IN AN unexpected turn of events, a press conference organized by military officials belied the claim of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) and countered its own narrative about two women activists who had been reported missing since September 2. Seated at a table with NTF-Elcac officials on September 19, Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro said that they did not surrender to the government, as claimed in a previous military briefing. They had been abducted. They also denied that they were members of the New People's Army.
Media coverage of the disappearance of the two women began early in September:
- September 2 - Bulatlat, Business Mirror, GMA Integrated News, Manila Bulletin, Inquirer.net, Rappler, and TV5's Frontline Pilipinas picked up the story of Tamano and Castro when AKAP Ka Manila Bay, a nongovernment organization (NGO) released a statement that its volunteers Castro and Tamano were abducted in front of the Orion Water District office in Bataan. Reports also cited national and international groups who condemned the abduction and pointed to state officials as the perpetrators.
- September 4 - Inquirer and Rappler reported that Jonila's mother, Roselie Castro, went to the police station to file a blotter. She said that the police did not record the case but asked her to give a statement "purportedly to say that our daughters are doing something wrong. But they are not." She said the Orion police also refused to sign a document, certifying that her daughter and Tamano were under their custody.
- September 6 - CNN Philippines, GMA Integrated News, and Inquirer followed the story with military and police denying their involvement in the case. Police even said that no one had come forward to file an official complaint.
- September 7 - GMA Integrated News, Manila Bulletin, Manila Times and Rappler reported the statement of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) announcing that they were conducting an investigation into the abduction.
On the same day, Manila Bulletin and Tribune reported on Jonathan Malaya, spokesperson of the National Security Council (NSC), saying that the allegation of the groups was a "convenient scapegoat by this front organization for any alleged deficiency of government." Malaya challenged human rights group Karapatan to provide proof.
- September 9 - Bulatlat, CNN Philippines, Inquirer and Rappler followed up on the findings released by AKAP Ka Manila Bay, Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment, Promotion of Church People's Response, National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and Karapatan which pointed to the involvement of state agents in the disappearance of the two women.
Roselie Castro also spoke at the conference, calling for the immediate surfacing of her daughter. She also said that prior to their disappearance, there were men who identified themselves as soldiers who offered help to "set their kid straight."
- September 15 - ABS-CBN's TV Patrol, CNN Philippines, GMA News Online, Inquirer, Philstar.com, and TV5's Frontline Philippines reported the press conference organized by NTF-Elcac and NSC which said that the two women surrendered to the military in Bulacan because they wanted to escape from their comrades, that they signed affidavits in front of public attorneys and the CHR, and that the two were "safe and sound" and would be released to their families. The briefing showed brief clips of the two activists in a well-lit room and CCTV screenshots as "proof."
- September 19 - All media accounts reported the presser that shocked everyone and turned the official narrative around. At the press conference, the two "surrenderees," Castro and Tamano, sat beside the organizers from the 70th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. There, they revealed that they were, in fact, abducted by the military and were coerced to sign affidavits.
The two women were the only ones willing to take questions but after one question was asked, the live presser was cut short. The press conference livestreamed on social media pages was also immediately deleted.
Reports captured and followed the quick turn of events - from the protest by the women's supporters outside the municipal hall to the "transfer of custody" from the military to the CHR, where they met their lawyers and their families. On the same day, NTF-Elcac released a statement saying that they had been "hoodwinked" and "betrayed."
- September 21 - Following the heat of the issue, all media reports picked up NTF-Elcac's briefing with a slideshow of the series of events, including the presentation of the written affidavits.
More government officials weighed in on the issue in the days that followed. The Department of National Defense said it would file perjury charges against the activists; the Justice department said the activists were going by a "new playbook" of the "armed movement." On the other hand, Gabriela Party-list Representative Arlene Brosas said in tears that the DOJ cannot simply treat Tamano and Castro with assurances as the matter involves "lives and deaths." CHR noted the complexity of the case, announcing its own independent probe.
Complex But Hardly New
Favoring government sources is a standard news convention. But given complicated cases, the media need to present the context from the start.
Most of the media reports missed the larger context of the topic, missing the background that would have clarified any issue. Activists are not new targets of enforced disappearances, and more media should have reported the case as part of that pattern. This context should have been included in the first accounts, from the very start, to help the public better understand the case as it unfolded.
Inquirer.net and Philstar.com showed that context can be written into the story. These cited Karapatan and a 2022 study which described the Philippines as one the deadliest countries for environment activists. Inquirer.net went further by reviewing the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012 and the number of cases in the past administrations.
Given this background, reporters should also check the media's tendency to record the official narrative without sufficient interrogation.
Some reports on the military briefing on September 15 recorded officials without question. Most accounts, especially print, led with and then almost entirely cited what Malaya of the NSC had to say: That this was not an abduction but a surrender of two insurgents who wanted out of the movement. It also recorded what the officials said about who witnessed the signing of the affidavits. Inquirer at the end of their story showed that the CHR officials said they only saw the signing via video.
Confronted with inconsistencies, reports should make the effort to check and ask questions, and note the questions as ignored or unanswered. More importantly, it is crucial to establish the falsehood in any claim. It is not enough to just pass off the inconsistencies as contradictory accounts. Journalists are not stenographers. They are on site and should use their privileged access to present what they find as they see it.
There were exceptions. Some reports promptly and correctly looked into the inconsistencies of the case. During the September 15 presser, Rappler's Iya Gozum asked for the sworn statements of Castro and Tamano apart from what the officials presented. However, she did not include her question in her report. Philstar.com and Inquirer said no actual copies of the affidavits were provided for media scrutiny. The same Philstar.com report and Rappler also reviewed the screenshots presented by the organizers and pointed out that were only two women walking and the approach of a gray vehicle, with no sign of another person who had supposedly assisted the women.
"Nag-boomerang" was how GMA's Jun Veneracion described the presser on September 19, calling the situation as he saw it. He also correctly reported how Castro was cut off while she was still talking.
Also cut out by the organizers of the presscon were media's questions that probed further into the contradictions in the versions presented by the two women on one side and the military on the other.
Netizens expressed their support for journalists who stood up to official sources and, on social media, thanked them for following the two activists until they were safely united with their families and friends.
As the case unfolded, only Bulatlat reported another incident of abduction in Negros Occidental. Peasant organizer Bea Lopez and tricycle driver Peter Agravante were reported missing on September 15.
Enforced disappearances call the media to be vigilant, providing vital coverage that support victims and their families. Keeping these cases in the public eye can help to assure the survival of victims. The media spotlight can draw out a critical mass who can help keep watch that the state and its agents do not abuse the citizens they have vowed to protect.
The September 19 press conference revealed more than the two opposing claims and the obvious efforts by the military to control the story. The experience has dramatized the government's illiberal disposition toward basic values, most especially freedom of association. The NTC-Elcac has been quick to cast doubts on any activity pursued by those identified with the Left, claiming that these are "enemies of the people."
But the Left has gained a place in the legislature, their members hold their rightful place in the political discourse of the nation. The military has to make peace with this truth as enshrined in the Constitution's Bill of Rights.