By Fernando R. Cabigao

TODAY we commemorate the 58th month since the Ampatuan Massacre happened. It was on November 23, 2009 in Maguindanao province when 58 people were killed, 32 of them journalists and media workers. The massacre is the single deadliest event for journalists in recent history, according to the international press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Here’s an article from someone who almost did not become a reporter.

I will never forget that look on my mother’s face.

We were watching the unfolding developments about the Ampatuan Massacre when I saw it – somber, worried, concerned – a mix of emotions.

I don’t know what she was thinking that time but it got me worried. I will never forget what I saw in the news.

A huge pit was being dug up, bodies, vehicles were being scooped out.

The images of the bloated bodies of the victims and the crushed vehicles will forever be etched in my mind.

A PROTEST action at the massacre site in 2010 during the first year commemoration of the Ampatuan Massacre in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province | Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

A PROTEST action at the massacre site in 2010 during the first year commemoration of the Ampatuan Massacre in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province | Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

It felt unrealistic. It was something that was not supposed to happen in real life.

I still feel sick and horrified when I remember those images.

When the massacre happened, I was a third-year journalism student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. I remember my mother, her voice full of concern, suddenly asked: “Do you still want to be a journalist?” Then she followed it up with “do you want to shift course?”

I don’t know what got into me but to the first question I immediately answered “yes.”

Maybe it was because of my idealistic, and sometimes naïve, way of thinking that journalists have a noble duty to seek the truth and report it as objectively as possible, no biases. Or maybe it was my professors who inspired even with all the threats and problems that journalists face every day.

I might have sounded confident when I answered “yes” but days after the massacre, my mother’s question was still on my mind. It did not help that the Philippines was tagged as one of the most dangerous places for journalists in 2009.

Also, journalists were still being killed even after the massacre. Doubts started creeping in. I was worried if I had made the right decision. As I read, listened, and watched the news and read the discussions on the social media about the Ampatuan massacre, I realized that a lot people care about what had happened.

Fernando Cabigao, we call him Erdz, during his graduation from journ school | Photo courtesy of Erdz

Fernando Cabigao, we call him Erds, during his graduation from journ school | Photo courtesy of Erds

It was not only the families of the victims, journalists, and journalism students and professors who cared. I wondered that time: How can journalists still work despite the killings? Then I answered the question myself in the form of another question: “If journalists will not do their duty to seek the truth and report it, then who will?” Five months after the massacre, the Philippines ranked third in the 2010 Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

That was a month before I enrolled as a fourth-year journalism student. One way or another, I decided to stick to my course. At that time, I thought that the Philippine Press – despite all its faults, misgivings, and ethical issues – is a cornerstone of a democratic society.

The Press has the power to influence public opinion. It could help protect the interest of the citizens, inform them of social issues, engage them in public discourse, and promote active citizen participation in government affairs.

I think that one of the things that made me decide to become a journalist is this famous quote from an activist (a quote that I like): “Kung hindi tayo kikilos, sino ang kikilos? Kung hindi tayo kikibo, sino ang kikibo? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa? (If we do not act, who will? If we do not speak out, who will? If not today, then when?)”

I learned later that it was Abraham P. Sarmiento Jr., a student journalist and an editor of the University of the Philippines’ Philippine Collegian during Martial Law, who said it.

Looking back, I firmly believe that I made the right decision. After graduating, I worked for a non-profit media organization that promotes press freedom and responsible journalism. Part of my work there was to write reports on cases of media killing and harassment.

Looking at the number of media killings since 1987, I remember a quote when I was in college: “No story is worth dying for.” Journalists should not be killed for doing their jobs. If the government is doing its duty to protect the citizens, journalists included, I think the killing of journalists will stop. At present, I am working for another non-profit media agency that specializes in investigative reporting.

I think you can guess what my work is.

Today, four years and ten months since the Ampatuan massacre happened, and amid all the media killings and scoldings from the President, I still believe that journalists should continue to give their best in fulfilling their duties. Because if they don’t, who will?

Fernando Rasalan Cabigao has been working as a junior researcher-writer for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism for more than a year now. He is a movie buff, a bookworm, and loves to play DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) during his free time.

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