COTABATO CITY — The peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has silenced the guns in Mindanao for six months now.
There are no more images of burned homes and villages that have become the fare of newspapers and evening television newscasts during the more than four decades of conflict.
“It’s time to look for other wars,” says journalist Edwin Espejo who has been covering the war for two decades.
“Now that the guns are silent, journalists can scour for the bigger wars that are confronting majority of the people,” he says.
Espejo says the peace that Mindanao is experiencing now is an opportunity for journalists “to see through the realities on the ground and expose these, and tell these stories that can help strengthen this peace.”
Ten out of the 16 poorest provinces in the country are in Mindanao, with Lanao del Norte province leading the way with a 67.3 percent poverty incidence.
The problem exists despite Mindanao’s vast natural resources, which remained untapped due to the decades-long conflict in the region.
Espejo says journalists now have the time “to go back to the root causes of the conflict, which are poverty and landlessness.”
“There are bigger wars still to fight,” says lawyer Jesus Durezs, a former journalist and a peace negotiator for the government.
“The war is no longer between MILF and the government,” he says, “but a continuous fight to make the peace agreement succeed.”
“This bigger fight or challenge has just started,” Dureza says.
John Unson, who covers Mindanao for the national daily Philippine Star, says journalists “have a big mission ahead to continue the task of helping break barriers and prejudices that separate people in the past.”
He says the end of the conflict will give a chance for media to show to the world the “religious and cultural pluralism” of various peoples of Mindanao, including the Muslims, Christians, and tribal communities.
Television reporter Ferdinandh Cabrera, however, says that “peace stories” are “less attractive” and are treated with less prominence by media newsdesks and information gatekeepers.
Ambassador Guy Ledoux of the European Union agrees.
“Bad news sells well, like pictures of fighting, people dying so it’s a challenge to sell good news,” says Ledoux at the launch of the EU Peace Journalism Awards on Friday.
The competition aims to encourage journalists to write good stories about peace in Mindanao.
Ledoux says journalism is a business. “Your employers want to sell more news, make more hits,” he adds. But peace stories, “those that tell of reconciliation,” can also sell, Ledoux says.
Veronica Pedrosa of Al Jazeera, speaking during the launch of the project, reminds journalists to “look outside the box and to constantly give voice to those who do not have it.”
“It is very important to go back to the basics,” she says. Journalists must distinguish themselves from being mere observers who upload opinion and photographs on social media, she adds.
Telling stories with accuracy and balance continues to be important, she says, adding that it is important for journalists to influence the public and shift the environment to where people choose peace over conflict.
Ledoux says the aim of the journalism awards is to pose a healthy challenge for journalists.
“It is more challenging to find [positive] stories that will hit the front page of the newspaper. I think if you dig well enough … if it’s well-written you can also attract the attention the public,” he says.
Ledoux says the awards continues the long-standing support of the EU to the peace process and is a “recognition of the role Philippine journalists can play in peace-building.”
Since the 1990s, the EU has helped reduce poverty in Mindanao, seeing the lack of livelihood, education and other means as among the foremost reasons for the proliferation of arms.
EU is the largest donor for the Mindanao Trust Fund to fuel community-based development projects. In 2013 alone, the union contributed at least US$10 million to rebuild and strengthen livelihoods in the region.
The EU has also provided about US$44.6 million in aid to victims of natural and man-made disasters in Mindanao. | Jefry M. Tupas, NewsDesk