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Joseph Morong: Staying in the Story

He described the beat as boring and not sexy. Stories for peace, or what he considered were stories for peace. A wavy-haired, sturdy man of mid-thirties, with legs crossed tightly, he fashioned his talk on communicating the message of the marginalized.

A decade and a half had passed since he graduated with distinction from the State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. From that period onward, he has reported a formidable history of the people’s struggle in the southern parts of the Philippines. The newscasts may be specific to the regions predominantly comprised of Muslim provinces but they have a wider meaning providing an invaluable resource that describes not just the language of domination, but also the nature of peace negotiations, including bias, prejudice and hatred against the Bangsamoro.

For him, it is important for media to provide the context so voices can be heard other than that of the popular ones. Since conflicts arise out of a series of incidents, reportage on Mindanao are better understood when history is given. So goes his lecture.

Context is King On Mindanao’s History

– 14th century Islam arrived in Mindanao, 200 years before the colonial Spanish catholics and a number of Sultanates were able to resist attempts of external dominance
– 1898 Philippines was annexed by US which started to promote the settlement of Christians from the other islands to the fertile lands of Mindanao
– 1960s Moro Islamic Liberation Front was formed after the Jabidah massacre. Note this is the biggest group composed of Moro and Lumad people
– 1969 Armed separatist group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed under the leadership of Nur Misuari
– 1976 MNLF and the government of the Philippines (GPH) signed Tripoli Agreement with the assistance of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi to broker a ceasefire
– 1987 MNLF accepted GPH’s offer for self-autonomy

MNLF Tripoli Accord implemented in 1996 during Fidel Ramos administration with the creation of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao under MNLF leader Nur Misuari
– 2000 Then President Joseph Estrada declared all out war against MILF, MNLF
– 2003 Davao airport bombing, suspected by GPH to be MILF plot
– 2006 continued conflicts among clans
– 2008 Supreme Court suspended extension of ARMM, then militant Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters was formed after breaking away from MILF group
– 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, the single deadliest event for journalists in history
– 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) was signed for the creation of an autonomous political entity named Bangsamoro, replacing the ARMM
– 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) was signed between MILF and GPH
– 2015 Mamasapano fiasco took place where 44 Special Action Force troops were killed

Peace Journalism

Until the end of his presentation at the last leg of his two-week cross-Canada tour, Joseph Morong explicitly expressed favour toward pacifist journalism. Yet the power to translate dialogue to achieve freedom from war and hostility is something that remains elusive.

Is it easier to report on war or to report on peace, he broke the silence before a closely-acquainted audience in University of Toronto on a chilly winter night. The corners of his mouth is pulled up as his face turns with a duchenne smile.

Given the ongoing unfriendly état de choses in the homeland, he’s willing to take post in conflict areas. During his younger years from his native of Lucena, Quezon province, he recalls, he tends to be masochistic with the career path he decided and indulge in any risks involved with it.

The Philippines continues to be one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, just behind war-stricken Somalia, Iraq and Syria. When the assignment comes and the camera rolls, it’s a job for him.

Peace is an intangible concept, he says. It’s going to be a long process. One has to stay in the story.

Now Morong is a senior reporter in one of the huge mainstream TV networks in the country. Being an anchor in a program that is shown nationwide, he shares a certain degree of protection that is relatively more secure than local press people whose work focuses on politics on the ground level.

Role of Media

His enjoyment, he says as his hands were steepled, is playing an adversarial role versus the government. He likens this as how to move things forward. But the demands are sometimes too much. He knows that the fundamental aspect of creating public opinion is by constant connection with the masses. He also adds that the broadcaster is forced to compete with the varying voices in social media.

His sentiments echo the Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan, after whom Morong’s fellowship prize is named. It is interesting to note that although in the Philippines, McLuhan is encountered by journalism students; it is not like so in other countries. For example, in Chile, the influence of McLuhan is evident in politics and in China, it is an emerging trend in computer studies. In Canada, it is generally under communication and media studies.

A basic precept by the renowned thinker: “Every new technology necessitates a new war,” references one of the scholars at Coach House, the same building where McLuhan taught and worked before.

While he switched to his last slide, the particular inflection in Morong’s acceptance of the investigative journalism award speaks as both medium and message. What appeared on the backdrop was a child standing in front of a seven-colour rainbow flag emblazoned in bold letters with the word PEACE.

The Beat

He confided what gives him interest to do a “sustained coverage” on the peace process for all these years. He says, it’s because of the children. He believes something must be done, especially with the huge disparity of the living conditions between Manila and Mindanao.

Wars have been very costly, he says. Money has been spent so much when children need a different kind of development.

The journalist as a communicative force, he says, has the responsibility to look into the different nuances of the very definition of peace. Peace in terms, not only of disarmament, of how it affects ordinary citizens’ lives.

As the Philippines weighs on the presidential candidates in May, some people may still be relegated to the sidelines. McLuhan fellow Joseph Morong carries on.

***

Joseph Morong is the 19th awardee of the McLuhan Fellowship selected by five panelists on social justice issues for his excellent coverage on the peace process in Mindanao, especially the discussions around the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. He has also covered extensively the corruption scandal through the diversion of congressional funds to bogus non-governmental organizations.

The Marshall McLuhan Prize is the flagship public diplomacy initiative for the Embassy of Canada in Manila. Launched in 1997, it encourages investigative journalism in the Philippines with the belief that a strong media is essential to a strong democratic society.

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