The Bravest Citizen Journalist I Know: The Maguindanao Massacre Boto Patroller
MANILA, Philippines -- That darn man kept me up until the wee hours of Tuesday morning. He made me worry no end as he failed to respond to my mail, as I failed to figure out where he is, as I remained clueless whether he is safe, whether he made it home, or if he is even alive. “God, please keep that Boto Patroller safe,” I prayed as I headed back to the newsroom after about several hours of failed efforts to sleep.
It was 9 a.m., Nov. 24, 2009. The morning news story conference was approaching and I checked my email to see if the Boto Patroller had mailed back and finally decided to give me a clue what’s happening.
Great. Not a word.
I printed out the picture I got from the Boto Patroller hours before.
I approached Carisa Manuel, the desk editor for Boto Mo iPatrol Mo: Ako ang Simula (BMPM) at the time, showed her the picture and briefed her. This was part of my duties as BMPM head. Citizens would submit reports. I and two others - Pamela Munji and Juliet delos Santos - would validate, and then pass this on to the News Desk.
Manuel looked at me and said, “I want to run to the white board and shout about this.”
Stories pitched are written down daily on the white board during the story conference. It stood there at the middle of the newsroom during story conferences attended by desk editors.
Hours earlier, I was silently frantic inside the BMPM office.
At about 10 or 11 p.m., Nov. 23, 2009, I received from [email protected] – BMPM’s email address – this message: “Maguindanao gubernatorial aspirant Toto Mangudadatu's wife was kidnapped together with 2 sisters of mangudadatu and media men as well as legal counsels en route to shariff aguak to file certificate of candidacy for gubenatorial position in behalf of toto mangudadatu. The PNP ARMM were immobile because they were under the command/control of the incumbent Maguindanao governor--Ampatuan family. the 6id army have played dumb and blind despite heightened reports that there is a plot against Toto Mangudadatu (sic).”
The mail bore the time stamp 3:47 p.m., Nov. 23, 2009. But an internal glitch caused delay in the arrival of mails.
At the time too, the BMPM campaigns had begun gaining steam, and calls for citizens to be vigilant and to shout out about issues and their complaints on voter registration and premature campaigning was bearing fruit: people sent numerous reports and pictures. This also slowed down the arrival of the mails.
A second letter followed nearing midnight. It said, “We plead that this incident be given attention and that in depth investigation be given as well as impartial report. The atrocities of Ampatuan family in Maguindanao is a secret public knowledge. All are immobile for their fear of life. These people are playing gods here.” It was time stamped 3:58 p.m., Nov. 23, 2009.
But the news of what will come to be known as the Maguindanao Massacre broke earlier.
In a piece I wrote for the Philippine Star on Nov. 26, 2009, this was how I remember that breaking news:
“Close to broadcast time [of TV Patrol], a mosaic of a gruesome mass murder story began taking shape from various news sources. An army spokesman confirmed on ANC that 21 bodies were found after gunmen attacked a convoy consisting of the wife, relatives, supporters of a southern Philippine politician on their way to file a certificate of candidacy on his behalf. The army spokesman’s audience, this time including journalists who have weathered coverages of coups, hotel takeovers, kidnappings couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Dozens more were missing and unaccounted for from the waylaying – including journalists who have accompanied the entourage to cover the submission by the politician’s family of his candidacy papers.
“When the politician went on air to tell his story, his voice would be etched in history as the one that told the world of, possibly, the worst story about the Philippines. The world will also learn later that here, women are raped, mutilated, shot dead by the dozens, alongside the men; camera-bearing journalists are never spared from attacks; and then backhoes would be used to scoop the dead bodies onto a waiting grave.”
This piece also appeared at the time at abs-cbnnews.com .
I wrote back to the letter-sender. I asked if he could please write back with his contact details so I could call. Pasensiya na po. Tayo ay hindi naglalabas ng ulat kung hindi po natin ito kayang beripikahin.
The letter sender did not respond.
I waited for hours, fidgeted, smoked, tanked up on coffee, monitored news, tried to get in touch with contacts from Maguindanao, tried to reach old police sources, combed through my tattered phonebook. I needed to find that Patroller. But I couldn't just give people details. Somehow, I had hoped this Boto Patroller from Maguindanao was someone I knew, but was just using a pseudonym when he sent out the mail.
A third letter came around 2 a.m., Nov. 24, 2009. This time, it had a picture. The letter said, “a pic from the scene of the crime [.] mangudadatu women brutally murdered (sic).” The picture showed what seemed to be three bloodied bodies beside a white van and surrounded by people in fatigue pants.
I wrote the Patroller twice and nearly pleaded for him to get in touch with me.
I stayed as long as I could in the office in the hope that he would write back or get in touch with me. He never did. I went home for some shut-eye and change of clothes.
“BMPM, ABS-CBN’s election-focused citizen journalism project, does not use unverified photos, videos or any other submission. But the letter sender had not returned with a response on BMPM queries about his contact details or whereabouts. Maria Ressa, [then] ABS-CBN Senior Vice President, herself a veteran journalist, gave the marching order. [Then] ANC Chief Operating Officer Glenda Gloria, another seasoned journalist, was to make a final check on the photo information; reporters on the ground also have it on record that investigating officials have reason to believe the van showed on the photo was among the convoy vehicles. The photo ran on all ABS-CBN platforms and shows.
“Ressa has very specific instruction to protect the Boto Patroller – a citizen journalist who tips or volunteers news materials like photos or videos. “These Patrollers are risking their lives to report this,” she said.” This appeared in my Nov. 26 2009 piece.
Right now, this is what I remember from that day: I made a final check with Gloria about the picture. When I entered her office, she said something like, “Yes, there was a white van in the convoy. You should have asked your sources if there was a white van in the convoy.” I wanted to kick myself.
The next time I saw the picture was on ANC, and it was accompanied by the voice of then-ANC anchor Ricky Carandang describing it as possibly the first verified picture from the crime site. At the time, we were waiting for pictures or footages from journalists.
The Boto Patroller who sent that Maguindanao massacre messages and pictures did not email me again for about another year when he wrote to denounce local politics. But his accounts from the carnage cemented my belief in what citizen journalism could be capable of, and instilled very solidly in my mind what kind of cooperation is possible between journalists and citizens.
Seeing the picture of this still nameless Boto Patroller’s picture used on news, I would like to believe, emboldened other citizens to report and share what they know.
Soon after, we were receiving reports on the identities of the massacre victims (some of them were civilians who just happened to be on the road); some people knew as early as Nov. 20, 2009, Friday, of an ambush about to take place; authorities should search for numerous guns, vehicles, houses; authorities should investigate certain arms suppliers and officials who allowed purchases.
I said something in that Nov. 26, 2009 piece, and I think it still holds true: “These Patrollers are risking their lives. But from where they are reporting, they are not. To the contrary, it seems these citizens are seeing an opportunity to live, tell their tale. They are snapping pictures of their realities, ‘texting’ their truths, taking a stand, contributing to the conversation, and making sure they have a voice in it.”