened. My son died).” The narration: “Ang ina ni PO1 Loreto Capinding, nag-iiyak habang hinihintay ang pagdating ni Pangulong Noynoy Aquino. Nang makapasok na sa loob, halos maglupasay ito sa kaiiyak nang makaalis na ang Pangulo (The mother of Police Officer 1 Loreto Capinding wept as she awaited the arrival of President Aquino. She went inside, and almost fell to the floor sobbing when the President left.” (January 30, 24 Oras)

TV Patrol anchor and former vice president of the Philippines Noli de Castro was emotional and was not able to finish his expression of sympathy with the SAF members and their families (January 29.)

Worse than these intrusions into private grief, several news organizations in effect glorified violence, pandering to anti-Muslim sentiments, and were grossly insensitive to the already grief- stricken families of those killed in the January 25 Mamasapano clash when they published screengrab photos and/or aired footage from a gory video taken by an unidentified person or persons at the height of the fighting.

A six-minute video later authenticated by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was uploaded on social media showing a PNP-SAF commando being shot twice at close range in the corn fields where the encounter happened. The video went viral on February 11.

TV Patrol refrained from showing the video or parts of it. Their February 11 report “Viral Video” proved that there are alternatives to reporting the horror of the January 25 incident without resorting to the display of blood and gore and corpses, which CMFR sustains as a taboo.

Providing more information, the segment included interviews with Justice Sec. Leila De Lima instructing the NBI Anti-Cybercrime Division to validate the footage, National Capital Region Police Office C/Supt. Generoso Cerbo Jr. on the PNP’s views, MILF First Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar on the group’s statement, and Malacañang’s request to take the video down.

Despite the video’s graphic content, Network News, 24 Oras, Aksyon aired parts of it, although they warned the TV audience about it and blurred parts of the clips they aired.

Network News showed most of the footage accompanied by its own dramatic narration as though the video in itself did not suffice to incite passion: “…Our videographer seems to be struggling with something and then he begins to run. He catches up with and falls behind one other fighter who walks with the air of one who knows the lay of this bloodied land. They passed by a few other rebels huddled over and standing near bodies on the ground, one of them with his helmet on. The man with the cellphone keeps walking and comes across more bodies as if he is recording for posterity….”

The Times published on its front page unpixelated photos from the video with the caption: “NO MERCY | This photo of a video clip that went viral on Facebook shows a Muslim rebel finishing off a wounded police commando.”

The Tribune published on its front page a pixilated photo of the video clip. The accompanying story “Execution video sparks outrage vs MILF deal” read: “A footage likely taken from a mobile phone operated by a Muslim militant during the Mamasapano massacre last Jan. 25 showing the execution of wounded Special Action force (SAF) commandos may have solidified public opposition to the pursuit of a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).”

The Inquirer, Star, and Malaya published cropped screengrab photos of the video clip.

Unwittingly or not, the airing and publication of such acts of violence contributed to the spread of the objectionable content. Instead of helping the public to better understand the Mamasapano incident, it further stoked already widespread opposition to the peace agreement between the MILF and the government.

The video had yet to be validated by official sources at the time and an investigation into who were behind the “overkill” of the SAF 44 commandos is still ongoing. Arbitrarily assigning blame for the violence and using loaded language not only ignored the complexity of the situation, but also boosted already high levels of anti-Muslim sentiments. Compassion was also sacrificed by the news reports’ intrusion into the privacy and grief of the people involved, particularly the slain SAF commando and his family.

On the ground

It took a few days after the incident before mainstream news organizations gave space and time to other voices. Selected news reports by MindaNews, Rappler.com, ABS-CBN News and GMA News shared the stories of the residents of Mamasapano, the families of the 18 MILF members who died in the clash, and other stakeholders who are also mourning their loss, who want to know what happened during the SAF operation, and who are asking for justice and the continuation of the peace talks.

According to MindaNews, one of the first organizations to report the sentiments of the people on the ground, a resident said “’irespeto natin ang usaping pangkapayapaan (let’s respect the peace process)’ to avoid a repeat of Sunday’s tragedy.” (“As war drums beat elsewhere, residents in Mamasapano village pray for peace,” MindaNews, January 28)

MindaNews also published an interview with Haramen, operations commander of the 7th Brigade of the 105th Base Command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), who recalled the events of January 25 from his perspective. (“Q and A with MILF Commander Haramen on Mamasapano: ‘Walang eroplano, walang bazooka’,” February 13)

In Tukanalipao, the relatives of slain MILF members were also trying to cope with their own grief.

Pareho rin kaming nawalan ng anak o asawa. Kaya lahat kaming namatayan ng asawa, nasasaktan din. Hindi lang sila. Pati rin kami dito (We share the loss of loved ones. Like us who lost their husbands, we are in pain. It’s not just them, we also grieve),” said Rakma Dagadas. (“Hustisya sigaw rin ng mga kaanak ng napatay na MILF,” ABS-CBN News, February 1; “MILF also seeks justice for 18 slain fighters,” ABS-CBN News, February 2)

Some MILF members who survived the clash said “they tried to abide by the ceasefire agreement.” But they were forced to fight back when they were caught in the exchange of fire. The MILF said members of the BIFF and private armies were also involved in the incident. (“Kin of MILF dead in Mamasapano also cry for justice, seek explanations,” GMA News Online, February 2; “Kaanak ng 18 miyembrong MILF na nasawi sa engkwentro, katarungan ang hiling,” GMA News, February 3)

In “The Mourners of Mamasapano,” Norma, wife of MILF fighter Suweb Kemod said: “She knows the Moros are being blamed for all the deaths. She sees it. They blame Mindanao. Men come in and invade her home, and when they are hurt, when they die, it is still Mindanao at fault….. She is used to this – it is how it has always been.” (Rappler, February 18)

Toward peace

Despite the negative impact of the Mamasapano incident on the continuation of the peace process, the contextual information that could have helped the public better understand what happened were few and far between.

An obvious weakness was the absence of historical reference to the Muslim insurgency, the MILF, the BIFF as well as the ongoing mechanisms of the peace process. There was no reference either to the success of the ceasefire after the Al-Barka incident in 2011.

The Inquirer did publish helpful background information recounting the bloodiest battles between government forces and armed groups in the past four decades. (“Most violent encounters between gov’t forces and rebels,” January 27)

The Star also published a report on three SAF-MILF clashes prior to Mamasapano, going back to 1995. The story noted two other SAF-MILF encounters before the January 25 incident. (“What happened before: Mamasapano incident 3rd SAF-MILF clash since 1995,” January 29).

Despite the hope of achieving a lasting peace, the Mamasapano incident has delayed the GPH-MILF negotiations and the creation of the Bangsamoro region. Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II said “Naturally, there will be some impact. Although we are hopeful and confident that this would not derail the peace talks.”

But the voices calling for peace — conflict prevention, management and resolution — were drowned out by the strident drumbeat of war.

As in past clashes between government and rebel forces, the editorials and news commentaries took the lead, broadening the discussion about the realities of conflict and the options for peace.

On MILF taking part in the dialogue:

“It is important for the public to listen to what Iqbal and his fellows have to say. They are Filipinos who, at one point, had felt the need to wage war to press their claims for justice and recognition in their own land, but are now willing to submit to the legislative process—with a Congress such as ours—for a law that could allow them a measure of peace at last…. Their eventual peace is ours, too. It’s not us versus them. In the search for peace, Iqbal’s demonstration of earnestness deserves consideration, not hostility.” (Inquirer, Editorial, “Not us versus them,” February 14)

In a column “The cost of war, the price of peace:”

“For those who say that the path to peace is through more bloodshed needs to have their heart and mind examined. It is easy for those who are not in the zones of conflict to sit in their air condiditoned offices and studios and pontificate while others do the bleeding and the suffering…. The Bangsamoro Basic Law is the only rational path to peace that we have right now. It does not matter whose legacy this will be. But for the sake of future generations of Filipinos, we must give peace a chance.” (Star, “Breakthrough,” February 1)

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.