CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 20 October 2018

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Philippine journalists targets of attack

It was a Sunday but about a dozen reporters from independent media outfits in Manila were hard at work crafting human interest stories.
 
As they worked, an appeal for help came from striking workers at a condiment factory in a nearby province. The workers at NutriAsia were demanding an end to a labor-only contracting scheme and poor labor practices allegedly implemented by the company.
 
No major news organisations covered the event. Critics said their absence was expected because of the hefty advertising spending of popular condiment and juice brands.
 
Could Altermidya, a network of 32 small independent media outfits in the Philippine capital, cover the event?
 
The request came as the reporters were wrapping up a five-day journalism course at an open-air patio with a whiteboard that doubled as a projection.
 
Rosemarie Alcaraz, a wise-cracking news anchor for a community radio northeast of Manila, had presented an intimate interview of a 74-year-old woman who tried to complete sewing jobs with one hand transformed into a rigid claw.
 
With a sympathetic subject, Alcaraz was able to humanise a contentious issue, weaving universal themes into a story of government neglect and the effects of a new tax regime under the president, Rodrigo Duterte.
 
The 28-year-old broadcaster started her journalism work in 2014 as an intern of Kodao, another alternative production house. Like all other Altermidya reporters, Alcaraz operates on a shoestring budget.
 
She is no stranger to dangerous working conditions and has covered goons shooting protesting farmers. “I always review the lessons from a media safety training course before every major coverage or when the going gets tough,” she said.
 
“But some things still jar me,” Alcaraz admitted after a debriefing session after what turned out to be a violent dispersal of protesting NutriAsia workers on July 30.
 
She and three other Altermidya journalists were hurt during the incident. Student journalist, Jon Bonifacio, who was covering the event for the state university’s publication, suffered worse when he was dragged across the road by a policeman.
 
Altermidya’s video of Bonifacio’s arrest went viral, shared by tens of thousands of activists who have started a call to boycott NutriAsia’s products.
 
Eric Tandoc, a Filipino-American documentarian, took the video of Bonifacio’s arrest. He was filming the arrest of his wife, journalist Hiyas Saturay, when he himself was attacked by the police and company guards.
 
“They threw me to the ground and kicked me. Someone kicked me in the face, the ribs,” he said. “I was trying to protect my camera and they started dragging me.”
 
Another journalist, Avon Ang, saw guards and policemen converging on a small group of protesters. “I saw an old woman run toward me. She was spitting blood, her face was swollen and bloody. I called for help and rushed to her. That’s when they arrested me too,” Ang said.
 
Five journalists were arrested and their equipment and mobile phones confiscated. They were charged with alarm and scandal together with 14 protesters.
 
Alcaraz managed to evade arrest but still limps from a swollen leg where she was hit by a police baton. “Journalists know they can be collateral targets in conflict zones,” she said. “That’s why we undergo safety training. But this was different. We were clear targets here.”
 
Her video of the melee showed company guards attacking protesters. “I was spotted by a guard who shoved me into the protest lines, preventing me from getting out,” Alcarez said. 
 
She later saw in her video the man who started it all. “He started battering furniture, water containers, upending tables. He was like a maniac. He tried to attack me again but was stopped by his companions and went off,” she said.
 
Alcaraz escaped to an open field where protesters had cut a barbed wire fence, only to go back to help rescue a priest who had earlier led an ecumenical service.
 
At the police station where the journalists and workers were taken, Superintendent Santos Mera prevented the media from interviewing them. “You don’t have a permit, you can’t cover,” Mera was caught saying on video. When asked why, the police chief said: “Do not react! Do not react! If you are a journalist, you should cooperate.”
 
NutriAsia lawyers later agreed to drop the case against the journalists if they would sign a quit claim. The conditions included not writing anything “detrimental about NutriAsia” and not filing charges against the company.
 
Journalists knew the document would be thrown out in court. They, their lawyers, and even the prosecutors were not given a copy of the document.
 
“It is a dark time for democracy and freedom when journalists are treated as criminals, arrested, beaten up, threatened, charged and prevented from doing their work,” read a statement from the National Union of Journalists.
 
Released two days after their ordeal, the journalists remained unbowed. They prepared counter charges against the police and the company’s security personnel.
 
Some still suffer from intense headaches caused by trauma. “We cover trouble,” Ang said. “But this was different.”
 
The journalists vowed that the incident is “not going to stop us,” adding that if there’s anything the experience taught them, it’s that without alternative media abusive companies would have a free hand to sell their lies.
 
Altermidya is a member of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists. UCAN