I was surfing the net past midnight on Thursday, October 21, when I clicked on the Philippine Daily Inquirer website and found this headline:
Mindanao bus blast kills 10, injures 30
To say I was shocked by that headline is to put it mildly. And it wasn’t because of the explosion – I had known about it hours before, and we had already closed our paper, the Mindanao Daily Mirror, with that as headline. What angered me was that the Inquirer editors actually used the word “Mindanao” in the headline when the incident happened in one small spot that is not representative of the conditions in the island.
As a Mindanao-based journalist, I found this headline terribly unfair to a land that is one of the most beautiful, most peaceful places in the Philippines. It was a good thing the website changed its headline several hours later to this:
Cotabato blast kills 10
Someone had obviously pointed out the disparaging headline to the editors, but I fear the damage had already been done. By the Inquirer’s own reckoning, its website is read by almost three million people, and the first headline just told them that Mindanao is a chaotic place and that every single incident that happens anywhere in it is part of one big conflict. It reflected an attitude many Manila-based news outlets (those that have the temerity to call themselves “national media”) have about Mindanao.
Unfortunately, it is a bias that many non-Mindanaoans share – including, at one time, me. Before coming to Davao in 1990, my own idea of the city – and of Mindanao in general – was exactly what the media painted it to be: war-torn, conflict-ridden, chaotic. Mindanao was a vast wasteland where nothing happened but war; where people were hungry and sick, and where everyone was poor. In fact, the month before I was to leave for Davao, I was writing a support-raising letter on behalf of Davaoeño families that had been displaced by fighting. I was naturally apprehensive about coming here, and I actually tried to avoid the trip altogether.
I was prevailed upon to go, however, so in May 1990, I, and my team of campus missionaries, boarded a ship (plane fare was prohibitively expensive at the time) to Davao. Throughout the trip I was afraid of what I was going to find, all the creature comforts I would miss, all the bullets I would have to dodge. But when we got here I found to my surprise that things were peaceful and actually progressive. There were good roads, big buildings, and nice restaurants. What, no armed men roaming the streets?
To say that I fell in love with Davao is an understatement; in fact I made my decision to settle here the same year, and over the next two decades I have never regretted it. I have been all over Mindanao, and I can say without fear of being contradicted, that it is the most beautiful, most peaceful place in the Philippines. Of course there are places here that are riddled with conflict, but at least you know exactly where they are and you can avoid them. In Manila – and many parts of Luzon – you never know when your next-door neighbour will shoot you.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are many violent incidents in Mindanao, and one of these incidents happened to kill 32 of my fellow journalists in what is now known as the Maguindanao massacre (itself a disservice to the province of Maguindanao because it happened in a small town called Ampatuan) of November 23, 2009 that saw the deaths of 57 people in all. Mindanao is also the place where three-quarters of a million people were displaced in 2008 and 2009 because of fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) anywhere in the world. And of course Sulu and Basilan – islands that are still part of Mindanao – are the base of the Abu Sayyaf, that band of criminals responsible for bombings and kidnappings and beheadings and other terrorist activities over the past 20 years.
But let’s face it: massacres, internal displacement, bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and other terrorist activities also happen in Luzon and the Visayas, but no one thinks to label these places like they do Mindanao. For example, when a bomb goes off in, say, Makati, the headlines wouldn’t say, “Two killed in Luzon blast.” Or when a family gets massacred in Mactan, Cebu, the papers wouldn’t banner, “Visayas massacre.” There is a conscious effort among editors to be specific.
But when it comes to Mindanao, the fashion is to brand the entire island when one thing blows up (literally or figuratively) in one small place. A man gets killed in Barangay 76-A? MINDANAO! A bus rams into an electric pole in Sitio Awhag? MINDANAO! A skirmish kills two soldiers in Cateel? MINDANAO! The name carries a perversely romantic sound that makes it easier to sell newspapers.
We Mindanao journalists called the attention of Manila editors to this more than 10 years ago, and their response was perhaps understandable: “Don’t tell us what to do.” I get that; hey, I’m a journalist, and I don’t want anyone telling me what I may or may not write. But these “national” media outlets need to understand that Mindanao is a big part of the Philippines, and to destroy its name is to destroy the entire country.
Jon Joaquin is the managing editor of the largest circulation newspaper in Mindanao, the Mindanao Daily Mirror in Davao City.