Wed, 27 May 2020

Screengrab from ABS-CBN News.

THE POLICY of violence was lost in the reporting of the death of 14 farmers in Negros Oriental. Joint operations conducted by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Regional Public Safety Battalion, Special Action Force, the local PNP and the Philippine Army on March 30 killed 14 allegedly hardcore criminals. But the slain turned out to be members of militant farmers organizations in the towns of Manjuyud, Sta. Catalina and Canlaon.

Media recorded claims and counter-claims of the police and various human rights and farmers organizations who contested official statements, saying that the farmers were summarily executed. Some media organizations, including online news site, did note that 180 farmers have been killed under the Duterte administration, 40 of whom were in Negros Island. But there was little said about violence and impunity as an emerging norm in many parts of the country.

Reports devoid of context failed to show the Negros killings as a product of policies that legitimize state-sponsored violence including Memorandum No. 32 and Proclamation No. 55. In 2016, the president declared a state of national emergency caused by a spate of violent and lawless acts across many parts of Mindanao through Proclamation No. 55. Meanwhile, Memorandum No. 32 reinforces Proclamation No. 55, even noting that sporadic acts of violence have occurred recently in particular areas of the country, particularly in the provinces of Samar, Negros Oriental and Occidental, and the Bicol Region, which appear to have been committed by lawless groups. Both enable the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the PNP to undertake all necessary measures to suppress and all forms of lawless violence.

CMFR monitored the reporting of the newspapers Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star; the primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), News Night (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2); as well as selected cable news programs and selected news websites from March 30 to April 10, 2019.

Pointing Out Human Rights Violations: Tokhang-style

Both print and broadcast noted human rights issues in their reports. Print reports cited statements of human rights groups.

Reports from monitored primetime newscasts featured accounts of the families of the slain, all of whom attested as eyewitnesses to what happened. On April 3, GMA News TVs QRT featured the story of the Avelino brothers who were both victims of the operations. Masked men who later turned out to be police and military operatives broke into their homes in the dead of the night. The victims were forcibly separated from other family members who could only hear their pleas, followed by gunshots. The families were then told that the victims had fought back and were killed in shoot-outs with the police. Their homes were also ransacked. Firearms were allegedly found in the victims possession. Some of the families lost valuables.

Following the claims of the victims, most media, including and tagged the killings as Tokhang-style, pointing out the similarities in PNPs nanlaban narrative in the drug war and in the arrest of the farmers.

Media reported that PNP Chief Oscar Albayalde defended the legitimacy of the operations, alleging that the raids were covered by warrants for illegal possession of firearms. He added that the victims were communist rebels who were supposedly killed while resisting arrest. Reports cited militant groups that questioned why the raiders were masked and not in uniform but did not note Albayaldes failure to respond.

On April 9, the Inquirer cited a joint report by 21 human rights and farmers organizations in the Visayas contradicting Albayalde. The report said the 14 farmers were summarily executed and that the arresting teams did not follow police protocol. The teams wore no uniforms and had no nameplates, but were in combat gear and masked instead. Neither the victims nor their families were shown the supposed arrest warrants, which were issued by a judge from Cebu, not Negros Oriental. The victims were shot several times in the head and the body.

Exceptions: Targeting poor farmers

With a few exceptions, including Interaksyon,, most media did not mention the two presidential orders as having directed state-sponsored acts of violence, presenting these killings as unrelated events and seemingly disconnected to a set policy of the Duterte administration.

Interaksyons report on April 1 placed the tragic episode in larger context, recalling the recent history of violence against farmers, among them the October 2018 Sagay Massacre that left nine farmers dead in Negros Occidental and the April 2016 Kidapawan Massacre in which three protesting farmers were killed by the local police.

This report did say that under President Dutertes Memorandum Order No. 32, additional troops have been deployed to the provinces of Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, Samar, and the Bicol region to suppress lawless violence.

It also quoted several farmers organizations that condemned these acts. The National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA-Philippines) criticized police operations for targeting poor farmers and peasant leaders. They said that the killing of the 14 farmers was similar to that of six farmers in the town of Guihulngan and nearby provinces in 2018.

In which case, if media are going to quote official claims about the legitimacy of operations, these reports should point out that it is government policy that makes these legitimate, as these are so ordered and sanctioned. However, such legitimacy does not take away from the fact that these are still violations of human rights and due process.

Missing the pattern, media also fail to call public attention to the issue of official accountability.

As it has done in the past, the PNP relieved some officials. But the involvement of those terminated was questioned by Bishop Gerardo Alminaza (San Carlos, Negros Occidental), who said that regional police officials were the real culprits, and not the provincial officials whom Albayalde relieved.

For those with longer memories than these reporters, these incidents are reminiscent of a dark past called Martial Law. Journalists should not miss the opportunity to recall the pattern as signs of the troubled times, when the state can attack its own citizens and describe these as legitimate.

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