Living with the fear

Director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines  (NUJP) Nonoy Espina relives the terror and tragedy of the Ampatuan massacre five years on.

Five years on, it still haunts me – the banality of the evil that happened on November 23, 2009. It was cruel, yes, but it was also so… matter of course.

By all indications, those who ordered the bloodbath had no reason to be angry with the victims, except perhaps the kin and supporters of the man who dared challenge the Ampatuan clan. In fact, six of the dead weren’t even supposed to be there. They were hapless souls who just wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time.

And many of the 32 media workers who died were well known – and a few were even considered “friends” – to the Ampatuan family.

Nonoy Espina, director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Photo: Jane Worthington

Nonoy Espina, director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Photo: Jane Worthington

There could have been more journalists killed had it not been for what now feels like a random roll of the dice.

Myself and a photojournalist friend, for example, were not with the ill-fated convoy on November 23, 2009. Just as we heard word that the Ampatuans would make mincemeat of this brash Mangudadatu who wanted to wrest away their hold on Maguindanao province, we were both coming down with the flu. We decided to rest up for a while and come back to cover what we thought would be another shooting war between two politicians’ private armies. (The Ampatuans’ private militia was larger and better armed than the regular army.)

This thought would badger me for months after the carnage, a perverted survivor’s guilt, popping in at the most unexpected times – “I SHOULD (not could) have been there…”

During a recent dialogue with colleagues from the region around General Santos City, which lost half its media population to the massacre, they confirmed they are still gripped with fear.

“The mindset of people changed with the massacre,” said one journalist. “People say, ‘Why would you keep working, you will be killed’.

“You are not supposed to be afraid to deliver facts and you should not be covering up stories that might affect lives.”

Another said: “I’m worried about what will happen to the next generation. I hope our cause will not be stopped by the killing of media. We have that obligation; we have the responsibility to tell the truth. We have to do that.”

It is a fear that continues to cloak much of the truth, not only from the people of the region but of the country as well. This fear limits what stories the storytellers are willing to tell and how they tell them. That they continue to strive to tell their stories as fully as they can, despite the perils they face, is a testament to their bravery.

But it would be a mistake to write off Ampatuan as an aberration. It was extreme in its magnitude and savagery, of course, but it was simply the worst example of the reality in so many regions of the Philippines. In these areas you cross the current tin-pot despot at your own peril because political expediency dictates the central government will turn a blind eye, lest it fall out of grace with its allies.

And so it went, and so it goes…

What’s needed is an end to this curse, to this system of governance that breeds so much corruption and so much death. Five years after the massacre, the really scary thing is that another Ampatuan is almost a certainty. It is only a matter of who and when.

This is an extract from the IFJ Asia Pacific report Ampatuan Massacre Five Years On, available online.

Nonoy Espina is the director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Livin