On Blaming Stories for Journalists’ Death


          On February 12, major international media organizations like The Associated Press, AFP, Reuters, the BBC and other advocacy groups convened to endorse Global Safety Principles and Practices for Freelance Journalists.  For freelancers this is great news. But as far as people like us who fall in between—people who are not regular employees and are mere ”service providers”, and are not also freelancers for we are directly affiliated and exclusive to a media organization—are concerned, we are still in hot water. 


I have been around the media industry for more than four years. In our huge newsroom, where I get to meet people who have been in the industry for decades already, I honestly consider myself a newbie. Someone still trying to learn and earn responsibility for bigger things .

But despite my being new, I was already entrusted with some huge assignments—the fact that I work closely with a media veteran. Covering disaster and humanitarian response beats for GMA News’ 24 Oras, I was deployed on field in almost every Typhoon that entered the Philippines for the past three years. More often than not, my team has to standby before the landfall.

“It is true, no story is worth dying for. But not until we make media companies more accountable for better protection and well-defined insurance policies, we will forever blame stories for every journalist’s death.”

In the case of Typhoon Glenda in 2014, my team got stuck in a manhole along Maharlika Hiway in Quezon Province. I was with two other experienced camera crew, but I have to admit that we were all panicking.  It was past two in the morning. We were in the middle of total darkness, in an unfamiliar place, during the most silent time of the night, with the horrifying sight of the heightening flood, amidst the surging typhoon. We were that helpless. (See this video on my Instagram.)

I was really concerned about the flood. I don’t want to entertain the thought, but it kept running through my mind that time. What if the flood continues to rise and entirely swallows our stuck crew cab?” I was already planning escape course, preparing myself should I need to swim for my young life. Had it happened, I would have depended my life on adrenaline. I am not a good swimmer, and I never was prepared for  swimming in turbulent flood.

It was already eight in the morning when we had a sight of a group of locals who later helped pull us out of that manhole which was five feet deep according to them. Locals helped us despite the pounding typhoon. Torn roof and tree branches were being blown around, and the flood that time was almost on knee-level.

Throwback 2013, name all the major disasters—both natural and manmade— that struck the Philippines. I was all there.

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Photo: Of what was left in Lustre St. known as the ground zero of Zamboanga City Standoff in 2013.

In September 2013, shortly before ceasefire was declared in Zamboanga City, my team was sent there to cover humanitarian efforts for those displaced by the conflict.  In one relief distribution in Brgy. Sta. Catalina, we were told by our military escort that our group was among the first media teams to be allowed to enter after the clearing operations. The relief distribution site was neighbouring the ground zero of the standoff which was Lustre Street. Walking around the site, we were told by our military escort that some areas were still  uncleared (sugarcoated unsafe) and we are not allowed to enter.  It was my first time to don a 15 kg bulletproof vest. That silly kid in me took a lot of selfies and ecstatically uploaded one on IG saying, “I am Titanium.” (LOL!)

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Photo: Taken in the Brgy. Hall of Sta. Catalina , Zamboanga City.

It was frightening doing stories in Bohol after the Magnitude 7.2 Earthquake. There were once-in-a-while aftershocks. I remember when we were eating in a carinderia in the town of Inabangga. Suddenly, the entire roof rattled loudly and everyone started speed-racing  their way outside. I was honestly caught off-guard. I froze for what seemed like a minute before I was able to lift my butt off my chair and gestured to run. But too late Makoi, the shaking stopped. I instantaneously sat back and continued eating like nothing happened, so as everyone.

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Photo: Inside the ruins of Baclayon Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site, adversely affected by the earthquake in Bohol.

         

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Photo: Loon Church, one of the National Cultural Treasures found in Bohol, was reduced into rubble by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake.

          Yolanda aftermath was the hardest. I was supposed to station in Tacloban City before the landfall. Office changed plans, also flights were cancelled. The team supposedly stationed in Samar drove their way to Tacloban City because we did not make it. Their team was almost killed by the super typhoon.

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Brgy. 37, a coastal barangay in Tacloban City, was completely wiped out after Typhoon Yolanda.

Two days after the super typhoon, my team was sent to Tacloban City. I experienced lifting a couple of cadaver bags. I slept beside refugees on thin sleeping bags in the crowded cargo area of the Philippine Navy ship (Isn’t it freaky how cadaver bags and sleeping bags look so identical. I was that paranoid sleeping in that thinly cushioned pseudo-mattress). My team was eating Sky Flakes and canned tuna for the entire first week. Tuna tasted like paper on our fourth day. “Pang laman tiyan,” we convinced ourselves hard. Imagine how I despised that canned tuna brand after our coverage.

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Photo: One of the first stories I did in Tacloban City. Ricky, of Brgy. 37, toured me around his annihilated barangay. After the massive storm surge, this is what is left in his house.

I was there doing stories in Tacloban City and Samar for the entire month of November. After almost a month of coverage, I was able to return to Manila on December 5.

In all these coverage, kudos to GMA for providing us the necessary equipment and protective gears we needed. Everything was there. We just have to request them. In some other aspects, there are a lot of improvables though. Hearing stories of frustration from other media professionals from other companies and also from my coworkers, who almost got killed and lost some hard-earned valuables because of dangerous typhoon coverage, I absolutely agree that we deserved better. You see, #BTS (Behind The Scenes) is bittersweet.

Acknowledging the important role of freelance journalists covering dangerous assignments, major international media organizations like The Associated Press, AFP, Reuters, the BBC and other advocacy groups convened on February 12 to endorse two sets of Global Safety Principles and Practices for (1) Freelance Journalists and (2) Media Organizations. The standards—very generic but I dearly hope they make it more clear-cut—emphasizes  the importance of pre-coverage risk assessment, training on first aid and survival, a well-defined insurance policy, and proper credits i.e. decent bylines during story airings and name inclusion in case of winning awards.

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Photo: Taken in one of the medical missions we documented in Leyte after Typhoon Yolanda. Forced to live in poorly managed evacuation centers, this baby is plagued by a skin disease.

When I have known about this coalition endorsing safety standards for Freelance Journalists, I felt happy because it seems  that the voiceless plight of journalists is heard after all. Don’t you find it ironic? The ones who tell the stories of the oppressed have limited platform to voice out the tales of their own compromised rights.

For freelancers this is great news. But as far as people like us who fall in between—people who are not regular employees and are mere ”service providers”, and are not also freelancers for we are directly affiliated and exclusive to a media organization—are concerned, we are still in hot water.

In this critical time when change towards a revolutionized employment system for journalists is being publicly discussed, I am hoping that our local media outlets show support and abide by these safety principles and practices, for the welfare of journalists across the different “employment types”. After all, for any journalist who risks his/her life for a story, better protection and a black-and-white insurance policy guarantee them a certain amount of ‘security’ in perilous situation.

Case in point, what happened to the families of the journalists who were murdered in Maguindanao Massacre in 2009? If not for private entities helping out, who will send their children to school?

It is true, no story is worth dying for. But not until we make media companies more accountable for better protection and well-defined insurance policies, we will forever blame stories for every journalist’s death.


Global Safety Principles and Practices

FOR JOURNALISTS ON DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENTS:

1. Before setting out on any assignment in a conflict zone or any dangerous environment, journalists should have basic skills to care for themselves or injured colleagues.

2. We encourage all journalists to complete a recognized news industry first aid course, to carry a suitable first-aid kit and continue their training to stay up-to-date on standards of care and safety both physical and psychological. Before undertaking an assignment in such zones, journalists should seek adequate medical insurance covering them in a conflict zone or area of infectious disease.

3. Journalists in active war zones should be aware of the need and importance of having protective ballistic clothing, including armored jackets and helmets. Journalists operating in a conflict zone or dangerous environment should endeavor to complete an industry-recognized hostile environment course.

4. Journalists should work with colleagues on the ground and with news organizations to complete a careful risk assessment before traveling to any hostile or dangerous environment and measure the journalistic value of an assignment against the risks.

5. On assignment, journalists should plan and prepare in detail how they will operate including identifying routes, transport, contacts and a communications strategy with daily check-in routines with a colleague in the region or their editor. Whenever practical, journalists should take appropriate precautions to secure mobile and Internet communications from intrusion and tracking.

6. Journalists should work closely with their news organizations, the organization that has commissioned them, or their colleagues in the industry if acting independently, to understand the risks of any specific assignment. In doing so, they should seek and take into account the safety information and travel advice of professional colleagues, local contacts, embassies and security personnel. And, likewise, they should share safety information with colleagues to help prevent them harm.

7. Journalists should leave next of kin details with news organizations, ensuring that these named contacts have clear instructions and action plans in the case of injury, kidnap or death in the field.

FOR NEWS ORGANIZATIONS MAKING ASSIGNMENTS IN DANGEROUS PLACES:

1. Editors and news organizations recognize that local journalists and freelancers, including photographers and videographers, play an increasingly vital role in international coverage, particularly on dangerous stories.

2. Editors and news organizations should show the same concern for the welfare of local journalists and freelancers that they do for staffers.

3. News organizations and editors should endeavor to treat journalists and freelancers they use on a regular basis in a similar manner to the way they treat staffers when it comes to issues of safety training, first aid and other safety equipment, and responsibility in the event of injury or kidnap.

4. Editors and news organizations should be aware of, and factor in, the additional costs of training, insurance and safety equipment in war zones.  They should clearly delineate before an assignment what a freelancer will be paid and what expenses will be covered.

5. Editors and news organizations should recognize the importance of prompt payment for freelancers. When setting assignments, news organizations should endeavor to provide agreed upon expenses in advance, or as soon as possible on completion of work, and pay for work done in as timely a manner as possible.

6. Editors and news organizations should ensure that all freelance journalists are given fair recognition in bylines and credits for the work they do both at the time the work is published or broadcast and if it is later submitted for awards, unless the news organization and the freelancer agree that crediting the journalist can compromise the safety of the freelancer and/or the freelancer’s family.

7. News organizations should not make an assignment with a freelancer in a conflict zone or dangerous environment unless the news organization is prepared to take the same responsibility for the freelancer’s wellbeing in the event of kidnap or injury as it would a staffer. News organizations have a moral responsibility to support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization.

In conclusion, we, the undersigned, encourage all staff and freelance journalists and the news organizations they work with to actively join in a shared commitment to safety and a new spirit of collegiality and concern.

SIGNATORY ORGANIZATIONS

Agence France Press

The Associated Press

Bloomberg

British Broadcasting Corporation

Committee to Protect Journalists

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

Frontline Club

Frontline Freelance Register

Global Journalist Security

GlobalPost

The GroundTruth Project

Guardian News and Media Group

International Center for Journalists

International News Safety Institute

International Press Institute

James W. Foley Legacy Foundation

McClatchy DC

Miami Herald

National Union of Journalists-Philippines

Newsweek

Overseas Press Club of America

Overseas Press Club Foundation

PBS Frontline

Public Radio International’s The World

Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues

Reporters Without Borders

Reuters

Rory Peck Trust

USA Today

End

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