The fighting is over in Marawi but there are still lingering questions over how the Philippine military interacts with journalists.

Newsrooms and the Philippine military need to agree on guidelines for covering conflicts, including an embed procedure.

By Daniel Abunales
Splice Philippines
Photographers covering the Marawi crisis in the Philippines. Photo: Froilan Gallardo.
Photographers covering the Marawi crisis in the Philippines. Photo: Froilan Gallardo.

The smoke from five months of fighting between government troops and ISIS-inspired militants in Marawi cleared weeks ago, but the crisis has left in its wake renewed questions about the terms of interactions between the Philippine military and war correspondents.

From the time the conflict in the city on the island of Mindanao broke out on May 23, journalists were subject to a range of military imposed restrictions that they say frustrated their attempts to verify government claims about what was happening on the ground.

“We were like dogs waiting for our master to give us a bit of bone,” veteran photojournalist Froilan Gallardo, of the Mindanao-based news organization MindaNews, says in an interview.

Gallardo, who considers the Marawi siege the most difficult he has covered in his three decades of reporting on the Mindanao conflict, says several issues relating to the military operations remain in question: the looting incidents, the number of trapped civilians killed and even the deaths of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups.

Barely two weeks into the siege, the military imposed an information blackout and restricted journalists’ access to its operations. A journalist accompanying government soldiers made the mistake of posting a live Facebook feed of an operation against Maute and Abu Sayyaf. While other journalists took it upon themselves to call him out, it failed to mollify the military. Media access was scrapped and persistent calls from journalists to draw up guidelines for embedded reporting were disregarded.

One of the entry points to the main battle area during the Marawi crisis remains closed even after the city was
One of the entry points to the main battle area during the Marawi crisis remains closed even after the city was "liberated" from ISIS-inspired militants. Photo: Daniel Abunales.

Designing rules for embed procedures

Several journalists reporting on the siege took the initiative to draft embed rules based on those created by U.S. and British forces for reporters covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, according to photographer Jes Aznar, who covered the crisis for the New York Times and Getty Images. These guidelines included freeing the military of any responsibility should a journalist die or be injured while embedded.

The journalists presented the draft procedures to military officials during several meetings. But despite a promise to study the proposal, the officials never got back to the journalists, Aznar and Gallardo say.

Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military force in Marawi, says he had not seen the draft embed code (he only took up the role in late July) but was aware of media complaints over being prevented from entering the main battleground.

He says the military was not controlling the flow of information and was acting out of concern for journalists’ safety.

“The risk is higher. They understand that, because this is the first time we’re battling in an urban setting.” he says. “It’s different from a jungle warfare because you can’t even tell where the enemy’s front line is.”

Had an embed procedure been put in place, it would still have given the military some control over media coverage by requiring reporters to go only to military controlled areas and preventing them from entering key battlegrounds without an escort from the armed forces. But Gallardo prefers this to no access at all.

Adds Aznar: “We’re not after the military tactics, we’re after [information] on how the government’s action is going to affect the public.”

Journalists scramble to capture footage and photographs during the Marawi crisis. Photo: Froilan Gallardo.
Journalists scramble to capture footage and photographs during the Marawi crisis. Photo: Froilan Gallardo.

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Getting creative to counter restrictions

The tight controls on the flow of information to the media, as well as restrictions on reporters’ movements, apparently worked in government’s favor. Military officials organized media tours to highlight what they wanted journalists to see.

“They’re gonna tour you around the outskirts, the main battle area. It’s a controlled tour. They’re gonna show you, ‘This is the mortar base, this is the sniper’s nest,’ things like that,” says Aznar.

In an attempt to cover the conflict fully and independently, reporters got creative.

When heavy shelling of Marawi started in June, some journalists stationed themselves atop a building and took images of the bombing. The photos provoked outrage among Marawi locals. In response, “the military cut down all our access; we were no longer allowed to go back to that building,” Gallardo says. Journalists also received requests from military officials not to release photos showing the extent of the damage due to shelling, Aznar says.

Some journalists managed to make their way to the frontline by persuading military commanders overseeing ground troops to allow them to tag along. This entailed not only logistical repercussions, but also security risks when higher-ranking officers discovered that journalists were embedded with the troops without full permissions. “They would have one unit escort us on our way out,” Aznar says.

Now that the fighting in Marawi is over, Aznar and Gallardo believe newsrooms and the Philippine military need to sit down and agree on guidelines for covering conflicts, including an embed procedure.

Col. Brawner, for his part, says he is willing to sit down with the media to discuss an embed procedure.

“We are a nation beset with conflicts—I think it’s high time we come up with one,” says Aznar.

Daniel Abunales is an editor and assistant project manager at VERA Files, a non-profit media organization based in Manila. Aside from journalistic works, he also writes academic and policy papers on media and conflict. He holds a master's degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Sydney. Follow Daniel Abunales on Twitter.

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