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In the line of fire: supporting journalists in Mindanao

Rodney, 13
© Inside Mindanao/Antonio Manaytay
Rodney, 13, works as a ferryman on the Olutanga straits. “His bony sun-tanned arms paled in size to the paddle he gripped with his hands,” Antonio writes in his article.

How UNICEF Philippines is supporting journalists in Mindanao with training on ethical reporting and children’s rights

On Monday 23 November, as journalists from across Mindanao gathered for a UNICEF-supported media training course in Palawan, at least twelve of their colleagues were shot dead, along with around 30 local politicians and observers, as they tried to file nomination papers for a candidate in local elections next year. Some of the bodies were later found mutilated and beheaded.

The killings took place in Maguindanao, on Mindanao Island, and have been linked to tensions between rival clans vying for political office. “Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day,” Reporters Sans Frontiers said, condemning the “incomprehensible bloodbath”.

The incident underscores the importance of supporting journalists in Mindanao. Two of the participants at the UNICEF-supported training session were invited to cover the Maguindanao event and would have been killed too if they had gone. Another delegate had staff members among those killed.

“The Philippines has one of the freest presses in the world but unfortunately it also has one of the highest incidences of journalist killings,” Marge Francia, media and advocacy specialist at UNICEF Philippines, comments. “The challenge is for journalists to express themselves freely without fear of being punished or killed because of their views.”

The training session, run by Probe Media Foundation in association with the Philippine Press Institute and Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines, aimed to provide journalists with training on ethical reporting of children and to introduce them to issues around children’s rights. After an initial training session and workshop in Davao in September, the journalists returned home to record their own stories on children’s rights – some in print or on the web, others for radio or TV.

The Palawan workshop was a chance for the journalists to share their stories and get feedback from each other and a panel of experts. The stories presented included child labor in Batang Kalabaw, school bullying in Davao, solvent abuse in Zamboanga and children affected by armed conflict in Marawi.

The boatman’s call

Freelance journalist Antonio Manaytay, 44, from Zamboanga presented an article on child labor which he wrote for InsideMindanao.com and the Zamboanga Sibugay Tribune. His main focus was on children who work as ferrymen, rowing adult passengers across the straits that separate Olutanga Island from the mainland.

“Thirteen-year-old Rodney Balagot appeared too small for a boy of his age,” Antonio writes. “His bony sun-tanned arms paled in size to the paddle he gripped with his hands, safely guiding the motorized boat carrying his six passengers to dock.”

Three years ago, Rodney’s father died and he had to drop out of school to help his mother support the family. He has been working as a ferryman since then, making around ten trips a day across the straits. “But I don't stop dreaming of returning to school one day,” he told Antonio.

Antonio was inspired to become a journalist after ten years working on conflict resolution and community development in the NGO sector.”I feel that there are important stories to be told,” he explains. “Children’s rights issues in particular are not being reported, or are being misreported.”

When he got an email from a colleague about the training course, Antonio was immediately interested. “I thought this training was a good opportunity to learn new skills and sharpen my tools,” he says. “Since starting the course, I’ve learned a lot about media ethics and how to approach the stories of children.”

Leave those kids alone

Mitch at the CRC celebration
© AVS-CBN/Mitch Robin-Bascal
Mitch speaking at a televised celebration of the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Davao city.

Mitch Robin-Bascal, 29, is Executive Producer, Host and Desk Editor for ABS CBN in Davao city. The station is one of the most popular in the Philippines and reaches a large, predominantly young audience. At the workshop, Mitch presented a TV report on efforts to tackle bullying in schools.

“I’ve learned to be more careful dealing with children, especially on sensitive issues,” she says. “If you’re not careful, you can end up increasing their stigma or trauma. Now, I spend time getting to know the children and making sure they’re comfortable being interviewed.”

After her report was aired, Mitch was contacted at the station by several parents. “Some of them said they had previously thought of bullying as a petty quarrel among children,” she says. “Now they were thinking about what they should do if their children were bullied in school and how to support and empower them.”

The station is now working with the local government in Davao on an anti-bullying campaign, including information and awareness activities in schools. It also hosted a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, where Mitch’s seven-year old son spoke about bullying in schools. “He’s our youngest advocate,” she says smiling proudly.

Spreading the word

In addition to running these kinds of workshops, UNICEF Philippines regularly monitors how children are portrayed in the media. “The most common problem is denying a child’s right to privacy,” Marge says. “Sometimes in sensitive cases like sexual abuse, the child’s face is shown on TV or their real name is used, which makes them easy to identify. Children can also be made to relive difficult experiences and their stories can sometimes be sensationalized.”

Through media monitoring and training workshops, UNICEF has started to make a real difference to how children’s stories are reported. “We’ve seen improvements over the years as more journalists become aware of the consequences if they identify children,” Marge says. “Ultimately, we want to apply international, rights-based standards of reporting into local practice here in the Philippines.”

There is still a lot of work to be done to change attitudes – both towards journalists, as this week’s shocking killings in Mindanao illustrate, and on the part of journalists themselves. However, through the work of UNICEF-trained media practitioners like Antonio and Mitch, children’s stories are being told more responsibly and the issues around their rights are being brought to the public’s attention.

“No story is worth dying for,” says Jewel Reyes, a reporter from ABS CBN in Zamboanga, who has received death threats from terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. However, for these journalists there are plenty of unreported children’s stories worth living for.

The author
Andy Brown is Senior Web Editor at UNICEF UK. He is working with UNICEF Philippines on secondment until December.

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