This story and other “Voices from the Frontlines” dispatches form part of the state of press freedom report, “Speak Truth to Power, Keep Power in Check”, produced by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and Philippine Press Institute, to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2018.
(Reflections of a TV correspondent)
I have been covering conflicts for over 20 years both here and abroad. I thought I’ve seen it all.
Then came the battle for Marawi.
At first it was just like the all-out war versus the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in Maguindanao in 2000 or the series of military operations to rescue Abu Sayyaf hostages in Sulu and Basilan from 2000 to 2009.
While the stories from the battlefront and the evacuation centers in Marawi were reminiscent of conflicts past, covering the 5-month battle for Marawi was a whole new experience for many of us.
It was a paradoxical mix of having easy access to tons of information, video, and images but it was such a pain to verify, counter check, and corroborate with independent sources and reliable data and information.
As with any other conflicts, the line between propaganda and factual information are almost always hard to distinguish. But in the battle of Marawi, it was cranked up to the highest level.
Access to independent information and to the actual main battle area was tightly controlled by the military, and for good reason.
At the same time, though, the proliferation of smart phones with high-resolution cameras made it possible for journalists to take an unfiltered peek at what was happening on the ground. It was a matter of looking for the right source.
And then there’s social media.
Unlike the coverage of old when we would trek to the terrorists’ lair and interview them and their hostages, in Marawi, that was not a choice at all.
But with their own socmed teams taking full advantage of the power of social media, the terrorists managed to get their messages across. It was a matter of making sure we were not being used to spread their propaganda.
However helpful social media was, it also became a bane for journalists.
Before Marawi, the military trusted members of the media with sensitive information and even operational security matters, not necessarilly for publication but more importantly for journalists to get a better grasp and context of what was happening.
In a complicated story such as Marawi, background and context are essential in crafting an accurate story.
This changed during the Marawi coverage.
Off-the-record banters with military officials stopped. Access to primary sources of information such as released hostages and junior officers was restricted. At some point, we were asked not to film military planes dropping bombs not because of operational security issues but for fear that these images might be used as propaganda against the military on social media.
I must admit, these became a distraction for some of us in pursuing the more important stories and issues in the battle that destroyed a crucial part of a historic city, a bitter but important lesson we hope to learn.