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Jolo Cathedral Bombings: Terrorism Despite Martial Law | CMFR

Jolo Cathedral Bombings: Terrorism Despite Martial Law

Photo from the PCOO website.

AFTER TWO years, Martial Law has failed to quell the violence in Mindanao. Two bombings rocked a Catholic shrine, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in the predominantly Muslim city of Jolo, Sulu. The bloody attack struck during mass on Sunday morning on January 27; killing 22 people, including military personnel stationed outside the church. More than a hundred others were wounded.

The incident occurred two days after the Commission on Elections declared the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) through a plebiscite held on January 21.  The BOL which creates a self-governing autonomous Muslim region was rejected in Sulu.

Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesperson Bernard Banac described the attack in an interview on ANC as “just a clear and simple act of terrorism” but dismissed the BOL as motive for the bombing.

As in any terror attack, the bombings did not make it easy to get to the facts. Media followed official accounts, quoting sources from the military and police, the Cabinet and the Palace. As reports patched together separate statements, media failed to make sense of the differing views about motives and perpetrators. Media also failed to highlight the importance of security and intelligence gathering to protect communities from such attacks.

CMFR monitored the reporting of three broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon and CNN Philippines’ News Night), and selected online news sites from January 27 to February 5.

Failure of Intel?

Two main questions drove the coverage: What kind of bombs were used? Was the ISIS claim for responsibility credible?

The different statements cited by the media made clear that authorities were not in agreement about the circumstances of the bombings in the cathedral site.

TV reports and online news pointed out that officials speaking had conflicting claims. Unfortunately, media tended to report each claim as it was made, without saying that none of these theories had evidence to prove them.

First to investigate on the ground, the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said remotely-detonated bombs were likely used. But the president insisted that foreign suicide bombers were responsible for the blasts. After Duterte spoke, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana expressed their agreement.

The military, in releasing CCTV footage of persons of interest, continued to investigate for evidence that would confirm the circumstances of the bombing. The video suggested the AFP’s pursuit of another theory implicating the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The media reported this lead with little reservations. Unfortunately for the AFP, the persons in the video later came forward denying their supposed membership in the ASG. 

Only the Inquirer editorial on February 5 was able to weave together the officials’ diverse theories. Reviewing the news accounts, it pointed out that once Duterte said suicide bombers were involved in the blast, officials tended to echo in agreement, although none of them actually cited confirmed evidence to support the view.

The Inquirer also reported how survivors of the bombing along with Jolo Mayor Kherkar Tan were unconvinced of the suicide bombing theory. They called out security forces for failing to detect and apprehend the bomb carriers. But the view of these civilians, as well as the evacuees who were forced to leave their homes because of Duterte’s all-out offensive order on the ASG barely figured in the coverage.

The Jolo blasts revealed huge lapses in security and intelligence-gathering, despite the supposedly strengthened military presence in Mindanao. This was the context that most media missed in their reports, the need for Martial Law unquestioned.