Repercussions of a Tragedy

Almost a year after 32 media workers were massacred along with scores of others in Mindanao, Filipino journalists face the consequences of doing dangerous work in an environment of chronic stress. A recent training conducted by Dart Centre Australasia focused on peer support.

The yellow shovel of the backhoe descends into the huge pit on the hillside and after a while emerges again. A soldier reaches into the earth trapped in the shovel's maw and gives a hard tug and a decomposing body tumbles out onto the ground. Off to one side of the pit is a lump of mangled metal with the word "Press" stenciled on its side.

This is Sitio Masalay in Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town in the Maguindanao province, where gunmen slaughtered 58 persons, 32 of them media workers, on November 23, 2009, in the worst incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the worst single attack on the press ever.

This was the scene that greeted me and the members of a quick-reaction team that the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) helped organize, who were in Maguindanao two days after the massacre on a fact-finding mission.

Except this is not November 25, 2009. It is late May 2010 and I am getting what will be the first of two flashbacks of those events, a half-year after the carnage.

Had it not been for the flu, I and a photojournalist partner could have been with the convoy that was wiped out on November 23. For the next two months or so, after being part of the quick-reaction team and another mission organized by international media groups, the thought that I could have been there would plague me, jolting me when I least expected it.

While unnerving, this was not unexpected. Since I had attended a few activities on media trauma, including the first Dart Asia Fellowships in Bangkok in October 2009 just before the massacre, I knew what could happen. So when the thoughts stopped intruding, I thought I had gotten over the worst.

Then the flashbacks came. It was far from over.

Many journalists and media workers in the Philippines do realize that stress and trauma come with the job. This is so because not only do a great number of them cover conflicts, disasters and, sadly in this country, the continued murders of colleagues, many actually have to live through, if not become victims of, the events they cover.

There has been great success in efforts by groups like the NUJP and the Center for Community Journalism and Development to help train journalists to stay safe during coverage and when facing threats.

Yet, only recently has there been a greater awareness of the need to set up support systems, whether in the workplace or independently, to help journalists cope with the effects of work-related stress and trauma beyond the traditional bar binges or the rare one-on-one conversations with colleagues.

It was clear to the officers of the NUJP, especially those who were among the first responders to the massacre, that the carnage would affect people long beyond the initial shock inevitably caused by an incident of such magnitude. These included the victims' families, colleagues and friends; journalists who covered the massacre’s aftermath; journalists already affected by the growing list of murdered colleagues (the massacre pushed the media death toll since 1986 in the country to 137 and has since then grown to 141) and the responders themselves.

While there are organizations which do exemplary trauma work, such as the Children’s Rehabilitation Center and Balay, these do not have programs for the specific problems faced by media workers. And there remains strong resistance to seeking professional help, which in this country can still bring undeserved stigma.

The NUJP realized, as it consulted with experts and other groups for the setting up of such a program, that there needed to be a system to address the immediate needs of journalists. Thus, a proposal for Dart Centre Australasia to come and train journalists to set up a peer support system arose. This could not have come at a better time.

On August 7 and 8 2010, sixteen selected journalists from all over the Philippines gathered at the Canyon Woods Resort in Laurel Batangas to be trained by Dart Centre Australasia Managing Director Cait McMahon and psychiatrist Hazel Soriano.

The choice of participants was deliberate. The idea was to have peer supporters in place in the regions where most journalists not only literally live in the frontlines of their coverage but also have to contend with less-than-ideal working conditions and economic realities.

Most of the participants were from Mindanao, veterans of covering the numerous conflicts and disasters that beset the southern Philippines and from where the most journalists, including the Ampatuan massacre victims, have been killed. But there were also a number of participants from northern Luzon, the Visayas and Palawan.

The training proved to include more than just learning about stress and trauma and how to help oneself and others cope. For the participants, the presentations they were shown and the experiences they shared and reflected upon opened their eyes to how stress had affected them and others they worked with. They also learned that trauma is not exclusively caused by covering conflicts and disasters but can also be caused by domestic violence and seemingly mundane events, such as accidents.

More important was the realization that, yes, it is perfectly all right to admit when stress begins to affect you and, no, there is nothing wrong in seeking help. In fact, it is important that you do so as soon as you realize what is happening. This, everyone knew, was the crucial message they were taking home with them.

This training was just the first step toward the goal of setting up a program to raise Filipino journalists’ awareness of the risks they face from stress and to help them cope with its effects. There are plans to next engage the gatekeepers, the editors and managers, who can suffer just as much stress and trauma as the journalists they often have to send into potentially dangerous situations, and, eventually, even media owners.