DEARTH OF INFORMATION IN MARAWI
Military Restrictions Limit Media Coverage
by Reynald Ramirez
The media did not succeed in gaining more access to areas, as the military restricted their movement. They never gave the media access to frontline movements or “embed,” referring to the practice of allowing media to move with the troops.
IT WAS around two in the afternoon on May 23, 2017. Mindanao-based reporter Divina Suson received a text message from a source that said, “A war has erupted in Marawi, please check.”
Without any other information, Suson did not know if the information was true. She then saw social media posts. “Pray for Marawi.” Photos of black-clad armed men roaming around empty streets. But details on the ground were sketchy during that time.
“As a journalist, I looked for verified sources of information but it was a struggle to get clear and official information about the situation on the ground,” said Suson.
Initial reports claimed terrorists had taken over the hospital. Later in the afternoon, she was able to contact a nurse from Amai Pakpak Medical Center whose text read “Please tell the public what is happening here, Marawi is being attacked by Maute-Isis.”
Suson was one of the first journalists who covered the Marawi Siege. “The SunStar office was already asking me to confirm the information and file a report,” she recalled. Information on the outbreak of the siege was unclear and conflicting. “There was no official statement yet, who are the enemies, the information was hazy.”
Later in the evening at 11:00 pm, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issued official confirmation. An attempt by joint forces of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon in his apartment in Basak Malutlut, in the Islamic City of Marawi triggered clashes with government forces. Hapilon had earlier allied with the Maute Group, a local terrorist group operating in Lanao del Sur. Their combined forces took control over parts of Marawi.
The press serves as the eye and ear of the public for all kinds of events and developments. The outbreak of armed conflict in a town or city makes it urgent for journalists to be able to
know what is going on so they can fulfill this obligation. But according to the journalists who covered the Marawi Siege, the tight control on the flow of information prevented the media from reporting the real situation in the conflict-stricken city, even as the war continued to last all of three months.
GMA-7 reporter Sandra Aguinaldo who has been covering conflicts in Mindanao for almost two decades considers war in Marawi the most difficult she has covered.
“It was difficult to get information. Even the day to day updates on the ground were not provided. It was frustrating, even if you are hardworking you won’t get information,” said Aguinaldo.
She said they are forced to just go with what information was given by the military during press conferences.
“We were in a war coverage but we are reporting a press conference inside an air-conditioned room,” she said.
In reporting the real story on the ground, they had to be creative to get other sources of reliable information. Because they were not given the number of fatalities or wounded victims, nor the count of the enemy killed in combat, reporters had friends monitoring funeral parlors in Iligan City, 22 miles away from Marawi.
Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan echoed the complaint. After covering conflicts in Mindanao for ten years, she said the Marawi Siege coverage was different in terms of how the military handled the media and the information about the crisis.
“It was smoke and mirrors,” Alindogan described information released by the military. She added that official sources delayed the release of information, “slowing it down too much,”
She said inconsistencies in official information made it hard. Until now, the actual number of the Islamic State-inspired Maute fighters and the number of civilian hostages remain in question.
“Misinformation happened throughout the whole war. The AFP said there were 200 to 300 Maute fighters at the beginning of the war. At the end of the war, there were 900 killed. How do you know that they were all combatants? How do you know that these were not civilians?”, Alindogan asked.
Negotiating for Information
Members of the press called the attention of the military the problem of limited information to the media. Journalists covering Marawi attended a series of meetings with the military to negotiate more media access to information and to lift the ban on media presence in cleared areas they wanted to cover.
“They did not want to demoralize the soldiers according to the military. That’s why they did not release information,” said Aguinaldo.
But several such meetings did not improve the situation, the flow of information remained restricted. Aguinaldo said that even after the negotiations, reporters still had to contend with the same delay and restriction.
Even journalists from state-owned media organizations had difficulty accessing the ground information from the military. “I was able to attend two meetings with the military. They told us to limit the release of negative information about the military because they are protecting the media,” said former PTV reporter Jervis Manahan.
Off Limits to the Media
The media did not succeed in gaining more access to areas, as the military restricted their movement. They never gave the media access to frontline movements or “embed,” referring to the practice of allowing media to move with the troops. For Alindogan, this was the first time for the military to disallow “embed” for the media.
Reporters took the initiative to create their own guidelines for embedded reporting based on the rules used by foreign media agencies such as Al Jazeera, BBC, and Associated Press. They even included in the guidelines that if they violated the rule they wouldn’t be allowed to cover the frontlines anymore.
“This is beyond the job of the journalists, this is military’s responsibility,” said Alindogan.
The reporters even signed a waiver freeing the military any responsibility for their safety while covering. The journalists presented the draft procedures to military officials during several meetings but the officials never got back to the journalists.
“No matter what you do, journalists are not going to stop covering the story”, said Alindogan.
“We were complaining that we were just allowed to cover the vicinity of the capitol, the main media center. We were saying that we have nothing to show, because we were restricted,” narrated Aguinaldo.
In the first month of the siege, reporters relied on images posted online due to inaccessibility of the ground zero, the city’s main battle area.
“We wrote stories from the social media posts of the residents. It really helped us in showing images from the area which was off limits to the media”, said Aguinaldo.
Journalists took it upon themselves to find ways to access the frontlines. Alindogan was able to get permission to join the Navy Seals in one of their operations. They are a small unit of the military controlling the Lanao Lake.
Her report focused on the importance of guarding the lake that served as the channel of supplies and reinforcement for the Maute fighters. They reached the part of the lake located 500 meters from the port controlled by the Maute fighters. “I wanted to see the frontline I have no way of accessing it on land,” said Alindogan.
Divina Suson joined a military organized trip intended to show what they wanted journalists to see. Suson along with five other journalists went to a military sniper unit stationed in one of the buildings occupied by the government forces.
“I wanted to take photos to tell stories I actually witnessed. I really wanted to feel and describe what’s happening. This was different from stories just told by the military”, said Suson. But they were given only thirty minutes for coverage.
Journalists wear Kevlar protection vest while covering Marawi City on June 25, 2017. The wearing of bullet-proof vest is a mandatory requirement for journalists covering the conflict in Marawi City. Photo by Froilan Gallardo
Alindogan said that because of this limitation of movement, there were not enough reports on human rights violations. “There were a lot of military heroism stories but there should have be balance,” she noted.
There were complains about the loss of homes, damaged livelihood, and alleged illegal arrests according to journalists. Narratives about theses alleged violation committed by the military and other actors were not included in reports because of restricted flow of information and the limited media access.
“You won’t see who gets arrested, civilians are mistaken as enemies. There are families looking for their loved one because of fear that they might be wrongly accused as Maute fighters,” said Aguinaldo.
Aguinaldo had to establish a connection with nongovernment organizations that served as citizen monitoring group to get another source of information. “I needed to connect with them to get information that is not propaganda,” said Aguinaldo.
Beyond the Battlefield
Restriction on the press coverage of military operations forced journalists to look on the issues of Marawi crisis beyond the battlefield. “I am glad I did that,” said Alindogan. She added, “If they don’t want to give us access there are ten other ways to look for stories.”
She produced reports on the toll of the conflict in the local economy, hostages reuniting with families, recovery of the dead bodies and the suffering experienced by ordinary individuals because of the siege.
“Because if we look at the whole story of Marawi, who needs the voice there? It is the poorest of the poor. If you don’t see it then you fail as a journalist”, said Alindogan.
The return to school of students in conflict-affected schools in Marawi and bakwits in the evacuation centers were the focus Manahan’s reports during the Siege.
After the Siege
“Marawi coverage was not only about the battle. You have to look at different angles because the residents are the real casualties of the war, they are the most affected,” said Manahan.
It was four months since the military declared the liberation of Marawi City from terrorist clutches. “We needed to continue covering the rehabilitation of the city. I hope we won’t forget the people of Marawi,” said Manahan.
For the journalists who covered the crisis, the end of the siege is the beginning of the bigger battle for the residents of Marawi City.
“We will only know who won the war in Marawi two to five years from now. The end of combat doesn’t mean the end of the war,” said Alindogan.