It was a threat he had heard several times, said with much fanfare on at least three occasions, but never carried out each time.
To news anchor Manuel “Manny” Rabacal, cult leader and engineer Rodrigo “Rudy” Maneja was the boy who cried wolf—until one hot sunny morning on Aug. 10, 1985, when he set himself on fire before a stunned crowd of about 3,000 people in Plaza Independencia in Cebu City.
Maneja first told a blocktime program on radio dyFX of his challenge to Catholic priests, whom he called liars and deceivers, to meet him at the plaza, where he would bring down a ball of fire on them to show who was preaching the truth.
The following day, the 33-year-old university engineering professor went to see Rabacal, then station manager of Bombo Radyo, and told him about his dare to Catholic priests.
“He came to my office. He said if there were priests at the Plaza on Wednesday, he would cause a ball of fire from the sky to hit them. On Wednesday, I sent reporter Tommy Repazo to cover the event live for Bombo, but nothing happened. So I interviewed him on air. He was at the Plaza; I was in the station. I said, ‘O asa na man na? Wala man lagi na imong ball of fire?’ (‘So where is your ball of fire?’) He said he did not push through with it because the priests did not show up,” recalled Rabacal.
A few months later, Rabacal heard Maneja again on the same blocktime program, this time telling the anchors that he would set himself on fire in a ritual called “Baptism of Fire” should the priests continue to ignore his challenge. He would not die, he said, because his god would save him. The ritual was supposedly a doctrine of their Almighty “Yawah Ellohem, with the aim to propagate the real faith that can save mankind.”
Maneja again went to Rabacal’s office the next day to tell him about the “Baptism of Fire.”
Rabacal responded by telling Maneja that all his talk was baloney.
Months later, reporter Repazo called Rabacal to tell him that Maneja was already at the plaza wanting to be interviewed before the ritual.
“When I approached Maneja at the plaza to ask what he was doing, he said, “Magpasunog ko.” (I will have myself burned.) My reply was, ‘Ah, diay?’ (‘Oh, really?’) That’s why people said he was dared to do it. I told him, ‘Puro man lang ka binuang. Tingali’g kaning imoha paukyab lang ni ha.’ (‘All you’ve been saying is nonsense. Maybe you just want to stir up public opinion.’),” recalled Rabacal.
“I thought it was just publicity for his religion. He said he would have himself burned, but that he would not burn,” Rabacal said.
His interview with Maneja was aired live. As he gave a detailed account of the events, the group of about 20 followers of Maneja’s Kahalha Hamasiyak cult ballooned to a crowd of 3,000 people who had come to the plaza to witness the burning.
At 10:20 a.m., Maneja stood on top of a pile of firewood, held by his brother-in-law Federico Gutierrez, who had with him bottles of gasoline. Shortly after, with Gutierrez’s help, Maneja doused himself in gasoline before a stunned crowd, including Rabacal.
“Sus, taod-taod, nikablit na man iyang brother-in-law. Primero namatay. Ingon ko, ah namatay man, gimmick ra tingali ni ay. Pag-ikaduhang duslit na, pang! Nibuto! Booom! Buto ang lawas! Aguy, ingon ko base, pagtawag ug bombero didto. Tawga, paanhia diri,” Rabacal said.
(When his brother-in-law first lit the pyre, the fire died, so I thought it was just a gimmick. But on the second try, his body exploded. I told the base to call the firemen.)
As flames engulfed Maneja’s clothes and skin, his family made sure no one could get near him to try to put out the fire—not even the responding policemen and firefighters.
“The mother refused to let anyone touch Maneja. ‘Don’t touch him,’ she kept saying. It was a religious rite and she said he would come back to life later at 3 p.m. What could we do? The police and firemen were helpless. Nobody touched him, until he died. They brought him to their place in Talisay City. They said he would rise again in about seven days. We waited seven days, but until now he has not come back to life,” Rabacal said.
Rabacal himself did not get in the way, believing that journalists have no right or authority to stop a religious rite.
Though he was not able to warn the police beforehand because he did not take Maneja seriously, Rabacal believes he had done enough when he repeatedly told Maneja prior to the Aug. 10 ritual that his interpretation of the Baptism of Fire as depicted in the bible was too literal. There was no need to set anyone on fire just to prove his faith, he remembered telling the cult leader.
Thirty-two years after the incident, Rabacal still remembers clearly the acrid smell and the deep wailing sound of Maneja’s slow death. But he still stands by how he handled the news coverage despite the flak he drew from his peers in the media, the police investigators and the public.
There is no guilt over his actions in the past, only some questions that might help today’s journalists who may encounter the same situation.
Should a journalist stop a religious ritual that puts a human life in danger and risk liability in doing so?
“My understanding is that journalism cannot get in the way of a religious rite. That is my question now: if journalists have the right to stop religious rites that will endanger the life of a person. I think we have to be clear on what really are our terms of reference for covering events like those because then I would be asked why I didn’t do anything to stop it. I might have been sued if I had stopped him,” he said.
Rabacal said there were other opinions on this, but that it would have to be established whose view was correct; otherwise, journalists would face criticism again when a similar incident occurs.
If the same incident were to happen today, he said: “I would do the same thing, for who am I to stop them when even his own mother and siblings didn’t want us to stop them?… In fact, they wanted it to happen. My role was to tell the public what was going on. That’s it.”
On the night Maneja burned himself to death, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) Cebu chapter board members called an emergency meeting to “discuss and investigate” Rabacal’s coverage earlier that day.
Issues on propriety and sensationalism were raised, with some criticizing the news anchor for discussing in detail how Maneja’s sex organs were burned during the ritual.
During that meeting, Rabacal said, the KBP members were divided on the issues raised. He noted that a priest who sat in the board agreed that where religious rites were concerned, “our role is just to cover. We cannot stop them from doing it.”
“They said my coverage was sensationalized; that was my only fault. But I didn’t know because all I was saying was a fact, no malice at all. Is there malice when you describe his organs burning? I was just trying to give a picture of the event as clearly as I could. That’s all they said—it was not a violation of journalistic ethics. There was no formal complaint,” he said.
Police investigators also talked to Rabacal and his reporter, but they were not named respondents in the complaint filed against Maneja’s brother-in-law, who was later cleared of the charges.
Without hard and fast rules among most news organizations on how the likes of the Maneja coverage should be handled, Jason Baguia, University of the Philippines Cebu assistant professor of mass communication, said every journalist should approach such coverage with caution so as not to cause or contribute to the danger that individuals may face.
“To first do no harm is basic in ethics. In the context of journalism and in light of the human right to life, a journalist should never aggravate any circumstance in which harm could befall a human being,” the media ethics professor said.
He recalled the Manila hostage crisis of 2010 that saw lapses on the part of broadcast journalists and networks that covered the situation.
“It is now generally held that restraint in reporting could have helped defuse the situation and perhaps reduced the probability of casualties following the intervention of law enforcers,” he said.
Baguia, a columnist of Cebu Daily News and inquirer.net, suggested that in covering a hostage crisis or an incident like Maneja’s Baptism of Fire, journalists can perhaps find positions and report in a way that is unobtrusive both to the police and the aggressor.
On the Maneja coverage, he said: “Training in the liberal arts would equip the journalist to differentiate between a genuine religious ritual and extremism. True religion eschews imperiling human beings in any way. The task of direct intervention to save human life or preempt dangerous scenarios properly belongs to law enforcers, doctors and allied medical professionals. But a crucial part of the journalist’s mission is to report with sufficient foresight, thereby enabling the authorities in turn to intervene in good time to eliminate dangers or save lives.”
(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)