“The truth will soon come out. Nothing is ever hidden.”
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte declared that the conflict between government troops and Maute group in Marawi City is about to end but the public is left groping in the dark.
The dominant media’s coverage of the Marawi crisis has been heavily dependent on military’s pressers and handouts as the military blocked journalists’ access to the main battle area for more than three months.
In a forum organized by the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism last week at the Ateneo de Manila University, photojournalist Jes Aznar showed a photograph of a military’s signage that reads, “No Entry. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.”
Aznar said the sign is intended for journalists who were asserting access to Marawi City but had been holed up in Iligan City.
Speaking at the same forum, ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano said military’s restrictions were “too much.” Zambrano said journalists tried to negotiate with the military but to no avail.
Aznar said they reasoned out to military officials that they have been trained to cover conflict, they have their safety gears and they are willing to sign a waiver. Still, the military restricted their movements.
Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan who has been covering conflicts for a decade said that journalists were allowed access to the frontline, such as in the 2013 Zamboanga siege. When her team arrived in Marawi, they were only allowed access for the first few weeks. “This [Marawi coverage] is one of the most challenging and difficult coverage I’ve ever had,” Alindogan said.
Alindogan lamented that there are government officials who do not understand the media’s role.
Alindogan noted that the videos coming from the frontline are those released by ISIS. “They are not allowing us any embed…Natatalo ang gobyerno. They are a victim of their own decision already.”
It was only on Sept. 13, after 114 days since the siege began, that the military finally allowed the media to enter the main battle area.
What happened inside the main battle area before that remains hidden to the public.
All the information is coming from the military and there is no way to verify the number of the dead and their identity.
Zambrano said they just state, “the military claims,” when reporting the death toll of soldiers, civilians and Islamic militants.
As of Sept. 21, a report quoted military stating that 151 soldiers and policemen, as well as 47 civilians have been killed since the fighting broke out on May 23. The military also claims that 680 fighters from Maute group have been killed.
No one knows how the military identifies the dead to be a civilian or a Maute fighter.
An independent investigation by Kalinaw Mindanao in July showed four victims of extrajudicial killings, five tortured, 20 illegally arrested and detained, and dozens of others whose houses were broken into by soldiers or destroyed by airstrikes in Marawi. They also recorded 110 victims of indiscriminate gunfire and aerial bombardment, four victims of divestment of properties, two victims of violation of domicile, 15 victims of destruction of properties, and 122 victims of threats, harassment, and intimidation.
Alindogan said they also face challenges reporting human rights abuses. “This is what martial law does. It makes people afraid to speak up,” she said, adding that civilians are vulnerable in evacuation centers.
In reaction, Ateneo professor and Mindanews chief executive officer Jose Jowel Canubay said that the coverage in Marawi is overwhelmingly focused on day to day, inch by inch combat operations and has been missing out holistic reporting, such as critical information of what the war implicates.