BANGKOK, Thailand -- Rowena Paraan is a veteran reporter of many of the country’s upheavals in recent history.
But even she breaks down in tears when she recounts how she first gathered 140 relatives of the 32 journalists who were killed in the infamous November 23, 2009 massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao.
The gathering on January 2009 in Palawan was the first time that relatives of the 32 massacre victims were assembled in one room. Paraan, secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, called for the meeting to sort out misunderstandings between the relatives regarding the multiple murder cases filed against the Ampatuan clan and their supporters.
"At first, I thought I would just referee the group. But because it was their first time together, I asked them how they were doing and it came pouring out. By the time the sixth wife started talking about her husband, I couldn't stop crying," she recounted.
Less than 2 years later, the gruesome incident continues to shock. On Nov. 23, 2009, armed men kidnapped and brutally killed 58 people in a hilly portion of Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province and buried the bodies in shallow graves.
One veteran reporter who witnessed the investigation said the graves looked like a layer cake “with cars, bodies and dirt piled one on top of the other.”
At least 32 of the 58 victims were journalists sent to cover the filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudadatu. Others were supporters of the Mangudadatus or were just motorists mistakenly identified as part of the Mangudadatu convoy.
Most of those killed were based in General Santos City, and majority worked for Mindanao-based publications.
Paraan said she joined 4 separate fact-finding missions to the massacre site from November to December of 2009. She said one of the most arduous tasks in the early part of the mission was identifying the bodies, meeting the families and establishing a body count in the massacre.
As a result, she witnessed firsthand the shock and trauma of relatives of the massacre victims.
"Until now, I can't write about the Ampatuan massacre. Hindi ko maisulat. Pinakamahirap yung mga tanong na wala akong sagot. What do you say to these people whose families were destroyed? You have families who lost breadwinners and even both parents to the massacre, leaving the children to the care of the grandparents. They ask me – how long will the massacre trial last? I have no answer.”
Dealing with the scars
The Philippines is no stranger to violence perpetrated on the media. According to the NUJP’s count, a total of 144 journalists have been killed in the country since freedom of the press was restored in 1986.
Last year, the Philippines was ranked the 3rd most dangerous place for journalists by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. This was mostly attributed to the Maguindanao massacre, which is deemed the worst single attack on journalists in history.
Veteran journalist and NUJP director Nonoy Espina said nearly all of the journalists that have been killed in the line of duty received threats before they were assassinated. In 2010 alone, he said threats to journalists recorded by the NUJP averaged about 2 a week although the number “could be 10 times higher.”
“In the old days, the death threats came in the form of a bullet mailed to the reporter. Now they just send text messages,” he said.
In the case of the Maguindanao massacre, the threats went even beyond the event.
Local broadsheet journalist Aquiles Zonio barely escaped with his life after he and other journalists decided to take a detour to a local hotel in Tacurong before joining the Mangudadatu convoy. They decided not to join the group in Shariff Aguak upon learning that unidentified men on motorcycles were looking for them.
For months, Zonio lived in constant fear that the killers would target him next. He refused to leave his house and ate in the dark with the lights off for fear that armed men would see that he was alone in the house.
Paraan said the NUJP tries to help 2 groups of people: the families of slain journalists and the journalists who survive attacks.
For the first group, the NUJP provides annual psychosocial counselling for the orphans and close relatives of the journalists.
It also provides scholarships for the orphans, and regularly tracks their progress in its annual gatherings.
For the Maguindanao group, she said the NUJP provided psychosocial counselling to the relatives of the victims and identified those who were most affected and need constant monitoring.
Some of the massacre relatives have already shown signs of deep trauma. One of the children of the murdered journalists has attempted suicide. Another child “shoots” at the Ampatuans with a toy gun when he sees them in TV news reports.
The experience of trauma for relatives of murdered journalists is not unique to the Maguindanao massacre families. Co-workers of murdered journalists who find themselves under threat go into hiding or are sometimes forced to relocate even out of the country to the detriment of their livelihoods.
Others start packing guns if only for the chance that they can, if the situation calls for it, shoot back at their would-be killers.
Paraan said one murdered journalist’s wife would sometimes call her in the middle of the night just to talk. “I can’t sleep. It would have been our anniversary tomorrow,” the wife would tell her.
Paraan said one way of dealing with the trauma is forming a support system among the families of victims, particularly if they live near each other.
She also backs the formation of a peer support system of journalists who receive trauma awareness training and can help their colleagues who are under threat. Last year, 16 journalists underwent a trauma awareness seminar with Cait McMahon of the Australian-based Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Other initiatives being planned are formation of a network of professionals who understand journalism trauma and the establishment of an independent journalism trauma center for reporters.
Paraan said the process of recovery for the families of the Maguindanao massacre victims will be an arduous one. Aside from the continuing financial toll brought on by the deaths of loved ones, there is also the emotional toll for the families who are still seeking a form of retribution for the perpetrators of the killings.
“They really need constant counselling. It’s not like any story where you can just walk away,” she said.