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Confetti reporting?

/ 06:25 AM October 08, 2011

Abu Sayyaf” gunmen, in ski masks, dropped off kidnapped US citizen Gerfa Lunsmann at the pier of Maluso, Basilan. She limped to the town hall. The 42-year-old Filipina-American was snatched fromTigtabon islet, off Zamboanga City, three months back.

ASG still held, at this column’s deadline, her 14-year-old son Kevic Eric and nephew Romnic Jackaria, 19. Other hostages include an Indian, Malaysian, Japanese and some Filipinos. Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat turned over Ms Lunsmann to US Embassy officials. Proforma denials of hostage money swapping hands were issued.

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Is this “A Wilderness of Mirrors” all over again? Eduardo F. Ugarte of Monash University, Australia, used that title for his study on “The Use and Abuse of the ‘Abu Sayyaf’ Label” He takes a hard look at why many journalists in southwestern Mindanao “are highly dependent on official sources for data.” Willy-nilly, some become “vulnerable to disinformation.”

“Media became a battleground of lies and deceit and propaganda tool both for rebels and the military,” the paper points out. Meanwhile, ASG gunman Adzhar Mawalil, who in 2007 beheaded seven Filipino workers while singing for video, was nabbed this week.

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From June 2007 to June 2008, government portrayed ASG as a loose assortment of two-bit bandit gangs with shattered command and control structure. Numbers were down and influence confined to interior of Basilan and Sulu. There were no links to international terrorists then at their weakest.

“They’re on the run,” President Gloria Macapgal- Arroyo predicted in 2001. “Soon, they’ll reach the end of the road.” But the pendulum swung to the other extreme from June 2008 to January 2009.

ASG was depicted as a powerful Islamist terrorist group linked to international terrorists. Flush with cash from kidnapping to shabu, ASG’s new recruits could rampage at will from Tawi-Tawi to Metro Manila.

At the “Shangrila Dialogue” in Singapore, then AFP chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said 1,270 ASG members were down to 400—“a welcome decrease.” But a 2009 military report disagreed, saying 400 meant “a disturbing increase.”

“So marked are the dissimilarities, to say these images of ASG differ would be an understatement,” Ugarte marvels. Indeed, “to delve into official accounts of ASG is to slide into the ‘labyrinthine’ Orwellian ‘world of double-think’—a reference to George Orwell’s novel of dictatorship: “1984.”

“( Here ) two plus two equals five,” the study notes. “Membership numbers are thrown around like confetti.” ASG is concurrently big and small, strong and weak, brazenly prowling Manila and cowering in hinterlands of Basilan and Sulu, tied to and cut off from international terrorist groups, “ideological and mercenary in character, cash-rich and impecunious.”

Both government and rebels put their own “spin” to exacerbate these contradictions. This is the setting where the press must break free of Orwellian “double think.” It needs to hold sources to account for their inconsistencies. How well is the media doing?

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Most media accounts of ASG and forays are based on material provided by police, military and government, the Monash analysis concludes. Press conferences at AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) are cheaper, practical and convenient.

When a major story breaks, Manila will “parachute” staffers to augment local staff. Often unfamiliar with “the region’s broader troubles … ( they’re) less capable of critiquing official intelligence—and more susceptible to propaganda.”

Do some journalists turn “propagandists”? “If so, this is not born of an outright conspiracy, hatched in smoke-filled rooms between government officials, media proprietors and other powerful groups,” Ugarte notes. Instead, this often “arises from capacity of government to foist its agenda.Z” Its “framework of assumptions” can smudge “inconvenient facts from public inspection.”

“The ongoing Muslim separatist insurgency and its violent backwash make southern Philippines perilous for journalists. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility classifies Zamboanga Peninsula and Sulu Archipelago among three divisions with the highest percentages of “media killings.”

The area’s unsettled conditions restrict freedom of movement. (They) make investigative work highly hazardous. “In Sulu, media reporting is limited by the pervasive atmosphere of violence. Local correspondents face danger should they try in-depth investigative reporting involving powerful local figures.”

Given deadlines they must meet, it is not surprising that at times journalists embed themselves with military officials. You don’t get kidnapped. Remember what happened to broadcast journalist Cecilia “Ces” Drilon and the ABS-CBN team? They tiptoed to Sulu for an arranged interview in June 2008. They ended up paying what locals dub “extended board and lodging.” No interview to boot.

As seen in Basilan and Sulu, media practitioners can internalize the government’s framework of established dogma. Right-thinking people typically “operating with integrity and goodwill” will adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements—and sometimes self-censor.

Analyzing coverage of ASG does not “imply that political Islam has not set down roots in the southern Philippines. This is a valid question. But the study argues that the ASG label, and the Islamist threat it evokes, have been and are being exploited by power holders in the zone to advance their personal and institutional interests.

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