THE DAVAO MEDIA UNDER FIRE
BY ROGER M. BALANZA
When the enemies get tough—-stop!
When the going gets rough —-flee!
These two lines may as well be part of the code of safety for journalists in Mindanao—to save their skin from harm or escape death by summary execution.
Two media killings in Davao City illustrated the fate that could befall members of the press who violated the first code of safety.
In 2001, top-rated radio broadcaster Juan “Jun” Porras Pala was killed in ambush near his home in a middle-class subdivision at the outskirts of the city proper. Pala was armed along with his bodyguards when waylaid. It was the third attempt on his life. He survived the first two with minor injuries.
Pala as a popular broadcaster had ruled the Davao air lanes for decades through his top-rating radio programs peppered with tons of acerbic verbal assaults against persons in government, police and military and others he perceived were anti-people. It made him very popular but also earned a myriad of enemies.
He first made his name in the early 80s as the propagandist of the Alsa Masa (People Rising), the military-backed peoples movement that helped drive communist rebels away from the city’s urban centers, when communist hit men called ‘Sparrows’ used Davao City as a laboratory for its urban guerilla warfare. In that sad and violent era in the city’s history marked by hundreds of assassinations and summary executions of police and military personnel and civilians by the communist rebels, Pala emerged as a rabidly anti-communist radio journalists who marshaled public support against the rebels.
He would later parlay his popularity into winning a post in the local legislative body, but his anti-communist crusade continued this time coupled with an anti-corruption drive.
Pala’s enemies quadrupled.
Police investigating his death could only speculate as to who was behind the murder: police, military, politicians and the communist New Peoples Army. The murder remains unsolved until today.
Broadcaster Ferdie “Batman” Lintuan was positioning himself as the next Jun Pala when motorcycle-riding gunmen waylaid him while he was leaving his radio station in Agdao district. Lintuan was aboard his car with two broadcaster colleagues, who emerged unscathed, when shot dead in the ambush that also remained unsolved today.
Lintuan made a name by exposing anomalies in government and private sector. Politics could also be behind the killing. Lintuan was widely known as one of the publicists of a major political figure in Davao City.
Prior to his death, he had exposed alleged rampant smuggling in the Bureau of Customs and in the construction of a public park. His expose on the public park led the local government to ask the audit commission to conduct a probe to clear its name from Lintuan’s expose.
The threats against members of the press in Davao City are seldom reported either in print or broadcast but journalists take note of assassins to possibly target its members based on the line of broadcast or printed articles of individual newsmen. As a matter of self preservation, they advise each other about potential threats, caution each other to go slow and make notes in the event something happens to the pressmen. We are one of those who do this as part of our effort to save members of media from harm.
Press groups here like National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), Kapisanan ng mga Brodkasters ng Pilipinas (KBP) and the Philippine Press Institute, or the local press clubs are helpless when threats against media members are reported, even if the danger is imminent.
But they quickly surface after the trigger is pulled and a member of the press is killed.
The press groups become visible only after somebody is killed, in finely-crafted press releases condemning the murder, that are nothing more than obituaries.
Pala and Lintuan violated the first code of safety for threatened journalists: When the going got rough, they refused to stop.
Call him coward but Stephen Manangan took the second code of safety when the wall was crushing down on him as the anchor of a highly-popular anti-graft, anti-corruption morning radio program BANAT on the ABS/CBN radio station DXAB.
A teacher by profession, Manangan raised the level of quality of local radio journalism, gaining respect through his acute analysis of day-to-day events in all spectrum of the city and in his crusade for good governance and social equity.
Like Pala and Lintuan however, he was also merciless in his crusade against corrupt police and military officials and those in other branches of governance.
Two unsolved media killings were enough for friends of Manangan both in media and public to dish out pieces of advices about slowing down on his verbal assaults.
One early evening in middle 2009, gunmen strafed the house of a tribal leader in a far-flung district in Davao City.
There were instant suspects in the murder of Datu Dominador Diarog, the leader of the Guiangan Tribe in Tugbok district, and the wounding of his wife and children: henchmen of the head of a religious sect that wanted to grab ancestral domain lands from tribal communities in Tugbok. The leader of the sect, a politically-connected pastor of an internationally-known evangelist group, planned to build a 100-hectare Prayer Mountain in Tugbok that it would call Little Jerusalem in preparation for what it prophesied as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The area included an ancestral domain land claimed by the tribe of Datu Diarog.
Datu Diarog had marshaled his tribe to rise up against the land grabbing.
But his world got smaller, with his tribesmen selling their lands to the sect out of self-preservation and fear, after being harassed by armed men.
At the time of his murder, Datu Diarog’s 2-hectare property was the lone property that has not been bought out by the sect. He had vehemently refused to sell his land despite the harassment and threat to his life.
Prior to the killing, armed men also strafed his house and in another incident burned his house. A barangay official linked to the sect of the preacher is suspected as the mastermind in the killing of Diarog.
Manangan came into the picture by using his program to encourage the tribal natives to rise up in arms against the preacher and urged the communist New Peoples Army to come to the aid of the harassed natives. That the sect had no qualms about using violence against its enemies was fearsome. One of the organizers of mass rallies and marches from the farflung village to the urban center by the natives in protest of the harassment and land grabbing would be killed in downtown Davao City.
For his broadcast, Manangan would earn the ire of the preacher and his followers, who are suspected as behind threatening phone calls and text messages targeting Manangan.
Armed men on motorcycles suspected as on a mission to kill Manangan were regularly spotted passing by ABS/CBN headquarters in Matina Hills in Davao City apparently to intimidate Manangan to stop him from continuing his verbal assaults against the preacher and his hired guns.
Manangan dipping his fingers into harassment of the tribals by a religious group was a potential motive for him to go the way of Pala and Lintuan. But Manangan played his cards well.
There were other issues he raised that placed the life of Manangan in grave danger from assassins.
For years, elements of the Highway Patrol Group (HPG) policing the southern highways of Davao City have made a lucrative business of fleecing cargo trucks from Central Mindanao entering the city. The policemen demanded money from drivers before allowing them to proceed to deliver their cargo of agricultural products and fish.
Manangan took to task in his broadcast the regional head of the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has supervision over the HPG. PNP regional chief Oscar Tango was open in his anger at Manangan for his broadcast that led him into being confronted by then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for his failure to stop the highway robbery by police personnel. Manangan’s expose also led to the dismissal of the head of the HPG and subsequently threats on his life sent through text messages..
In 2009, Manangan also came into collision with the local political leadership and police over his negative commentaries on summary executions of minors suspected as linked to crimes.
His broadcast in part helped in catching the attention of the Commission on Human Rights on the killings and an investigation by then CHR Commisioner Leila Delima into the alleged role of then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and the local police leadership in the killings and for their failure to stop the extrajudicial killings.
Direct threats through verbal warnings coursed phone calls apparently coming from elements of the dreaded Davao Death Squad, the alleged state-backed assassins said to be behind behind the killings, reached Manangan.
Manangan also carved out warfronts with local officials allegedly involved in corruption through legislative approval of controversial business projects.
The biggest of these controversial projects is the multi-million-peso hydropower dam by power producer Aboitiz planned to be built in the city’s highland district of Tamugan in Marilog.
The project was highly opposed by Manangan in his broadcast commentaries, picking from fears of tribal native and farmers that the project would destroy farmlands and violate ancestral domain rights of the natives. Some members of the legislative council took umbrage at Manangan’s claim of huge pay-off in the approval by the Davao City Council of the project. ABS/CBN personnel tell of a confrontation between Manangan and the chairman of the city council committee that handled the Aboiitiz project, right inside the ABS/CBN compound, after one of the commentaries of Manangan where he assailed members of the city council for approving the project.
Other serious topics that led Manangan in confrontations with aggrieved parties included the killing of a Davao city businessman’s son by a scion of the politically-connected powerful Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao province in Central Mindanao.
Long before the infamous Maguindanao Massacre in 2009, where 53 people including 32 members of the press were murdered in a politically-related media killing, the worst in media history, Manangan exposed the abuses in Davao City by the members of the clan, many of whom had residences in Davao City.
The businessman’s son was shot dead in a bar after an argument with a member of the Ampatuan clan. Manangan’s commentaries on the abuses triggered a flood of threats in phone calls and text messages warning him to stop. His neighbors in Tagum City also warned him of motorcycle-riding armed men reconnoitering his house, while ABS/CBN personnel also said suspected persons were looking for him in Davao City.
Manangan had “wronged” so many people that members of the media in Davao City are surprised that he had not gone the way of Pala and Lintuan.
But the threats remain and Manangan may not be safe: the Davao Death Squad is alive, so are the politicians and police personnel damaged by his commentaries and exposes.
Some members of the Ampatuan clan may be in jail for the Maguindanao Massacre but their henchmen are still around in Davao City.
The preacher is still politically-connected and the Little Jerusalem issue remains hot with the tribal natives continuing their fight against the land grabbing.
Manangan has created many enemies. The biggest fear is that there is danger in the silence before the storm. Retribution is safest and cleanest when the target thinks time has healed the wounds.
Manangan was right in seeing logic in the second code of safety for threatened journalists.
Unlike Pala and Lintuan, he chose the other road. When the going got rough—he fled to the United States of America.
Before assassins can get to him.