Reporting from the frontlines: The Philippines in Crisis

Community News & Features Oct 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm


Joseph Smooke and Dyan Ruiz speaking before PPCO members and guests on Oct. 12, 2013.   PHOTO: HG

Joseph Smooke and Dyan Ruiz speaking before PPCO members and guests on Oct. 12, 2013. PHOTO: HG

By Joseph Smooke

Legs dangling from a wooden platform strapped to a motorcycle maneuvering through otherwise impassable dirt roads in the jungles of Mindanao. Reporting from the frontlines of a tense confrontation between protesters and police with only our camera, bandanas and microphone to protect us while local reporters wore hard-shell helmets and bullet-proof vests. These were just a couple of the personal experiences Dyan Ruiz and I shared with the crowd gathered at a community forum hosted by The Philippine Press Club of Ontario (PPCO).

We were thrilled that PPCO asked us to present at the OISE Building at the University of Toronto on October 12 about the reporting we’ve done together in the Philippines. Members of the ethnic press and others from the Filipino-Canadian community came eager to discuss the human rights abuses we witnessed first hand and the challenges we faced while reporting about them in Manila and rural parts of the Philippines.

Our first time reporting together in the Philippines was also the first time Dyan and I met, in 2010 covering the Presidential elections from Payatas, a community built on a dumpsite. We returned this past summer to report on a range of issues including the increasing presence of the U.S. military in Asia, the impacts of large scale mining and corporate plantations in northeast Mindanao, and the massive people’s rally against the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA).

When we met in May 2010, both Dyan and I were reporting from the People’s International Observation Mission (PIOM) with the goal of bringing accountability to the first elections using the new automated voting machines. PIOM assigned us to report from Payatas, one of the most densely populated slums in the world, built on a dumpsite in Quezon City.

Tens of thousands of voters crammed into school classrooms that acted as polling booths on a day of stifling heat. In the early morning, the machines kept spitting ballots back uncounted. Polling officials told voters that their ballots would be counted later, but tempers flared as voters wanted assurance that their votes would be counted– that their voice would be heard. Rumor was that then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) would try to retain power by manipulating a failure of elections.

Members of PPCO and guests, and speakers Joseph and Dyan, who remained to the very end of the session.

Members of PPCO and guests, and speakers Joseph and Dyan, who remained to the very end of the session.

At the end of a long tense day, the election concluded with the forecast of a new President, Benigno Aquino III. But to the international observers, unlike the populace, the announcement was anti-climatic. The stories we heard from Payatas residents about military occupation, intimidation against those supporting progressive parties, and continuing threats of forced removal continue to be part of the residents’ daily struggle to survive. GMA’s days in Malacañang, the Presidential Palace, may have been over, but the damage to people’s lives from many years of repression will linger on.

We returned to the Philippines in early July of this year, and right away, Dyan went to Malate to cover an international conference about the impacts of the U.S. military’s “Pivot to Asia” while I flew south, transferred to a van, then climbed on the wooden platform strapped to a motorcycle that bumped and bounced me into the jungles of northeast Mindanao.

Leaders of organizations opposed to U.S. military presence met this summer in the first ever international conference opposing the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” since former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced it in 2011. Delegates from throughout Asia and around the world say that the U.S. military is responsible for grave human rights violations and environmental destruction that go unpunished. The Asia pivot includes sending 70,000 U.S. troops to the Asia-Pacific region and 60 percent of the U.S. Navy. From this, we produced a video news feature for Baltimore-based independent, online news channel The Real News Network, and an article for The Philippine Reporter.

Meanwhile, I was traveling throughout the Caraga Region of northeast Mindanao where I visited various indigenous and local communities, farmers, fisherfolk, and small scale gold miners. I witnessed foreign-based companies destroying the environment and robbing local and native people of their livelihoods. Corporate agribusinesses along with international and Philippine mines, are polluting waterways and destroying the surrounding farms. The trip was organized as part of the International Conference of Peace and Human Rights in the Philippines.

Photo capture of a video story on the effects of mining in Caraga.

Photo capture of a video story on the effects of mining in Caraga.

Chinese, European, Canadian and Filipino mining companies are tearing down mountains to get to the region’s natural riches; yet, most of Mindanao is struggling, with six out of the 10 poorest provinces in the impoverished country. Protecting and paving the way for foreign corporations is the Philippine military, forcibly evacuating residents from their lands, and even killing and kidnapping. “The soldiers are the protectors of the foreign companies,” said farmer Josefina Pagalan.

We were inspired by the courage of the people that we interviewed, who were willing to risk their lives to tell their struggles in the hopes that they would improve their dire situation. The video news feature we produced for The Real News Network can be viewed on our website,

All of these issues came together when thousands of people took to the streets during President Aquino’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22. The rally decried the President’s failure to address widespread poverty, corruption and human rights abuses. The march was met with razor wire fences, police in full riot gear waving truncheons, pushing shields and a water hose ready to disperse protesters.

Dyan and I witnessed it all including the intense standoff between the protesters and police. We had dressed for the heat of the day while local journalists from the major media outlets came dressed with helmets and bulletproof vests. Despite our being under-dressed, we captured everything from the toppling of the razor-wire barricades, to the mad rush of the march into oncoming traffic, to the arrest and dispersal of protestors, to street children picking up the water bottles being tossed in the melée, to the burning of the President’s effigy at the finale of the People’s Rally.

The SONA rally was among the three video reports we produced our non-profit media organization called [people. power. media] for The Real News Network. You can find these videos at The Philippine Reporter has also published an article about the SONA rally, with more to come from our coverage this summer of human rights abuses in the Philippines.