When Johanna Bajenting learned from a colleague that the military was already engaging suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits in Inabanga, Bohol, she boarded the next outbound fast ferry with nothing but a notebook, a recorder and the clothes she had on.
“We arrived at around 3 p.m. of April 11. This was nine hours after the clash,” she said, referring to Alex Badayos, SunStar Cebu photo chief, and two other Cebu-based journalists—Alan Tangcawan and Romeo Marantal.
Their destination was Barangay Ilaya, a community of 414 people according to the 2016 census, which sprawls along the Inabanga River.
Scattered along the banks of a distributary stream were soldiers and policemen concealed behind bushes and trees. On the other side and similarly situated, Abu Sayyaf men.
“We had barangay tanods carrying water to the frontline bring us there. I sat on the ground, behind coconut trees and kept low when there was shooting. When it got quiet, I glanced up from where we were hiding and began interviewing civilians who were also there and who hid with me,” she said.
She estimated her position to be about less than 20 meters from where bullets were landing.
Her coverage lasted about two hours. At sundown, she and her two colleagues pulled back to the municipal hall where she joined another Cebu-based colleague, Cebu Daily News photojournalist Tonee Despojo and around eight Bohol-based reporters, and began “thumbing” her story using a mobile phone.
Photo chief Alex, who had crept with Tangcawan to a place that offered a better lay of the land from which to take photos, captured some of the action.
Tangcawan got about the same material, but with a bonus: footage captured by mobile phone and uploaded to Facebook as soon as they reached the municipal hall and got mobile coverage back. Marantal was not able to report on the field owing to the lack of service but was able to fire a report from the rear.
For all the excitement, Johanna admits she didn’t get much by way of information at the edge of the fighting.
She got eyewitness accounts, got information about how the bandits were allegedly brought into Inabanga by a local named Joselito Melloria, and noticed issues like poor coordination between ground troops and air support assets. But the main story published the following day came by way of her fellow journalist, Kevin Lagunda, who reported from the Police Regional Office (PRO) 7 headquarters in Cebu City.
The PRO 7, located inside Camp Sergio Osmeña on the corner of Osmeña Boulevard and R.R. Landon Street, was the designated Tactical Operations Center (TOC) of the joint Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police response.
At the TOC, information from the ground commander got relayed to Chief Supt. Noli Taliño, then PRO 7 director, who had operational command of the response. It was also where strategic decisions were made and where the corresponding directives got communicated to the ground.
There were also periodic updates of information cleared for release and other information enterprising reporters could wiggle out of sources despite orders to maintain OPSEC (operational security).
“They (the reporters at the TOC) could probably get the same information we got at the edge of the fighting, but at a later time,” defended Johanna.
But Mindanao-based journalist Nef Luczon and Manila-based correspondent Mark Saludes say it is often the events unfolding away from the front—the impact of the fighting among the residents, the evacuation of civilians, the needs of the affected populations, among other things—that make up the more compelling and relevant stories.
While the two did not cover the Inabanga clash, the two are actively still pursuing stories of the more recent Marawi crisis—where fighting that began following a foiled raid on a safehouse of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon escalated into an ongoing city-wide gun battle between government forces and elements of the Maute Group.
“We all know what war looks like. But we don’t often see the suffering that war brings. That’s more relevant; that’s the news,” said Luczon, who writes for BlueInk.News.
Saludes, who writes for Ucanews and BlueInk, agrees and adds that the humanitarian crisis that the clash has produced deserves attention because the needs of those affected and displaced are pressing and media attention allows those affected to communicate what these are.
Johanna admits that she was not able to pursue these types of reports in the three days she stayed in Inabanga.
“I didn’t want to leave my position and the others. I was also concerned about my safety and didn’t want to be separated or alone,” she said.
Where’s the gear?
Indeed, Cebu-based journalists covering the first day of the Inabanga clash on April 11 looked nothing like the Manila and Mindanao-based journalists who descended upon Marawi City when a joint police and military team clashed with fighters from the Maute Group last May 23.
While Johanna, Alex, Alan and Romeo hugged the ground and captured the action wearing everyday clothes, the journalists now in Marawi City wear office-issued bullet proof vests and kevlar helmets.
And while the Cebu-based reporters managed to foray no more than 20 meters from the fighting in Inabanga, journalists covering Marawi City limit themselves well to the rear of the gunfight.
Johanna, like other Cebu-based journalists, don’t often cover conflict and, as a result, are not issued the same equipment as Manila and Mindanao’s “war correspondents.”
“I didn’t even have permission to go. I just phoned the desk that I was leaving while I was already at the port,” she admitted.
Television journalist Jun Veneracion, a veteran of many armed conflict coverages for GMA Network, said safety gear “spells the difference between life and death” in covering armed conflicts. His reports from conflict zones show him wearing both a kevlar helmet and a level 3 vest with the word media in front.
Culture of safety
Beyond the gear, journalists also need to be in the proper frame of mind.
“Don’t put yourself in a situation where you become too close to the main operating units. You need not be in the heart of the action to deliver the most effective piece of news. When we are too close, we might even miss the big picture,” he said.
Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development and a safety instructor of the International News Safety Institute, agrees.
“More important than tactical gear is having a culture of safety and the adoption and practice of safety and security protocols. The gear is useless if the behavior is bad,” he said.
Defining bad, he added: “when they unnecessarily expose themselves to return fire because of how they position themselves, for instance… doing a stand-upper while moving with an armored vehicle that is firing at combatants.”
Veteran journalist Cecil Morella, in a post via social media, cited behavior like capturing and airing troop movements live on platforms like Facebook as among the particularly dangerous.
“Para ka na ding nagbigay ng grid coordinates para patamaan sila ng mortar round o para mahanap sila ng sniper,” the Agence France Presse reporter stressed. “Saka hindi lang ang mga sundalo ang pinapahamak mo pag ganun. Pati mga ibang media na din saka sarili mo. It’s the equivalent of calling in an air strike on yourself.”
Batario joins in: “Reporting conflict is already complex and dangerous as it is. But when FB Live is used to share the reporter’s ‘heroic’ exploits, he or she may be endangering not only himself but the protagonists of the conflict as well as civilians by telegraphing troop movement or escape routes of those trapped in the fighting.”
Veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona, in her own post via social media, said behavior like this not only puts lives at risk but also jeopardizes a profession “already under fire for doing the right things.”
“You almost gave the enemies of free information an opening to crack down on a very crucial coverage,” she said of a particular Visayas-based journalist.
“Media ethics exist to ensure that drive, zeal or the passion to do good do not end up hurting our public,” she said.
(Karlon N. Rama conducts Conflict-Sensitive Journalism training for the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network, under its Peace and Conflict Journalism Program for Southeast Asia. He also delivers lectures on journalism to students of the Communication Arts program of the University of San Carlos.)
For more safety tips for journalists, read also: Girding for battle
(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)