This is not really about me, but about the people I meet, the places I visit and the stories I want to share.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

From Hoy Gising to BMPM

During my growing up years in the early 80’s, news and late-night documentary programs dominated my TV viewing habit. But one of the programs that I also followed was the afternoon public service program Hoy Gising! which was anchored by Ted Failon and Korina Sanchez. I particularly liked their “Horror Roll, Honor Roll” segment where my hometown, Marikina became a staple story.

My childhood has become synonymous to dealing with waist-deep floodwaters during the rainy season and as I grew older, I once thought of reporting to Hoy Gising! by mail about our perennially flooded street in Baranggay Parang. Obviously, I was really frustrated on how our local government was handling the flood problem in our town.

I couldn’t remember the reason why I chickened out, maybe if ever the story got aired on TV, the mayor would order a manhunt and I will become a police statistic, or maybe I just didn’t realize the potential outcome of reporting our sorry condition.

Now that I work as a reporter for ABS-CBN, I realize how powerful mass media has become. During those Hoy Gising! days, the concept of “citizen journalism” was never heard of. But that was exactly what citizen journalism is all about, although back then it was through snail mail or a telephone call.

Now, citizen journalism has taken on a new form - through cellphones or email. In 2007, I started doing stories for Bayan Mo I-Patrol Mo, a campaign ABS-CBN launched as an offshoot of its Citizen Patrol segment on TV Patrol.

I wouldn’t forget the first story I did, perhaps the simplest story I have ever done but definitely one of those stories which made a huge impact on ordinary people’s lives. It was from a simple text message of a friend about the construction of a loading and unloading zone for provincial buses in the middle of Guadalupe Bridge in Edsa. Imagine, passengers from the provinces with their “bayongs” and bags getting off their buses in the middle of Edsa, having to play “patintero” against speeding buses and cars.

A day after we did the story, the almost-finished structure was dismantled. A government official admitted that they didn’t want to push through with the project in the first place since it was obviously crazy, but it was proposed by an influential governor and apparently had the go-signal from Malacanang. Fortunately, it didn’t come to a point that someone had to die in the middle of Edsa for the governor to realize how wrong he was.

This election season, Bayan Mo I-Patrol Mo had to be re-born as Boto Mo I-Patrol Mo Ako Ang Simula and I continued doing stories for TV Patrol. Like the loading and unloading zone story, there were other stories where the power of citizen journalists, whom we now call Boto Patrollers, prevailed.

There was this story submitted by a Boto Patroller about a health officer in Marikina who apparently inserted leaflets detailing her credentials as if it were already campaign season. The health officer claimed it was her friends who inserted those leaflets inside the health booklets. She later said she would ask her friends to stop doing their gimmick which is obviously done in bad taste.

In Tagaytay City, a group of youth volunteers complained about the seeming bias of an election officer who refused to give them registration forms. They sent us a cellphone video showing the election officer apparently making a scene and raising her voice in front of the young registrants. In that same video, a man was seen taking hold of his gun as if readying to make use of it.

A Boto Patroller from Angono, Rizal also helped us raise awareness about the voter’s ID. Prior to our story, most voters think that a voter’s ID is necessary come election day, until the Commission on Elections clarified that any valid ID will do.
But there are also frustrating stories wherein government officials are obviously paying lip service, just giving us the soundbytes we need but deep inside are not planning on doing something to address a particular problem.

We have done countless stories about cheap political gimmicks, like notebooks with covers having the photos of a possible candidate in Mindanao and being distributed in the middle of the school year. But the staff of Mr. Notebook Cover said it was not really intended to promote his boss. Ok then, we still gave them the airtime to say their piece.

Equally frustrating are the tarpaulin stories we did. It seems candidates think it is the best way to market themselves this election season, like Mr. Superman of Quezon City or Ms. Tarpaulin Queen of Manila. Despite our stories, it seems those tarpaulins and banners are there to stay until May 2010.

But I am still keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that citizen journalism and mainstream reporting can work hand-in-hand to achieve an honest and peaceful elections next year.

On the one hand, citizen journalists obviously have the access to stories ordinary reporters like me may not have. On the other hand, mainstream reporters can simply make a phone call to concerned officials, make them talk about, and hopefully act on a specific problem.

Now, if I can only bring back time, will I snail mail to Hoy Gising! that report about the constant flooding in our neighborhood in Marikina? Yes, because who knows, I could have shortened the long and unproductive reign of our mayor back then, something which Boto Patrollers these days can easily do with just a few clicks on their cellphones.

(Edited version appeared on the Philippine Star, November 5 2009)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Demolition Job

Sa isang sulok ito ng Ugong Sulok sa Valenzuela City.

Kailangan paalisin na sila kasi kailangan na raw para sa road project yung lugar.

Kahit si Sto. Nino, hindi napigilan ang demolition team.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kape or Kopi?

Was ordering coffee at Starbucks Marikina with high school classmates when I saw this on the menu blackboard:

"90% of the Aceh province in Sumatra, Indonesia sells coffee to make a living. And by buying about half of the delicious Arabica beans grown there, we’re helping them stay in business.”

I was about to take a picture of their menu but their polite barista told me I just can't do that.

I was thinking at that moment, don’t we have our own coffee industry in Batangas, Cavite, Sulu and other provinces?

There’s nothing wrong with helping our equally-poor Indonesian brothers, but shouldn’t we help our own, struggling coffee growers first?

Starbucks is an American company, but they’re doing business here in the Philippines.

They may have good coffee and they're everywhere, but as consumers and as Filipinos, what do we do?

Happy 111th Independence Day!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

After Class Rally

Mother-daughter tandem Joyce and Cherizze Coyang trooped to the main gate of the House of Representatives after their first day of classes.

They braved the afternoon heat and joined some 200 members of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers protesting the impending approval of the Salary Standardization Law 3 before the congressional bicameral conference committee.

They were there to press legislators for a 9,000-peso salary increase, instead of the proposed 6,500-peso wage hike favored by senators and congressmen at the bicam.

When I approached the elder Coyang and asked her why bring along your child in a protest rally, the proud mother said “thrice na siyang sumasama sa rally!”

At least, this early Cherizze is becoming socially aware and feeling for herself the hardships her mother has to undergo just to send her to school.

In the middle of the rally I remembered my mother, a retired public school teacher who was no different from the protesting teachers.

After her classes in school, my mother did tutorials to private school students to make both ends meet.

Other teachers I personally knew had a more difficult time - selling “tocino” to their students.

Some even had to quit teaching and work instead as domestic helpers, cleaning toilets and serving foreign masters despite having a college degree back home.

While there is really nothing wrong with selling “tocino” in public schools (in fact that is even more honorable than what our corrupt politicians are doing in other government offices) or working as a DH, it is about time we change the stereotypical view we have of public school teachers.

But sadly, last thing I heard, the bicam has already passed the 6,500-peso proposal instead of the 9,000-peso one.

Come to think of it, the difference is just 2,500 pesos and yet our senators and congressmen who are earning big bucks from kickbacks can’t give it to our poor public school teachers.

Because of our scrimping senators and congressmen, it seems Joyce and Cherizze will have to prepare for their fourth rally, but hopefully it will be their last.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hiding Her Identity, But Not Her Story

“Vanessa” maybe hiding behind her long-sleeved white blouse, lavander veil and huge sunglasses when she appeared in a press conference inside the Gabriela headquarters in Quezon City.

She is 22 years old, a college student and at one point in her life went to a bar in Makati City and met an American. That’s all we know about her personal life so far.

She may be hiding her identity from the prying eyes and the judgmental minds of the public. But she is not hiding her story.

On April 10, “Vanessa” said she met a foreigner who introduced himself as a US Marine in a bar at The Fort in Makati City.

After several days and a few text messages, she went with the American on April 18 to his hotel room also in Makati City.

But upon entering the room, she said she noticed some things apparently belonging to a woman which she thought belonged to his girlfriend. So as not to complicate the situation, “Vanessa” told him she wanted to leave.

“Vanessa” said the American got mad and pushed her. He slapped her on her face. Then he kissed her on her lips and her chest. And then, he was able to rape her.

“Ipinasok po niya ang ari niya sa akin. Pinapalo ko po siya at sinasagga,” said “Vanessa” in her prepared affidavit read before the media.

“Vanessa” is now under the custody of women’s group Gabriela and is being assisted by lawyers including Atty. Evalyn Ursua, the lawyer of “Nicole” in the 2006 Subic rape case also involving an American.

Gabriela and Ursua are convinced that “Vanessa” was raped. But the victim has consitently said that she is not filing a case against the American because of what happened in the Subic rape case where accused Daniel Smith was acquitted by the Court of Appeals for raping “Nicole.”

“Meron kaming affidavit, medico-legal documents, litrato ng suspect, kumpleto sa evidence but since ayaw ng biktima magsampa ng kaso, nire-respeto namin yan,” said Ursua.

For the protection of the victim, Gabriela and Ursua say they will be hiding the identity of the American because he might retaliate and reaveal the identity of "Vanessa." Although they say they have confirmed that the American is with JUSMAG or the Joint United States Military Assistance Group. In the affidavit of “Vanessa,” the American was referred to as “John Jones.”

Gabriela has once again called for the junking of the Visiting Forces Agreement, the primary reason why American soldiers assigned to the Balikatan exercises are perpetually on Philippine soil.

“After their Balikatan exercises, they are having their rest and recreation at the expense of violating Filipina women,” said Emmi De Jesus, Secretary-General of Gabriela.

The United States embassy in Manila released a short statement hours after “Vanessa” surfaced. “The U.S. takes seriously specific allegations regarding activities by visiting U.S. personnel,” said Karen Schinnerer, Deputy Press Officer.

But will the embassy initiate their own investigation? What exactly do they mean by “taking seriously”?

No one knows if “Vanessa” will be another “Nicole”.

Will a “Makati rape case” follow the highly publicized Subic rape case?

But as of now, maybe this should be a wake-up call for American soldiers, or any foreigner for that matter to treat Filipinas with utmost respect. I am not concluding that all American servicemen here in the Philippines are on a prowl for Filipinas inside bars and discos. It’s just that maybe they should be extra careful in dating Filipinas. Well, it is actually a universal rule, whether you are Filipino, American or any other nationality, in any other country.

And on the other hand, maybe Filipinas should also be careful when going out with American servicemen. I have heard comments that “Vanessa” was a willing victim. We all know what is likely to happen when a woman goes to a hotel room with a man she barely knew. Some also say that seeing things apparently belonging to the American’s girlfriend was a lame excuse.

Yes, “Vanessa” may have been thinking of having sex with “John Jones” that night. But that doesn’t give him the license to force her into sex after she realized that it was wrong for her to be there.

Now, in the meantime, we in the media, Gabriela and Atty. Ursua have no choice but to wait for “Vanessa.” If and when she decided to bring her case to court, I just hope we as a nation have not gotten tired of fighting for what is right.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Alias Striker and Aerial Strikes

“Nakakain na ako ng hita, ikaw gusto mo kumain?”, quipped Alias Striker when I asked him if it was true that they were resorting to cannibalism in their fight against Moro rebels in the 1970’s.

Despite his advanced age, Alias Striker is part of the Reformed Ilaga Movement, an armed group resurrected to fight against Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters in Mindanao. As the tension in the region particularly in North Cotabato, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Norte continues to heat up, first and second generation Ilagas are arming themselves to defend their families.

The group gained notoriety in the 1970’s when they waged war against the Moro National Liberation Front. According to the spokesperson of the Reformed Ilaga Movement who introduced himself as Mike Santiago, they were called “Ilaga” which in Hiligaynon language means rat, because they attacked their enemies just like rats in the middle of the night.

Their name also became an acronym for “Ilonggo Landgrabbers Association” since most Ilagas were settlers from Negros and Panay islands who speak Ilonggo or Hiligaynon. Of course, this name did not sit well for the Ilagas.

The government has already warned the Ilagas against pursuing MILF fighters since it will only fan the flames of animosity between Muslims and Christians. North Cotabato Vice Governor Manny Pinol said he will “stop the Ilagas at all cost.”

Malacanang and the military have also reminded the Ilagas not to complicate the on-going military operations against the group of Commanders Umbra Kato and Bravo.

In its campaign against the two MILF commanders, the government has even circulated “wanted” posters with pictures of Commanders Umbra Kato and Bravo. Charges of murder and arson were filed by the government against the two commanders.

But the MILF leadership has always stood by their two commanders even if they were branded by the government as renegade leaders.

MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in a rare press conference inside Camp Darapanan in Maguindanao reiterated that their botched homeland deal with the government is the key to peace in Mindanao. It was the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that led to the MILF attacks in the region and it is safe to assume that only a final homeland agreement will pacify the MILF commanders.

With the military continuing its offensives against Commanders Umbra Kato and Bravo, there seems to be no peace in sight in Mindanao. Military officials keep on saying that they have specific targets – the camps of the two “renegade” commanders.

But as the days go by since the MILF started their attacks, the number of civilian casualties continue to rise.

Twelve-year-old Ruben Pano lost his grandparents, and an uncle in an attack in Pikit town being blamed on MILF sympathizers of Commander Umbra Kato. Their house was razed into ashes and all that is left are the memories of harassment they got even if they were already staying in an evacuation center days after the attack.

Some children though have become immune of the bombs and bullets that have become part of their daily lives since the military airstrikes began. They all watched in awe as we were shooting OV 10 planes in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town in Maguindanao, not knowing that the bombs they were seeing could have killed innocent civilians nearby.

And true enough, collateral damage knows no boundaries - Muslims or Christians, MILF fighters or soldiers - practically anyone in the way of a bullet or bomb is a natural target.

Salampunay Umbay is just one of the widows of war in Maguindanao. She says she lost her husband after an OV-10 fighter plane dropped bombs on their village in Mamasapano town.

One of the bombs that the children in Datu Saudi Ampatuan were watching could have been the deadly bomb that found its way in Mamasapano, killing the husband of

The body of her husband was to be found five days later. Worse, Salampunay does not know where to find her eight children after they were separated from each other as they panicked after the military attacks on their town.
The non-government organization Mindanao Emergency Response Network says the number of deaths will increase as there seems to be no stopping the firefight even during the holy period of Ramadhan.

“Wala namang pinipili ang bala,” says Rose Ebus, MERN convenor.

With this grim scenario ahead of us here in Mindanao, can’t we just go on with the peace process, continue deliberating on the MOA by consulting all sectors concerned and let’s all move forward without firing a single bullet, without launching a single howitzer and without dropping a single bomb?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Princess of the Stars No More

A few hundred bodies are presumed still trapped inside the ill-fated MV Princess of the Stars, lying upside down more than a kilometer from the shores of San Fernando, Romblon.

The relatives of the victims are asking, when will they be able to claim the bodies of their loved ones? The longer the bodies stay inside the ship, the higher the chances of retrieving them badly dismembered.

Residents of San Fernando are likewise asking, when will the ship be finally evacuated out of their waters? But aside from San Fernando, two other towns in Sibuyan Island are also badly hurt - Cajidiocan and Magdiwang which are also highly dependent on the abundant marine life of Sibuyan Sea.

As of now, there’s no stopping the provincial government of Romblon from filing a class suit against Sulpicio Lines. The Municipality of San Fernando may have accepted 180 boxes of assorted canned goods from the shipping company for the affected fishermen in coastal villages, but it does not calm down their anger for lost opportunities.

Good thing Sulpicio Lines did not ask the recipients of their goods to sign a waiver.

Since Day 1, fishermen and fish vendors were affected by the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars. Nobody dared to buy fish in Sibuyan Island fearing seafood caught there fed on dead bodies waiting to be retrieved.

And the pesticide Endosulfan also made matter worse, not only for the divers who swam into waters possibly contaminated with the toxic chemical, but for residents of San Fernando and nearby towns who consume seafood caught in the waters of Sibuyan Sea.

Accroding to San Fernando Mayor Nanette Tansingco, in her town alone, some 1 000 families are affected because of the fishing ban being implemented as a counter-measure to the possibility of the pesticide leaking out of the sunken ship.

The class suit against Sulpicio has yet to be filed. But on top of the endosulfan scare, the threat of an oil spill occuring in Sibuyan Sea should not be overlooked. According to the Philippine Coast Guard, the ship carried 230,000 liters of bunker fuel oil when it left Manila.

Nevertheless, locals are still preparing for the possibility of bunker fuel oil leaking out of the ship and cauing destruction to lives and nature just like what happened to Guimaras in Western Visayas.

As it is, there is a whole range of problems caused by the ship - the still to be completed retrieval operations, the endosulfan scare, the threat of an oil spill, the effects of the fishing ban on the livelihood of residents.

And yet, just like the sunken ship, everything remains on a standstill.

I would like to believe that the real culprit here to begin with was the erratic weather on June 21 which the MV Princess of the Stars challenged. Of course, nature won. Contrary to claims made by Sulpicio Lines officials and some lawmakers that Pag-asa made erratic forecasts, it was really the unpredictable nature of weather that came into play. Although of course, we really cannot rule out the possibility of the captain of the ship committing disastrous miscalculations.

It could be that the ship entered the eye of the strorm as stated by MV Princess of the Stars crewmen who testified before the Board of Marine Inquiry that after experiencing rough weather conditions, the winds dropped, only to find themselves sailing through fierce winds again.

Or, it could be the fault of the captain that despite the bad weather, he still went on with his voyage despite the option of anchoring on a nearby island.

But again, while doing the inevitable fault-finding, officials should race against time in retrieving bodies rapidly decomposing inside the ship.

Days after the sinking, some relatives of the passengers traveled all the way to Sibuyan Island, hoping to personally identify and claim the bodies of their relatives. It is already difficult as it is to accept that your loved one died, struggling inside the vessel on that fateful day.

Hoping against hope, they never found their relatives among the dead bodies recovered near Sibuyan Island. But at least, it was a cathartic experience for them especially after a mass was held for the victims at the site of the shipwreck.

After the mass, one by one, the relatives blurted out their pent-up emotions – asking for forgiveness for simply not being there when the ship sank. They also threw flowers to the sea hoping that the souls who perished may soon find peace.

At the end of the mass, one of the relatives of the missing passengers, Mark Anthony Barrozo was in tears saying sorry to his partner Michelle. She was pregnant with their first child and was on her way to Cebu for a family reunion. Whatever it was that Mark Anthony was asking forgiveness for, I never asked.

After hoping against hope of finding Michelle in Sibuyan, Mark Anthony and the sister and brothers of Michelle headed to Cebu where the identification process through DNA testing is being held.

But before leaving Sibuyan, I gave them my contact number and told them to inform me about the good news of finally finding Michelle. But I have never heard from them since then.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lessons Learned

Finally, they are freed - unharmed, but maybe, scarred for life.

Ces looked dead tired when she appeared before the media in Zamboanga City. With all those mosquito bites on her face and bruises practically on her whole body, I could not imagine what kind of hell she went through in the hands of their young kidnappers.

“At one time when I was talking to Loren, they slapped me,” Ces told journalists who waited for her first press conference after their release.

A young bandit slapping the always aggressive Ces Drilon. That would have been unthinkable.

We all know Ces as a feisty woman who yelled at police generals during the Peninsula Manila siege. But it’s a lot different when you’re dealing with young bandits, holding bolos which can be used on you anytime.

But then, the journalist in her, Ces put this incident in perspective. What these kids are doing may be legally and morally wrong. But we should also ask, why are they doing this? They are holding guns and bolos when they should be studying and enjoying their teeanage years.

Ces said, “I’ve been in and out of Mindanao, in all my years as a journalist, ang gusto ko lang maintindihan yung sitwasyon dito, gumawa ng storya tungkol dito.”

Maybe there are not enough schools in Sulu. Or maybe there are some schools and universities, but there aren’t enough job opportunities. I know of a promising graduate of the Sulu State College who was a student leader in his college days but ended up working as a hostel employee doing utility work.

What happened to the ABS-CBN news team has jolted practically everyone – mediamen, the police and the military, local and national government officials. But lessons were definitely learned from this experience, especially for us in the media industry.

Sometimes I’d like to think there could be stories worth my life. But then being in the TV news industry, I’m closely working with two more people, my cameraman and assistant cameraman. They also have families, and maybe, the stories that I think are worth my life may not be so for them. This is the reason why Ces felt responsible if her crew, Jimmy Encarnacion and Angelo Valderama, were beheaded by their abductors. God forbid, if something like that happens to my team and I survived the ordeal, I wouldn’t know how to face their families.

Now Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan is questioning journalists going to his province to cover and interview “criminals.” I hope the governor will be enlightened that journalists covering his province are not there to shame him and other local officials by showing on television how impoverished Sulu is. We may have pictured Sulu as a breeding ground for terrorists and inept public officials. But what can we do if that is the real picture of the province?

The GMA 7 crew who covered this hostage crisis in Sulu were issued bullet-proof vests and helmets. I think they were first ones in the local media to use those kinds of vests. Honestly, I commend their bosses for taking care of their men covering in dangerous situations. Maybe what happened to Ces’ team should be a wake-up call for other media companies. GMA 7 has learned their lesson well after their reporter Jun Veneracion and his team were caught in a crossfire at the height of efforts in finding kidnapped priest Giancarlo Bossi in Basilan.

For some people, Ces may have committed a mistake in pursuing the story she was working on before they were kidnapped. She may have stepped on a landmine but I believe she weighed all the consequences of pursuing the story. Maybe, she just got unlucky.

There are what we call calculated risks. Journalists know this which is basically based on instincts and past experiences. I am not a veteran journalist but I do calculate the risks involved in a coverage. Fear, I guess, is the best weapon for a reporter.

I remember when I was doing the graveyard shift, I had a brief talk with our former reporter Aladin Bacolodan at the lobby of ABS-CBN while I was waiting for my crew. Being a newbie then, he asked if I am enjoying my job so far. I told him that every night, I always get paranoid that competition will outscoop me and surprise me with a lot of exclusives in their morning news. But he said something like, “ok nga yang kinakabahan, at least mas lalo kang nagsisipag.”

In dangerous coverages, fear can actually save journalists. If the risks involved are too high, then why pursue the story if you’ll only end up dead and not being able to air the story? What’s the point of rushing to an encounter site when you can’t live to tell the whole drama of it?

The situation has indeed gone worse in Sulu. Even a peace advocate was kidnapped in his home province, Mindanao State University Professor Octavio Dinampo who, despite being a Muslim,was not spared by the kidnappers.

In a way, it was double whammy for Prof. Octa. He was kidnapped and yet he was suspected of having been behind the abduction.

Dinampo admitted that it is not easy to please everyone in Sulu. “For us tausugs, it is very difficult, because the government suspects us to be a sympathizer of the abu sayyaf and here we are being suspected as government spies,” he says.

Despite his old age, he was still subjected to torture, not the physical kind that Ces and her crew got.

“I was not tied I’m going to admit that, I was not tied, that special treatment maybe because I was praying with them because I am performing my obligation to God. They did not harm me, but treated me by pointing a gun at me, mocked, how can a Christian pray,” said the professor.

I have interviewed Prof. Octa a few times before. Being a former Moro National Liberation Front member, he is a good resource person on everything about Sulu, past and present. Despite his abduction, Prof. Octa says he will be going back to Sulu after a brief vacation in Davao City, despite the bitter experience in his very own province.

So now, what do we expect? Well, until the next coverage in Mindanao.

But before embarking on my next coverage out-of-town coverage, I have promised myself to text my mother first. A lot of us journalists who covered Ces’ press conference in Zamboanga City were struck when she said “I feel really bad for putting my mom through this ordeal. Sinikreto ko sa mommy ko yung coverage.”

Maybe it’s true, no story is worth my life.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Prayers, not Pessimism

She may have made the wrong choice in going to Sulu, but Ces Drilon, and her cameraman Jimmy Encarnacion, assistant cameraman Angelo Valderama and Professor Octavio Dinampo need our prayers.

Ces was born to be a journalist and we cannot fault her for pursuing exclusives which may put her and her team’s life at risk. I have worked with her for a few times in Mindanao and I have seen how dedicated she is to her work. Maybe the only mistake she did was to pursue stories that would matter.

Different folks, different strokes. For some journalists like me, I would not have done what Ces did. But that thinking does not make Ces’ decisions wrong. We are all guided by the same basic goals as journalists and one of them is to work on stories that are worth-telling. Maybe Ces and Prof. Dinampo thought that the story they are working on would create a positive impact on the long-delayed peace process in Mindanao.

I am not justifying what Ces did. I myself doubt that I would have pursued whatever she is pursuing in Sulu given the risks at stake. But then again, for now let us just pray that the abductors would soon release Ces, Jimmy, Angel and Professor Dinampo unharmed.

(Photo by Neil Arambala taken in Iligan City during the Fr. Bossi coverage.)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Welcome to Paradise

Not too many people can experience being greeted by the sign “Welcome to Kalayaan Beach Resort” – except some soldiers, a few civilians and mediamen occasionally brought to the island via military planes and sea vessels.
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It was approximately one hour and thirty minutes via C130 from Villamor Airbase to Pag-asa Island where Kalayaan Beach Resort is located. The island is just one of the nine islands in the Spratly Islands (or Kalayaan Islands) which is being claimed by the Philippines. Right now, there are no commercial flights going to the disputed Spratlys. It’s either you are a soldier, a media man, or a relative of a soldier stationed in the island for you to be able to hop into a C130 plane.

It was a rare opportunity for families of Army, Air Force and Navy soldiers to be included in the manifesto of C130 planes. Wives and children of lonely soldiers there would always grab the opportunity to fly to Pag-asa Island courtesy of the military. Even it it were just a day trip, still families would take that grueling flight aboard an ageing C130 plane.

Definitely, the beach can rival that of Amanpulo or Boracay. It just needs a little cleaning to remove some seagrass along the shore. The Kalayaan Island Group is rich in marine life and of course, oil reserves. Maybe someday we will be able to take advantage of these islands - for tourists to enjoy and for our energy requirements. As of now, we have a standing agreement with other claimant countries not to build structures there to avoid possible military confrontations.

We still need some more political muscle from the government to aggressively claim the islands. After all, common sense dictates that the islands should be included in our territory as they are closer to Palawan than any other claimant country. Maybe we should tell our Southeast Asian neighbors to just take a quick look at a world map. But then of course, diplomacy is more than just that.

Monday, April 21, 2008

All's Well That Ends Well

I’d like to remain optimistic - all’s well that ends well in Sumilao.

Yoyong Merida, one of the younger leaders among the Sumilao farmers is back to his normal life in Bukidnon, grinding coffee when he’s not seen in their farm.

On March 29, the historic settlement agreement between the Sumilao farmers and San Miguel Corporation was announced by Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales. After enduring that grueling three-month walk from Bukidnon to Manila late last year, the Sumilao farmers are finally rewarded their long-deserved land.

At least, Yoyong and his fellow Sumilao farmers have 50 of the 144 hectares in Bgy. San Vicente. San Miguel is still looking for the additional 94 hectares since obviously the company cannot give back the main bulk of the contested property where concrete structures for their hog farm have been erected.

They may have their land now, but there’s still more work to do for the farmers.

Atty. Arlene Bag-ao, or Kaka to the Sumilao farmers told our The Correspondents team that they are planning to do communal farming in the 50 hectares while the remaining 94 hectares will be distributed to the farmers.

Initially, the problem that I saw in the settlement agreement was the use of the term “donation.” There’s the connotation that the land was just “donated” to the Sumilao farmers, which could mean that San Miguel is still the owner of the land, and as owners, they can get the land back anytime they want. But Kaka said this possibility is very remote. The farmers got their land through the framework of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law and even if the term “donation” was used, everything was legitimate.

The primary thing that worries the farmers as of now are the support services they need for their farm. Baka iwanan daw sila sa ere ng DAR. Actually, the farmers should not be asking for support services. They should be demanding these services since this is mandated by CARL.

But then again, we have to be optimistic. As optimistic as Nanay Hilda who can still manage to smile in this photo-op. :)

And of course, Nanay Sion won't allow herself to be left behind in another photo-op, while I enjoy that perfect cup of coffee - Sumilao blend. :)

By the way, taking their cue from the Sumilao farmers, the Calatagan farmers are also marching to Malacanang to demand the land which they also believe is theirs. I hope it is also an all’s-well-that-ends-well story.

Monday, March 03, 2008

They're Back

The Sumilao farmers of Bukidnon are back in Manila and they are bent on pressuring the government to finally give them the 144-hectare land presently owned by San Miguel Corporation. But this time, in an apparent show of force, there are 144 farmers, more than double their number when they marched from Bukidnon to Manila last year.

The farmers are maintaining a camp at Caritas Manila and are planning to march around Malacanang to remind President Arroyo of her promise. According to Atty. Arlene Bag-ao, lawyer for the famers, Malacanang should once and for all issue the notice of coverage, the next step after the revocation order issued December last year. Just before Christmas, the president revoked the conversion order given by the Ramos administration which then essentially paved the way for the exemption of the contested land from agrarian reform.

I was told 300 hogs are now being raised inside the state-of-the-art hog farm of San Miguel, through its subsidiary, San Miguel Foods Incorporated. While farmers are camping here in Manila, lucky pigs are comfortably staying in air-conditioned facilities in Bukidnon.

Through San Miguel’s Jane Francisco, my team toured the hog farm early this year. It was indeed a different kind of hog farm in the country. Before entering the premises, we were asked to take a bath and wear their own farm clothing, basically to “disinfect” us. It is that hi-tech that they were very careful we might bring in bacteria and virii which could harm the hogs, which at the time were only about to be delivered.

I understand that in a way, San Miguel will be providing jobs not only for the protesting Sumilao farmers, but other residents of the town as well. They have done this in the construction of their facilities, although not all workers came from Sumilao.

But then, most residents of Sumilao were born to be farmers and barely knew anything about raising hogs commercially. They fear, if and when San Miguel hires workers for the hog farm, they might not qualify and the company might instead outsource people from neighboring provinces.

And again, isn’t land meant to be tilled?

San Miguel is bent on keeping whatever structure they have built in the area. But I learned a “win-win” solution is being brokered by the Catholic church. San Miguel may give up 50 hectares of the contested property which remains untouched, add some 44 more hectares reportedly bought from the town mayor, and another 50 hectares owned by a private corporation. These parcels of land are contiguous and arable and may look appealing to the farmers.

I’d like to think the church will be fair to both parties, at the very least. Well, we can somehow expect that from the church since they have been supporting the cause of the Sumilao farmers and Cardinal Rosales once served as bishop of Bukidnon.

Now let’s see what happens next, will the Sumilao farmers come home satisfied?

Or will they go back to their families left behind in Sumilao, empty-handed?

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Sumilao and San Miguel

144 hectares of land. 55 farmers. 1 700 kilometer-walk. 75 days.

The farmers of Sumilao, Bukidnon fighting for their ancestral land have gone a long way. They may be back in Bukidnon but their fight isn’t over yet.

When I marched with them in Agusan del Sur, I honestly thought it was a hopeless case. I mean, how can you win against a corporate giant under a presidency which is undoubtedly indebted not only to the military but to big businesses?

But the farmers’ sheer determination spelled the difference. The farmers started their march in October 10 last year with a few churches and non-government organizations supporting them. But throughout their march, they have gathered enough strength, from ordinary people in the countryside wishing them well to the Roman Catholic hierarchy with no less than Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales joining their cause.

The Cardinal said it all: “Kung mga tunay na Kristiyano ang mga taga-San Miguel, ibibigay na nila ang lupa. Yan ay kung tunay silang mga Kristiyano.” Maybe they should also be reminded that their company was named after a saint. But this is not to say that their fight doesn’t have any chance in court, it’s just that the legal processes may take years and it would have been better if the company gave up their claim to the land.

Well, it still remains to be seen if San Miguel people are true Christians. Or to be politically correct, even if they were Muslims, Jews, or simply put, if they believe in God and social justice, it wouldn’t be too tough a decision for them.

(Photo taken at the College of the Holy Spirit Chapel where the farmers stayed for two nights while they were in Manila)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Cries for Cris

The Quezon City Police District has already determined that 20-year old UP Public Administration student Cris Anthony Mendez died due to hazing. But with the prevailing culture of silence at the University of the Philippines Diliman, will we ever know which group is behind the killing?

Everyone is talking about the possible involvement of Sigma Rho Fraternity, except the police. And not even the UP Administration is talking about the fraternity. At least for now.

Some students at the National College of Public Administration and Governance or NCPAG knew that Cris was a neophyte of Sigma Rho. Reportedly, NCPAG Student Council President Ariel Paulo Ante was the one who recruited Cris who is also an officer of the council.

There are also other indications that the fraternity may have been involved. Since the death of Cris, Sigma Rhoans are nowhere to be found in their usual tambayans at the College of Law and in Palma Hall. The fraternity also refused to sign a statement condemning the death of Cris – a statement which was signed by practically all College of Law-based organizations.

But the main missing link in this case is a certain Dr. Francisco Cruz who could shed more light into the Cris' death.

Cruz was the one who brought the lifeless body of Cris to the Veterans Memorial Medical Center early Monday morning. The security guard of the hospital was able to write in his logbook even the vehicle used by the doctor, a Toyota Innova with plate number ZAB-393.

A quick check at the Land Transportation Office a day after the incident, I learned that the vehicle is registered under the name Francisco C. Cruz. We then checked the registered address in Congressional Village in Quezon City and from there we were able to confirm from the village guard that a certain Dr. Francisco Cruz is one of the homeowners.

Poor guard, he could have lost his job. Sorry sir, but I just really wanted to get in touch with Dr. Cruz.

But there is one more thing that could have made matters worse for the guard. While I was talking with him, I “accidentally” saw the home phone number of Dr. Cruz in their directory.

So when I got back to the office, I called up the number but I was told the doctor was not home yet. A day after, I called them up again but to no avail. But because of that second phone call, I was able to confirm from their househelp that the doctor has a son named Mico.

Again, sorry to the househelp, I just wanted to confirm if Mico is the son of your boss.

Before calling up the Francisco household the second time around, sources had tipped me off that the doctor’s son named Mico is a law student and a member of Sigma Rho. After I asked the househelp about Dr. Cruz, I tried my luck asking where Mico was at that time. Take note, I was not yet sure if Dr. Cruz indeed has a son named Mico. But the househelp replied that like the doctor, Mico was not home too.

Dr. Cruz has already established communication with the police and clarified he was not hiding. He said he was unavailable days after he brought Cris to the hospital because he reportedly said he was already condemned by the media.

For the sake of Cris’ grieving family, Dr. Cruz should surface soon. He has to answer these questions:

Why was he the one who brought Cris to the hospital?

Was his act related to the fact that his son Mico is a member of Sigma Rho?

Why did he just leave Cris there?

Is it not ironic that he is a doctor and yet it seemed as if he did not care if Cris was already dead?

Why did he not report the incident to the police?

Why do hospital records show that the body he brought was named “Mark Anthony” Mendez? Did they try to conceal the real identity of Cris?

I am not judging Dr. Mendez. I just want to know the whole truth from him.

In fact, I tried contacting him since Day 2 of this story after I learned that he is a second-degree uncle of one of my co-reporters at ABS-CBN. I respect his decision to keep mum on the issue. But I hope he will clarify things soon.

This culture of violence has to stop and it could only happen if Dr. Cruz starts talking.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Happiness in Batanes

Meet Nanay Trinidad and her son – Ivatans from the town of Mahatao in Batanes.

It may be hard to believe but Nanay Trinidad and her family just lost their five cattle worth 150 thousand pesos because of the prolonged dry spell that hit Northern Luzon. Not to mention the additional losses from their rice and rootcrop farming also because of the drought.

Yet she and her family can still smile in front of our cameras. Talk about happiness in Batanes. Perhaps we should credit the Ivatans for helping put the Philippines in the middle of the “happiness index” at number 84 out of 177 countries surveyed by the World Database on Happiness.

But the crisis in Batanes is not something to be taken lightly.

According to Batanes Gov. Telesforo Castillejos, the drought caused an estimated 100-million peso damage to agriculture in his province – 40 million for crops and 60 million for their livestock.

Worse, the governor says they only have around 6 million pesos as calamity fund and obviously, this is not enough to save the province from further damage.

He says they will be needing additional funds from the national government but ultimately, only rains can save them from the drought.

Continuous rains is important for Ivatans who practice upland farming since the province is mostly hilly and mountainous. It may be too late for their rice farming, but the planting season for onions and and garlic is just about to start next month.

Rainfall can also save their surviving cows, goats and carabaos that are actually getting dehydrated because of the drought. If the rain gods won’t listen, more families like Nanay Trinidad will have no recourse but to bury their dead livestock.

But then again, Nanay Trinidad and the rest of the Ivatans of Batanes remain optimistic. Just like any fierce typhoon, they are thinking, this drought too, shall pass.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bigas or Palay?

As Filipinos, we should be very familiar with the different variations of “rice” – our staple diet. For Americans, it’s just “rice.” But it’s not as simple as that for us Filipinos who obviously can’t live without rice, even for those who are already residing in America or elsewhere in the world.

It took me a trip to a ricefield in the village of Mapanike in Candaba, Pampanga to recall these Filipino words for “rice”:

Bigas – raw, milled rice

Palay – raw, unmilled rice

Kanin – boiled rice

Malagkit – sticky rice

Tutong – boiled and burnt rice

Bahaw – left-over rice

Kaning-lamig – “cold” rice or rice stored in ref

Note the first two ones: “bigas” and “palay”. Yeah, I know that there is a difference between the two, one is milled and the other is unmilled. But for some reason, it slipped my mind when I was doing a standupper (that shot showing a reporter talking or demonstrating something in front of the camera) in Mapanike.

I was in the middle of the ricefield and in front of a group of farmers in the village when I said this out loud:

“Dahil sa pagpasok ng lupa, buhangin, at tubig-ulan, sa halip na dalawang-daang kaban ng BIGAS ay limampu na lang ang aanihin sa palayang ito.”

Naturally, after my standupper, someone from the crowd caught my attention and said that it should have been “palay” and not “bigas”. Only then did I realize na mali nga pala yung sinabi ko. This man is a farmer and obviously, he knows better than me when it comes to rice farming.

Pahiya tuloy ako hehehe. Oo nga naman, they harvest "palay" and not "bigas." Of course, I did a take two and said the right thing.

This mistake immediately brought to my mind something I think I came across in my English 100 class – that language is culture-bound. Since we are a rice-consuming country, naturally we have a thousand and one words for rice. Parallel to that, in Alaska, we should not be surprised that Eskimos have a thousand and one words too for “ice”. Of course, for us, it’s just “yelo”.

Right now, I’m also thinking, which country has the most number of variant words for “love”? Maybe they’re the most romantic people on earth hehehe.

Anyway, language is really tricky, especially for us journalists who are somehow, and sometimes, considered as the authority when it comes to pronunciation. So we better be careful on how we use and pronounce words.

Recently, there was a debate in our newsroom on how to correctly pronounce the word “tinataya”, meaning “estimated”. As in “Tinatayang dalawampung milyong piso ang napinsala ng bagyong Dodong sa buong bansa.”

Is it “ti-na-TA-ya” or “ti-na-ta-YA”? For a time, almost everyone was using “ti-na-TA-ya” because it’s what’s written in our pronunciation alert (our newsroom’s list of words and their correct pronunciation.) I was told reporters from the other station are also using “ti-na-TA-ya”.

I really thought it is, and it should be, “ti-na-ta-YA”. So to avoid joining the bandwagon, I just used “humigit-kumulang” or “more or less.” But “humigit-kumulang” is longer and more complicated than “tinataya” and in TV news, the simpler the better.

Fortunately, an opportunity to ask the experts came when I was in UP Diliman and did a story on the proposal to use Filipino as the primary medium of instruction in schools. As expected, no less than National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario and Filipino Prof. Jovy Peregrino simply told me it really is, and it really should be, “ti-na-ta-YA”.

So now, "tinataYA kong alam na ninyo ang pagkakaiba ng palay sa bigas."

Friday, August 03, 2007

B for Burning Fossil Fuels

My Lakbayan grade is B!

How much of the Philippines have you visited? Find out atLakbayan!

Created by Eugene Villar.

While looking at the map above generated by my travels within the country, I could only imagine the amount of fossil fuels I’ve burned. Baka magalit tuloy ang mga kaibigan natin sa Greenpeace! Hehe.

But having said that, for me there are still more destinations to explore, more people to meet, and more photos to take. And hopefully I’d be able to see these places not as a reporter in the middle of a disaster, but simply as a tourist who just wants to enjoy and relax.

I just came from Baguio with friends Jove and RG. Didn’t have enough time to go around the city or we were just too lazy to go out. So we just ate a lot hehe. But too bad for Jove, nakasama ata sa kanya yung crispy pata at kare-kare. Though we ate heathy food din naman like this stuffed tofu of Café by the Ruins.

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And since bitin yung Baguio trip, I’m thinking sana mapuntahan ko na tong mga lugar na to na matagal ko nang iniisip puntahan:

Siquijor – Most people think Siquijor is just the land of aswangs and a province which you should never visit especially during holy week. But with the picturesque beaches of Siquijor that I’ve seen so far, I think the province deserves a second chance. I’ve already told my boss I’d want to feature this province next holy week.

Batanes – I almost got there last year for The Correspondents but due to unavoidable circumstances, the story went to another reporter. Masarap sigurong langhapin ang hangin dun at saka tahimik, walang ingay ng newsroom.

Turtle Islands - It must be a lonely place for soldiers patrolling the area but definitely a paradise for beach-lovers (at least for a week only). Me mga turtles pa kaya dun?

Cebu – I’ve already had two missed opportunities to go to Cebu, but I know I’m going there soon. Maybe I should try Lechon Cebu there (kahit natikman ko na at mejo maalat siya hehe).

Of course, I’d want to go to other countries as well. The two occasions when I had the chance of going abroad were presidential trips at kahit me mga sidetrips din naman, iba pa rin yung bakasyong bakasyon lang talaga, lalo na sa mga lugar na to:

Bangkok - With pals Jove and RG, though I still have to have my passport renewed. Teka, tuloy ba kami? Parang Maynila lang naman ang Bangkok e. Hehe.

Hongkong – I’m still thinking if I should go with my parents as a chaperone or kaya naman siguro nilang silang dalawa lang.

North Korea – Yes, Pyongyang and Nokor’s countryside. I just want to personally see the reasons why it is called the hermit kingdom.

Nepal - Just the thought of staying in Kathmandu excites me, daming pictures na pwedeng kunan dun like yung mga kalbong monks. Speaking of which, eto na itsura ko ngayon after having my head shaved because of what happened in Basilan.

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Joke! Of course, I’m not bald. The pic was taken when I was still with IBC 13. Baka mawalan ng trabaho sa dos pag nagpa-kalbo e hehe. In the meantime, san kaya ako next na maa-assign after hibernating for one week inside our house?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shaving My Head

 Just like some marine soldiers here in Basilan, I’m thinking of having my head shaved. Kalbong reporter? Why not? I’ve done the same thing in the past when I was with IBC 13.

This conflict in Basilan is taking too long for the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to fix. The military and the MILF have signed a joint resolution to exercise maximum restraint as the incident is being resolved peacefully. So far, so good.

A group composed of government and MILF representatives are set to arrive here in Basilan for a thorough and supposedly impartial investigation into the July 10 encounter in Albarka town. They will attempt to investigate on what really happened there, was it a pure ambush of marines who were just searching for Fr. Giancarlo Bossi? Or in a way, was it provoked by the military?

We all know by now that Fr. Bossi has been released. The parishioners of the Italian priest in Zamboanga Sibugay have already heaved a sigh of relief. The Bossi family back in Italy are just waiting for the homecoming of the “gentle giant.” Everybody is happy. Or so it seems.

Here in Basilan, everything is still uncertain. Fourteen marines and five from the MILF have already died in that bloody encounter. Now do we want more casualties?

Nobody wants war. As they say, in war there are no victors, only victims. Though maybe there are actually winners in war - private contractors who provide arsenal for the military, especially those who provided the marines with dud bombs used by poor soldiers in the July 10 encounter.

Government spokespersons are saying they have no plans of staging an all-out war against the MILF. But their words are different from their actions. Or nananakot lang kaya sila?

Malacanang has announced that the arrest of the perpetrators of the killing and beheading of the marines will be purely a police matter. And that if military operations will be needed, it will be selective, meaning they will be zeroing in on their targets to avoid any collateral damage. But really, is that possible?

In the meantime, fear sets in among residents as the soldiers and the MILF position themselves, and their ammunition, in certain areas in Basilan. And we in the media who are covering this conflict are kept in the hanging.

Can’t we just have peace here and let the police do their jobs of arresting the MILF and at the same time, appeal to the group to bring the accused to the bars of justice?

If war breaks out here in Basilan, chances are, this may spill over to other provinces as well. There are talks that the MILF may stage diversionary attacks, probably in Central Mindanao where leaders of the separatist group are based.

Do we actually want President Arroyo having that guilt-trip on Fr. Bossi once more? Do we want her telling the priest “more people were killed after your release?”

I understand there are grieving families of the slain marines in Luzon. But there are also weeping families of MILF fighters here in Mindanao. Add to this the sorrow of the family of the imam who was also killed during the firefight.

Some marine soldiers, including officers in Manila who are facing rebellion charges, have shaved their heads. Either they protest the way the government handles the Basilan conflict or sympathize with the families of the 14 marines.

I’m thinking, I might just shave my head too to sympathize not only with the marines, but also with the MILF. It may also be my own way of protesting against a possible extended coverage of a war based on a wrong premise – that Fr. Bossi was held captive on the island.

Of all stories, I hate covering wars and conflicts. It tortures me mentally and physically. Unlike natural disasters, wars are created by men, not by God. Typhoons and earthquakes are inevitable, wars and conflicts are not.

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