PHILIPPINES: Who were the massacred journalists?

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PHILIPPINES: Who were the massacred journalists? – Part 3

Marife ‘Neneng’ Montano: a mentor and a mother
By Pepe Panglao

It was ten years ago when I first met Marife Montano or ‘Neneng’ as she was known to her friends. Neneng was one of the 32 journalists killed in the Maguindanao massacre.

In paying tribute to her, I won’t repeat the countless and numerous stories about how brutal hers and the death of other journalists were. Much has been written about the horror and it has been widely reported. While her death devastated me, leaving me sleepless nights, nightmares and emotional distress, I realised that I have to move on.

That is why writing this tribute article for her took me over three months. It is not that I have forgotten the life she lived, but I wanted to write with a clear mind in a rational manner, not overwhelmed by the anger and hatred that I have had to live with for the last few months. Perhaps an emotion expected of anyone who lost person dear to them, the strength of such feelings astounded me.

Also, I have realised that the stories we are seeing, not only about hers, but also the other journalists; like how these journalists lived their lives, who they were to their families and their commitment to their work, are stories that, to my own my opinion, are hardly noticed in the media or become known to the public.

I think it sad that for barely three months after the massacre, the interest shown by the Filipino public seemed to have waned by the day. While these journalists lived their lives writing about the problems of others, the social issues and the stories that even put their own lives in danger, in death hardly anyone is willing to tell their stories.

This is my simple way of paying tribute to Neneng. When I first met her, she was not the typical journalist that we know of today–with sophisticated digital recorders, cameras or riding in company-owned vehicles–which makes them look as if they are highly-paid staff of newspapers, radio or television.

Unlike anybody else, she was not of that type, and she could not be.

You could see Neneng with her son, who is now 16 years old, instead of being her assistant, running around and doing her work for her, Neneng did her own footwork. Where ever she would go for field coverage she would often take her son with her. She had no car, motorcycle or vehicle of her own because she couldn’t afford one. She was one of the many lowly paid community journalists struggling to survive.

To research stories to report on, she would take a three-wheeled motorcycle, known as tricycle, if not jeepneys–public utility vehicles–in covering stories from one place to another in General Santos City and the nearby places. She would also travel further a field to more distant places tens of kilometres from home. She worked in conditions in which she was underpaid and lacked adequate resources; a tough job at best.

Unlike what the modern journalists do today, where their interviews are recorded in digital format, in those days they were tape-recorded. Thus, when I was volunteering for dxCP, a Catholic-run radio in General Santos City where we first met, I would find her transcribing the interviews inside our dilapidated newsroom. Once the transcription was completed, she would review them because she would be the same person to broadcast the story. She did to a radio program which she herself hosted.

She had a good working relationship with her sources and was able to get exclusive stories that most journalists would have been happy to get their hands on.

Thus, for a then neophyte like me, her ability, skill and dedication was incredible. This was knowledge that was not taught at university. Our professors taught us how to write stories–the technicalities of the work–but nothing of the fundamental requirements in which journalists would have to exist in order to have a story to write. I could tell now that, to some extent, particularly on matters as to how journalism should be dealt with in the realities, even our professors were no match for Neneng.

As a community journalist with inadequate resources, computers or digital recorders, and no professional training, Neneng was able to perform the job expected of her and even exceeded those who had formal and educational training.

For my part, when I was in university I had dreamt of a being journalist, to write for a newspaper and enjoy that which our university professor had told us of: “the Glory of the By Line”.

But in a place and country where opportunities are less, I had little expectation and even doubted as to whether it would become a reality. I am not a native English speaker and never had any relatives in the media, a necessary connection to get a job; it was for me wishful thinking.

But Neneng had more confidence in me and perhaps saw more potential in me than I saw in myself. She was the one who encouraged and introduced me to a local community newspaper, who at that time was in need of a reporter. Neneng was always there to help me out, teaching me how to find the inside story and the complexities of community journalism in a real sense.

She was always there. She was, for me, not just an idealist journalist and a mother, but a mentor and the first person to discover my potential. For whatever I had become today, I owe it to her. She must have been happy for me. After working for a few years in the newspaper to whom she recommended me, I moved from one newspaper to the other, including one of the most influential and widely read newspapers in our area in the years to come, and all the time, building my own news sources.

I had moved elsewhere but for years Neneng remained where she was doing the work she was good at. At the time of her death, she was editing Saksi Mindanaoan, a bilingual newsweekly that she and another journalist had newly formed. It has published no more than 12 issues so far. This was the last media outlet I knew she had worked for and perhaps had been struggling to publish by herself, along with her colleagues.

Neneng knew each and every single news source possible–whether from the government, NGOs or even insurgent groups involved in the exclusive stories–she had access to all of them. Before that however, Neneng was with another local radio, RGMA Super Radyo, also in General Santos City.

Like the other journalists who died with her, she also wanted to be, not only an onlooker, but part of the story they were covering. Neneng had written and reported on stories about other people and their problems; now this is a story about her.

About the author: Pepe Panglao, a journalist for many years in Mindanao in the southern Philippines, is based in metro Manila. He seeks to share the issues facing Filipinos throughout the country with the international community.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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