MSU blast a grim reminder of 2017 Marawi siege

MEDIA DESCRIBED the December 3 bombing at the Dimaporo Gym of the Mindanao State University (MSU) as one of the deadliest terror attacks since the Marawi siege in 2017. The blast killed four people and wounded 50 others during the Catholic Mass on the first Sunday of the Advent season. 

The bomb blast gained banner treatment in all newspapers and the top headlines on TV news programs, the latter showing videos which captured the despair of the victims’ families in their interviews.

Media reports as early as December 3 cited the statement of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. condemning “the senseless and most heinous acts perpetrated by foreign terrorists.” The accounts also quoted security officials who said the blast might have been a retaliatory attack for earlier military operations.

On Friday, December 1, the Philippine military in an encounter killed 11 members of Dawlah Islamiyah, including their new leader. On Saturday, December 2, the leader of the Abu Sayaff group in Basilan was killed while on Sunday, December 3, another leader of the Dawlah Islamiyah group was killed the same day as the MSU bombing.

Authorities said they are still hunting down at least four persons of interest who are allegedly members of a local terrorist group. But the military has not discounted the December 4 claim of the Islamic State that it was responsible for the deadly bombing from an improvised explosive device.

Reports also cited condolences and condemnations of various groups, the prayer of Pope Francis, the statements from foreign governments expressing condolences and condemning the terror attack. 

Lapses and gaps 

CMFR notes the slips in coverage, as media hyped up the violence using photos and videos of dead bodies. Blurring and using black and white images may have muted the shocking impact, but the visuals sensationalized the tragedy, nevertheless. It also violated the privacy and dignity deserved by the dead. Such display suggests editorial insensitivity for the feelings of survivors, for the shock and grief of family and friends of those who died. 

Unlike all other newspapers, The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s banner story, on December 4, failed to identify in its lead the location of MSU. Datelined Iligan City, the lead made no mention of Marawi and could have easily misled readers about the site of the attack. Marawi and the continuing plight of its people was only mentioned in the middle of the story by one of its sources.

Blast from the past, the hold of ISIS in Mindanao 

Media recalled that Marawi City was the site of a five-month battle in 2017 after a terrorist group linked to the Islamic State seized the city. Rappler described Marawi as a predominantly Muslim city of 200,000 people in this mostly Catholic country of 109 million. More than a thousand people, including civilians, died in the 153-day Marawi war that lasted from May 23 to October 23, 2017. 

TV5’s Frontline Tonight in an explainer correctly recalled the death of Isnilon Hapilon, emir or leader of Islamic State-Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, leader of the Maute group. These deaths may have signaled the end of the influence of the Islamic State in October 2017. But the explainer pointed out that the current bomb attack reveals that the Islamic State (Daulah Islamiyah) retains its power in Mindanao. It provided the history of Isis and named the Philippine groups that pledged allegiance to Isis, namely Abu Sayyaf, the Maute group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a faction of Abu Turaife, and Ansar Khalifah.

The Philippine Star, in an editorial, took a more expansive approach, connecting the attack in MSU with the continuous armed violence in other parts of the country. It listed killings of politicians during the barangay elections and non-politicians who are killed “in their homes, on the streets, and in public buses.”

Angles of Peace

Media also highlighted the calls for peace. News reports echoed statements from peace groups and local governments and cited priests and Muslim leaders. But some stories stood out. Another Rappler story captured the gesture of peace with Marawi Muslims reaching out to grieving Christian families after the blast. Rappler talked with MSU alumni and peace advocates who mostly spoke on condition of anonymity in giving their support to affected families.

Meanwhile, GMA Integrated News republished online its documentary first aired six years ago about Marawi. It showed MSU as a refuge during the conflict, where Christians and Muslims helped each other. 

The Philippine Daily Inquirer, in an editorial, noted that the terrorists’ plan was to incite religious tensions. But it pointed out that Islam and Christianity are religions of peace, saying that the national government and the people should “double down” on peace initiatives in the region. 

Rappler and MindaNews also published fact-checks about a false hate message against Christians that had quickly spread on Facebook. 

Use of Intelligence

The military and the police earlier denied any intelligence failure, but admitted on Thursday that there was a failure “in a way.” These did not stop some officials from raising the issue of intelligence funds and the need to study its use. As the investigation proceeds, media need to keep the issue alive because of the controversial requests for confidential intelligence funds.

Inquirer’s editorial was sharp enough: “All the debates about intelligence funds being rightfully given to the agencies involved in national security were meant precisely to prevent terror activities by homegrown extremists with links to international terrorists.”

As the investigation continues, media should not keep this episode off the news agenda. Journalists need to remain vigilant in scrutinizing the government’s response and actions moving forward. As CMFR previously noted, violence such as bombings continued to occur in Marawi City even while Duterte’s martial law was in effect. 

Marawi residents have seen violence up close, and directly experienced atrocities in the name of some aspiration for a pan-Islamic state. 

Sadly, this is not the end of the story. But there are ways to turn the narrative toward peace. Media should include discussion of the hard core ISIS following in Mindanao. Perhaps, government and the people need to understand their legitimate grievances. The minoritized and marginalized can be driven to desperate measures when no one hears them.