WHAT THE PUBLIC MISSED | Reportage on the recent clashes in Mountain Province

By SHERWIN DE VERA
www.nordis.net

BAGUIO CITY — In 2016, at the height of the talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication published a report on how media framed stories on the peace negotiations.

Among the key findings were that reports on the armed conflict lacked context and that information came mainly from government and the military. It pointed out that rebels were “presented as being intent on causing terror and inflicting harm on people.” In addition, most stories were spot reports with “no attempt at background reporting” and highlighted the conflict instead of the value of the peace efforts.

How have the recent clashes been reported? The reportage on the recent skirmishes between the NPA and government forces in the Mountain Province (March 29 and 31, April 2) and the ensuing events carried the same flaws cited by the study. Some opinion and “analytical” pieces even implied the police were helpless victims of random attacks intended to sow terror.

For example, of the 24 online stories related to the incident reported by local journalists (including the ones published by Nordis) from March 29 to April 24, only nine contained accounts from the rebels on the clash. Most were spot reports of the incidents, while the others were about the government’s recognition of the PNP troops for their bravery and condemnation of the rebel offensive.

The reports did mention the directives from the principals of both groups to intensify their offensives. However, they failed to provide the background on the escalation of clashes nationwide. No article narrated, even in passing, that President Duterte set aside the stand-down agreement signed by both negotiating panels in June 2017 which could have lessened or prevented such clashes on the ground.

A more pressing concern is the arbitrary use of the term “terrorist” in the reports. A lot of the articles adopted the government and military line of labeling the clashes as “atrocities” and “terrorist acts” by the rebels. Some even used the term “NPA bandits”, which implied that these were the acts of common criminals. By doing so, these reports missed crucial information that could have provided the public with better understanding of the armed conflict.

By adopting the term “terrorist”, the reporters set aside the issue of social injustice that has continually been raised by armed rebels, not only by the CPP-NPA but also by Moro groups in Mindanao. It denies the fact that the rebels are not just there to fight it out with the police and military but are advancing a political and economic agenda in opposition to current government policies.

The term undermines the fact that the CPP-NPA-NDFP has declared to undertake Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, and is a recognized entity challenging the Philippine government for political, military and economic control. Also, it diminishes the significance of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law signed by the GRP and NDFP.

Are the clashes terror attacks? In the absence of a universally accepted definition of terrorism, the United Nations has determined that the term should refer to actions “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants…”

What happened in the Mountain Province were not random attacks against civilians or non-combatants; they were the result of the combat and pursuit operations directed by the government against the NPA and possibly of tactical errors committed by the government forces that gave the rebels an upper hand in the firefights.

The Regional Mobile Force Battalion were armed and in their numbers when the incidents took place. No less than PNP chief Oscar Albayalde said that government forces initiated the clash. He said the police operation was in line with the directive of president Duterte to end the communist rebellion.

In a press release after the March 29 battle, the regional command of the PNP said the officers were “acting on an information provided by the populace” about the presence of NPA guerrillas who were planning to extort from candidates campaign fees. Having such information, police officials were well aware that a firefight could occur and that casualties could be expected when they sent their men to hunt for the rebels.

Even if the definition of “terrorism” under the Human Security Act of 2007 (HSA) is taken into account, the incidents can hardly be considered as something that sowed and created a “condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace.”

Residents of sitios Malupa and Laugan, barangay Abatan and sitio Cotcot, barangay Poblacion in Bauko, who evacuated during the April 2 clash, even returned home the following day, according to Bauko Tourism Officer Arsenia Addon. Also, Mountain Province Governor Bonifacio Lacwasan, Jr., said that the province remained generally peaceful, and that tourism had not been affected by the clashes.

Is the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization? The United States and the European Union declared the CPP-NPA “a foreign terrorist organization” in 2002. However, under Philippine law, specifically the HSA, no group or individual can be declared a terrorist without being given “due notice and opportunity to be heard,” something the US and the EU did not even consider.

In December 2017, President Duterte signed Proclamation No. 374 declaring the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization. But the proclamation has yet to be upheld by a “competent Regional Trial Court,” as required by the HSA.

The Court has yet to decide on the petition filed by the Justice Department last February 2018 to proscribe the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization.

But granting that the legal offensive by the Philippine government proceeds to its favor, there remains the clear distinction between offensives by rebels or insurgents and terrorism.

Terrorism is commonly understood as actions “meant to inflict dramatic and deadly injury on civilians and to create an atmosphere of fear” to “coerce the population of government into granting demands.” It is distinguished from conventional and guerrilla warfare in that its perpetrators mainly target civilians rather that engage their enemies in combat.

Even the US military think-tank RAND Corporation differentiates one from the other. Professor Daniel Byman of Georgetown University enumerated some of these differences. He said compared to guerrillas, terrorists do not function in the open as armed units nor seized or hold territory. They also fail to exercise any kind of sovereignty over population and rarely engage in mass mobilizations.

The CPP-NPA engages in guerrilla-type combat operations against the Armed Forces of the Philippines and police, who, except for such acts as indiscriminate bombing of civilian villages, communal forest anf farms, engage in conventional-type combat operations against the CPP-NPA. Their strategy and tactics rely on the effective political mobilization of the populace to support their objective of establishing a new state rather than attacking the populace to generate widespread fear.

Synthesis of the reportage. Most reports provided the basic information about the clashes, enough to inform the readers of what transpired. However, straight news that dwells only on the firefight and the casualties tends to create further division among the people. It leaves a data gap on the circumstances that caused the events and the reasons why the war in the countryside continue to rage.

This information void muddles the root cause of the armed conflict and is exploited by peace spoilers to propagate lies. More so when the media only reports data they sourced from the police and military, and tow the militarist’s “terrorist” label of the CPP-NPA. It fans red-tagging, hate and violence against those who advocate for the continuance of the negotiations and legitimacy of the rebels’ demands. Such reports also undermine the peace efforts of the different sectors and groups.

By sticking to such brand of reports, we failed to inform the public of the truth that rebellion cannot be addressed just by silencing of the guns. That to realize the cessation of hostilities on the ground, the government and the revolutionary forces must immediately return to the negotiating table and address the root of the armed rebellion. # nordis.net

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