Chiara Zambrano has had one too many challenging coverages in her 17-year career as a journalist. She’s been to conflict areas from Basilan to Sulu to Marawi. Her recent experience being chased by missile-carrying China vessels in the West Philippine Sea is one for the books.
But to talk about the ABS-CBN reporter this way tends to somehow paint a Chiara that hews close to DFA secretary Teddy Boy Locsin’s description of her as mere “thrill-seeker.” The reporter, in fact, belongs to her news organization’s military and conflict-related beat, hence the hotspots of tension she often finds herself in.
And she did not choose to revisit the West Philippine Sea, for example, because she gets a kick out of taunting Chinese missile vessels. She was there to find the missing voices in the narrative that is the swarming of Chinese ships in the WPS—the voices of Filipino fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the sea they’ve been bullied out of.
Chiara sits down to a video call with ANCX to talk about the radio message that shook the nation last week, the shock of seeing two missile boats approach her direction, and the flak and accolades she got for chasing a story. She also looks back at the coverages she’s done, sleeping on the roof of a boat for 10 nights at sea for a story, and talks about the double duty journalists have to perform in the age of fake news.
But first, she goes into detail about her most recent experience at the WPS .
“Many had been speaking out about the issue of the West Philippine Sea—these include secretaries and generals. And I could feel that void on the part of civilians,” Chiara tells ANCX, when asked why she wanted to do the story on the fishermen. “What do they make of this swarm of ships on these islands?”
When the opportunity presented itself for media to be flown to Palawan via the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ aerial patrol, she counted herself in and decided to stay behind with her camera man Ryan Evangelista, with the intention of doing more stories. As a courtesy, she informed AFP Chief Cirilito Sobejana that she planned to do a story about the Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea. “I remember [AFP Chief Sobejana] specifically saying that, ‘We can’t speak for the fishermen, so if you want to do [a story on] that, then go ahead,’” Chiara recalls.
It took a while for an interview to materialize. She requested the help of Bataraza Mayor Abraham Ibba to look for fishermen she can talk to. “There was another aerial patrol that I joined again, so that meant that I had another series of reports to do. After that, I contacted the mayor again, if there was progress in his search [for fishermen]. Dun na natuloy,” says Chiara.
Chiara and Ryan traveled by land from Puerto Prinsesa to the town of Bataraza, and this was where they met the boat captain. “Ang ultimate goal ko was Julian Felipe Reef. If you’re looking at a map, it [seems] simple enough to go to. But when I asked the people there, ‘how do you get to Julian Felipe?’, they just laughed at me. ‘Una, sobrang layo nun. Pangalawa,’ I remember them saying, ‘Sa China na yun.’”
Chiara was taken aback by what she heard. “[The people of Bataraza] told me the Chinese vessels are all over the place, they’ve always been there, so the Filipino fishermen don’t go there anymore.”
And so she had to ask: “If they don’t go there, then where do our fishermen go to fish? Where will I find them?” They are most likely at the Southern Banks, she was told. “I had to zoom in pa doon sa map ng West Philippine Sea because that’s not one of the hotspots. That’s where they go because there’s no tension there,” Chiara tells ANCX.
Chiara’s party arrived at Southern Banks during the day, which was when they interviewed the fishermen. “And then we traveled to another shoal called the Sabina Shoal, which would have calmer waters—kasi medyo rough sailing the first day.” They spent the night at Sabina Shoal. The following morning, they were chased by the Chinese vessels.
Chiara, fully aware of the presence of Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the West Philippine Sea, was not surprised to see them on the day her group sailed. “Through experience, I’ve learned how to read the China Coast Guard’s movements—I know when it’s just patrolling the way it normally does, like a cop around the reefs and shoals they are claiming. And I also know when it spots you and when it wants to approach you,” she says.
Thinking it was just doing its usual patrol duties, Chiara and company sat on their boat and watched. And then the Chinese vessel stopped and then turned. “Pagsilip ko sa camera ko, nakaharap na sya sa amin. ‘Oh shit, kami na ang tinitingnan.’ And you would see white swells at the side of the ship—that means it’s accelerating. So one, it’s coming towards us, and two, it’s speeding up. So I told the people around me, it’s coming for us. We were watching it and a few minutes later, it messaged us on the radio,” recalls Chiara.
The message was in English but even the reporter struggled to understand what it meant. “I think it was giving us coordinates of some kind. But what I did hear clearly was ‘This is China Coast Guard,’ which meant that it was asking who we were.”
The reporter tried to translate to the crew whatever it was she understood. But the fishermen, clearly spooked by the sight of the approaching China Coast Guard vessel, told her, “English yan. Di namin yan alam.”
“I was tempted to just pick up the radio and say, ‘Hi, we’re not doing anything.’ But that’s against protocol, so I had to leave it at that,” she says.
Finally, she asked the captain, “What is your decision?” The answer: “Let’s just go home.” And so the group made a sharp about face away from Ayungin Shoal, where they wanted to go, and headed home.
But the China Coast Guard vessel persisted.
“It caught up with us and it was maneuvering around us. At first, it was behind us, and then it went to the side. And then it went behind us again, then moved to the other side for about an hour I think,” Chiara said. Knowing that a woman is a rare sight in the West Philippine Sea, she hid behind the boat’s walls, avoiding whatever provocation her presence might spark. She and her cameraman also stowed away their cameras and other communications equipment.
As they were deciding on the next move, two dots appeared on the horizon. “Someone from the back of the boat ran to the front and said, ‘Meron pang dalawa, mukhang naval.’ Admittedly, I didn’t take it seriously at first. Sabi ko, wala yan. From my experience, once the China Coast Guard leaves you, it leaves you.”
After a while, one of the fishermen reiterated the warning. “Hindi. Totoo, naval talaga.” Chiara walked to the back of the boat. “By that time, the dots were a little bigger, so I took my camera which had a zoom lens and I took a photo. And when I zoomed in, they were the missile boats. I was stunned. That was the last story I did—about the Type 22 missile boats. I studied it, I asked the experts about it, so I know exactly what it looks like. So to be staring at my screen at the exact same vessel that I’ve been researching about days before, I was stunned.”
They waited for the boats to approach, and they did. “The missile boats were very fast. Then, thankfully they just stopped,” says Chiara. “They just left us alone. And that was that.”
Looking at all the footage and photographs they took of the China Coast Guard, Chiara and her camera man noted that the first photograph they ever took was at 9:09AM, and the last photograph she took of the Chinese missile boats was at 10:47AM. “The whole experience was that long,” says Chiara.
What was on your mind when the chase was happening?
I thought about the new China Coast Guard law, which permits the China Coast Guard to fire at any vessel in the seas that they claim, if they deem it questionable or threatening. The law wasn’t there yet when I was going to other parts of the West Philippine Sea. So at that time, I was thinking: Will this be the first time that they’d try that law on a Philippine vessel? There was added worry on my part. But thankfully, I saw the missile boats turn and kind of stop, which meant that it was stopping the chase. So I felt relieved.
What was the reaction you got from the government about your experience—apart from the AFP asking the media to “exercise prudence in the course of their job” and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin calling you a “thrill seeker”?
There was a government official who sent me angry messages privately. Pinagmukha ko daw inutil ang AFP. I understand where the initial shock was coming from kasi when I checked the internet, I saw all the reactions to the story and a lot of it was like that—“where was the military when this was happening?”
I told this official that people just don’t understand the dynamics of the West Philippine Sea, and that is why they react this way. But this official replied and said, “Your spin made it look like that.” Sinagot ko siya: “What spin? I hardly even mentioned the AFP in the story because it was about China and our boat.” So I just encouraged this official to watch that story again and maybe calm down a little bit. But then the official messaged and said “I did watch it and that’s how I see it.” And so I’ll have to leave it at that.
Did you immediately call your news desk after the chase?
Actually no. I was waiting to get to a safe distance from [the Chinese vessels] before I made a call to anyone. And because I was waiting, I actually fell asleep, which I can’t explain until now. I took a freaking nap after the chase! And then I woke up. “Nangyari ba talaga yun?” That’s when I opened the satellite phone and called the news desk. I told the desk, and I also informed the AFP, what happened. I tried to write the story. My camera man edited a few clips, we put them together. We asked the captain to stop [the boat] so that we can transmit [our news material]. So we were breaking the story from somewhere at sea on the way home.
What was it like being on that boat with the fishermen?
That was after a night of rough sailing. So admittedly, when I got in there, I was very seasick. [The fishermen] were lying around because it was their rest period; they would fish during the night.
I spoke to the one who could speak fluent Tagalog—Nardin, the mechanic of the crew. He did say that they’d already been out there for more than a month. I asked him: “Is this how it really is?” [referring to the amount of time they’re spending at sea]. He said yes, it would take them another month or two to fill the boat.
The question I had in mind—whether our Filipino fishermen were really affected by China’s swarm—was an honest question. It’s because I do know how vast the West Philippine Sea is. For all I know, they were all fishing as much as they wanted. I was entertaining the possibility that Filipino fishermen were okay out there. That even with China in one part of the sea, they were still good because they were fishing fully in other parts.
So I asked them [why they’re at sea that long]. And they said the reason they have to spend so much time out there is because they can’t go to the places where they used to have a good catch, which is the Union banks. The Union banks is where Julian Felipe Reef is. Sabi [ni Nardin], back in the day, it would only take weeks for them to fill boats like this. But they don’t go there anymore because they would get chased away by China. And the interesting bit is that he is the third person who told me that the last time they went to the Union banks was ten years ago. To us, Union banks is practically a new issue, but it seems that they’ve been driven away from the Union banks for a decade now.
Nardin himself had experienced getting driven out of the Union banks. So that answered the question for me. Okay, they are being affected by the swarm [of Chinese vessels on the West Philippine Sea]. There are places that they want to go where they can’t go anymore and it’s affecting their lives and their livelihood, having to stay at sea thrice as long as they used to. That was what I learned from them.
How would you rank this story among all the stories you’ve handled in the past?
I ask myself that question each time I experience something extraordinary and I realized there’s no comparing any of these instances. I can’t compare a missile boat chase to confronting the poaching of giant clams. I can’t compare a China Coast Guard chase on a Filipino vessel to, say, a suicide bombing in Sulu. They’re all so different.
What were the most difficult assignments you’ve had in your career?
The West Philippine Sea coverage is always physically taxing. It’s not a comfortable story to do. You have to be on a boat whether it is a navy vessel or a fishing vessel. The longest I stayed out in the West Philippine Sea on a boat was ten nights. That was at Scarborough Shoal with fishermen. I was sleeping on the roof of the boat. My camera man was sleeping on top of the ice chest where the fish were. I had another team member sleeping close to the engine. And for ten nights we were doing that. But for me it was worth it because we caught the poaching of giant clams. We won’t be able to capture that if we weren’t patient enough to wait.
Experiences like this, you have to keep working even if you’re throwing up. Sasabihan mo lang ang camera man mo na, “Cut muna.” Suka ka muna, tapos pag nahimasmasan ka, sasabihin mo, “Okay take 2.” Sometimes the camera man would say, “Mam, huminto ka muna kasi ang putla mo na.” So you have to contend with that.
Conflict is difficult. On the years leading to the Marawi siege, we were already following a Maute group. People were skeptical about the story. “Wala lang yan, pinapalaki mo lang.” But I knew there was something to it because I would see the things that the military would recover from their hidden camps—the black flag, tutorial videos of how to blow up a car or a building. I knew they were something else.
At some point, I and my fellow journalists already knew what different bullets sounded like. A bullet coming at you sounds different from a bullet coming from behind you. A 50mm sounds different from an M16. No one teaches you that. You just learn the stuff on the fly. They call it bravery. I hesitate to call it that because in this case with the West Philippine Sea, you never asked to be pursued by the Chinese navy. They weren’t the goal. I wasn’t looking for them. And to have them come after our vessel, I suppose at best we didn’t lose our composure and we still did the job as best as we could while trying to keep the rest of the team safe. That was as far as I can commend myself.
Do you always get to pick the stories that you do?
It comes with the beat. I did express interest in the beat before I got assigned to it. Everything military and conflict related, they’re partly my assignment and partly my interest. There’s something very human kasi in conflict. People say it’s a macho beat, it’s a man’s beat—I don’t think so. It’s a human beat. For every war being fought, these are human beings trying to end each other’s lives. You deal with life and death at every single instance. That, to me, is in a sad way very fascinating.
What does it take for a human being to take up a weapon and kill another person? How does it feel for the communities who had to live this kind of life for decades? That’s not my life. But how does it feel? That’s always my frame of mind when I go to conflict areas.
In the case of the West Philippine Sea, how does it feel for a Filipino fisherman on a wooden boat to have to share space with these massive metallic vessels of China? I know what it feels to get chased away as a journalist. But how does it feel for a fisherman to get chased away from waters that probably his father or grandfather told him belongs to them. Natutunan na niya na dito tayo nangingisda, sa atin ito.
Chiara, how to be you po? Hahaha. But seriously, what does it take to be who you are doing what you do?
I just believe in the job. I believe in the importance of the stories that need to be told. If I was thinking that it was just inconsequential to hear the fisherman out, I wouldn’t have puked my brains out in the West Philippine Sea. I wouldn’t be contending with a lot of backlash from some branches of the Philippine government now if I didn’t believe that it was important for us to hear it. I wouldn’t have taken footages of the missile boats chasing us if I didn’t believe it meant anything to our country. I think it’s rooted in that.
I believe that there are important stories that need to be told. And if it takes a little bit of discomfort, inconvenience, and some risks, for me to reach those stories, then I’m all for it. I guess experience gives you enough tools to prepare for these things and mitigate the risks that you’ll be facing. I’m not out there for the thrill. I’m out there for the voices.
Ces Drilon once said, in reference to her kidnap, “No story is ever worth your life.” Do you agree?
Absolutely. I would have done crazier things if I had a death wish. And honestly, Ces’ kidnapping put things into perspective for me. Ces knows this. I look up to her a lot. In a sense, my journalism and her journalism, the heart of it, are the same. We’re always pushing the boundaries. How far can we go kaya? It was really unfortunate that Ces found that boundary and crossed that boundary with such grave consequence.
I always have that in mind, especially when I go to these conflict areas. This job is not worth my life. It’s not worth my camera man’s life. That’s why when I asked the captain of the boat at the West Philippine Sea what his decision was and he said “let’s just go home,” I didn’t question it. I said yes. Life first, safety first.
But this doesn’t mean I’ll shy away from risks. It’s a matter of being smart enough to find ways to balance things out and mitigate these risks. We’re journalists—we can’t just sit around and wait for press releases. That’s not what we do.
You’ve been with ABS-CBN for almost two decades. How has reporting changed from when you started?
I don’t know if I’ve changed or the landscape has changed, or both. I think the job was so much simpler then. Before, it was mostly a matter of discussing a complicated issue, simplifying it enough for the audience to understand—both its content and its importance to them.
But increasingly, we have to deal with forces that have been fielding absolute lies to people. So now, you have to do two things—you have to report on the truth and you have to correct the lie. Some of the lies are about you, which mean to discredit you and the truth that you’re bringing.
It’s exhausting to be a journalist nowadays. These forces of disinformation, they’re very strong and you could feel the power of the machinery behind them. It’s not something to be taken lightly. The attacks on social media don’t faze me as much, but I see some activations, apart from being a “thrill-seeking idiot.” There are people calling me “CIA spy” and the usual “bobo,” “tanga,” “dilawan.” I do see really fake articles about me na pinapakalat. That’s the scary part about Philippine journalism nowadays. While we’re trying to do an honest day’s work, there’s someone trying to pull the rug from under us.
Interview by Jerome Gomez and Rhia Grana