Note: A shorter version of this article was published here.
It’s embarassingly plain how inadequate language is …. Some griefs can never be put right. Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
I come from a country which, in 2009, shoved aside Iraq to be the worst place on earth for a journalist to practice his or her profession. That year, 34 media people were massacred in a single event that – five years, four months and four weeks on – remain unaccounted for. Not a single suspect has been prosecuted though everyone knows the culprits and the mastermind(s). Witnesses have either disappeared or gone into hiding.
In such a climate of fear and retribution, it is no wonder that truth becomes so precious a commodity that exposing it to the cold light of day draws enemies of the killing kind. Like a miner excavating for diamonds, journalists who mine for news that endanger dynasties – political, financial or otherwise – often risk their lives when their investigations congeal into print. Honest reporting brings its own recompense: they are either harassed, bought off or silenced.
My father was a journalist, too, but he was pragmatic in his outlook. With six children to feed, he sold insurance then went abroad and gave us a taste of other worlds beyond our own to strive for when we grew up. Thus, we never experienced the horrors of having family members disappearing, being tortured or dismembered.
Still, an episode occurred that until now remains a mystery to my siblings and I. In the early 1980s we returned home for a Christmas vacation and my father went missing for three days upon our arrival at the airport (which was still new at that time). My mother’s relatives, of course, had an explanation: Your husband is a journalist. What do you expect?
When he reappeared at my grandfather’s house, we all rejoiced and my mother accepted his explanation that he’d been lost and spent the time holed up in a hotel. If anyone had doubts, we children never heard of it. The adults kept quiet for we never heard the episode mentioned again. My siblings and I, however, cannot help but conjecture over what really happened. We’d returned in 1985. Had my father a querida and a second family, we reasoned, they surely would have popped out during his funeral.
I narrate this piece of personal history to explain why something within me is disturbed each time a newsperson is murdered for simply doing his/her job honestly in my country. I know how it feels to have someone close to you disappear. Why does geography determine our fate?
A week ago, I learned that a journalist friend of the family had been gunned down while walking in my parents’ hometown by a man riding a motorcycle. It was news that we had been waiting for quite some time.
Long before she had a byline in a national daily, our friend used to come to our old house and as we got to know her through the years, we marveled at her courage and ability to get witnesses to talk. She had a joie de vivre that transcends time so that even though it’s been years since I last saw her, her vivacious personality and enthusiasm for life remain inked in my mind. In fact, when I met her husband at the parking lot of a mall six years back, I remember thinking what kind of man was he to have gotten her to settle down. Alas, time moves on and friends drift off … as she climbed up in her career we watched from afar knowing that the enemies she made could be her downfall.
Knowing our friend’s crusade as a journalist against the political bigwigs in our province, I was not surprised at her murder. Yet. I still could not help it. I wept. For her. For people of her ilk. And for my parents’ hometown where people are too afraid to speak about what they know. Believe it or not, my mother still says “Hush!” whenever our mealtime talks veer towards the political situation in town even though the house where we chat is situated in a gated community. And to think that our dictator left nearly 30 years ago!
Unlike other provincial journalists, our friend’s murder was covered by national media because she was the first victim of a national daily for which she had been a correspondent. It even drew condemnation from the presidential office and rewards for information on the assassin.
The latter, however, worries me. Because. In my parents’ hometown, everything – and I mean everything – is controlled by the family that has occupied city hall’s highest seat for the past 29 years. From the police to the shipping companies operating the international port to drug pushing – you name it, they’ve got it covered by one or two or more of their extended family. Years ago, in fact, they even had the power to bring about a power failure at the exact hour a national news program broadcast its investigation into the mysterious disappearance of young maidens in the city.
Which is why rewards for information only defeat their purpose. Because. It will exert pressure on the police and the national investigators to resolve the crime quickly. In so doing, they may – as in the past they did – pinpoint people who were far from the scene of the crime. Last time I heard, they were looking into the angle of our friend’s separation from her husband. Now I know the true story. And I don’t think her estranged husband has reasons to wish for his wife’s death.
Meanwhile, I think of other provincial journalists who continue to work for the love of reporting. They do not get the recognition or the bylines of reporters working for national media. I know their kind. They used to come to our house when my father was still living. In the small world of provincial journalists, everyone knows who is a paid hack and which newspapers are mere mouthpieces of individuals aspiring or holding on to public office. It is my hope and prayer that these folks continue to be brave and honest voices in the community, come what may.
For now, we shudder
As their bullets
Sail through the midnight
Sludge and ash blanketing
The big-time potluck city
Masquerading as your hometown.
Rest in peace, my friend.
You were a candle
Snuffed out early in spring.
We will shout, we will march
Till their empires crumble and
They shudder while they drown.
To learn more about the Ampatuan Massacre and the politics surrounding it, please visit the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.