Two women journalists talk about politics, media, technology

Community Opinion & Analysis Nov 10, 2017 at 4:31 pm


Sheilah Ocampo Kalfors and Nona Ocampo

By Pet G. Cleto

What happens to a woman when she enters the media and dons on the same media hat worn by the greater percentage of media practitioners, who are male? I just assume somehow many women have a big fighting chance to have more power than males in media.

Sheilah Ocampo Kalfors was Manila Bureau Chief of Far Eastern Economic Review. She was, for a long time, married to another top journalist, who was a former vice president of the National Press Club of the Philippines, Saturnino “Satur” Ocampo, who, after three terms as a congressman, is still a leader of Makabayan Bloc in Congress. Except that, of course, there are a number of books published about the Philippines which cited her name and articles published in the famous Far Eastern Economic Review, known for “calling the story as it is”: Fragile Democracies: The Legacies of Authoritarian Rule, by Gretchen Casper; Crisis in the Philippines: The Marcos Era and Beyond, by John Bresnan; Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, Western Burma/Myanmar by Moshe Yegar.

Sheilah Ocampo Kalfors still carries the family name of her ex-husband, the famous Satur Ocampo. In Toronto a few days in September, on vacation with her daughter Sonora “Nona” Ocampo, also once a print media person in the Philippines as well as in Sweden.

Sheilah’s Hat

The Philippine Reporter: How was your transition to your new life in Sweden? Was there much room for many foreign-trained professionals?

Sheilah Kalfors: If they have education, yes. About language, the moment you come to Sweden, you enroll yourself in intensive language programs, and (that’s how) you learn the Swedish, and of course continue to university, where one important course is the Swedish language. It just went into your bones.

TPR: A smooth transition, then?

SK: I didn’t have any problems at all, just took all that, and totally forgot the Filipino ways, anything that didn’t harmonize with my new environment, or didn’t go well with the Swedish environment. You have to accept, or you can’t integrate. You will be unhappy. Sweden has a good reputation – it is a welfare state, it takes care of its people. And a big advantage there is that education is free from kindergarten all the way up.

TPR: Did you work there as a journalist?

SK: Not really, but I did work in one of the two major newspapers – the Swedish Daily. Worked as editor, picking up the best news in the papers, summarized it, it comes out and printed it for tourists who spoke in English.

TPR: Do you miss your days as a journalist? Was Sheilah, Manila Bureau Chief of the FEER, not affected at all by what was happening then? Was not terrorism by the Asian strongman (Ferdinand Marcos) not a bothering thing?

SK: I enjoyed my term. Ongoing human rights violations in the countryside, which no one would report in their counter-insurgency reports. Samar, Lanao del Norte, everywhere – hamletting in so many places, it was just horrendous. I did fear for my life, but Marcos was a very civilized lawyer but would not touch the foreign media. There were cases of local media killings, but they didn’t touch foreign media.

TPR: How did you feel then, on a foreign magazine, writing about your country?

SK: FEER had a unique style. We didn’t just take from government reports, and I just went to the field – to Samar, where I witnessed and heard in court, the testimony of an NPA leader. I went there, trying to help somehow to show the story. In a way, I supported the struggle. I interviewed a commander in Davao. And I did a story on Floirendo – I made a report of his doings, abusing all the seasonal planters in his banana plantations. Those were very interesting times, and I wish I could gather my manuscripts. I went with these families – who had nothing to live on, on a daily basis. I didn’t sleep in hotels, because I was afraid. I got to lodge with the nuns, the priests, the bishops. They said “of course”.

TPR: So it was a very privileged position – it made you sort of untouchable.

SK: Maybe Marcos and Cendaña would have second thoughts about foreign media, especially those who were foreigners. But as for me, from the same country, they could do something with me. They sort of harassed me, and banned me from some press conferences. So I went with Nelly Sindayen (of Newsweek) to press conferences I wasn’t invited to. Sometimes we got through. I interviewed Marcos with my editor, and he was OK. Imelda was a real b___ – in one of the press cons, I asked her: why do you hate Evita Peron, because she is being compared to you? Then, after I got married to the then Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines Bo Eric Kalfors, in Manila – he got invited of course to all the events, and Malacañang, but the ambassador would go to these events without me. Then the Marcos (I think it was Imelda) governnment ordered the Filipino Ambassador to ask the Justice Minister of Sweden if my marriage was valid. No divorce in the Philippines and all that. Yes, he said, it is valid. Sheilah was divorced in the Dominican Republic, so yes, her marriage is valid. Imelda would manipulate even ambassadors to get what she wanted.

TPR: What do you think about the coming back of Imelda and family to Philippine politics?

SK: My thinking as a foreigner now, I think the Marcoses financed the electoral campaign of Duterte of course. The trade-back? Immunity but surrender the loot — now how can you get back all that? Many Filipinos who live abroad and hear about this – it breaks your heart.

Personally I think the Filipinos deserve better, all the hardships they suffered all throughout the Marcos period. And now they find somebody who is a killer. I don’t know how it should be — the resolution.

TPR: Is Duterte happy then to now give away “all” to the Marcoses, you think?

SK: He was afraid of the Kian affair, because he saw how people can be galvanized into action.

That is why he tried to do something. But then now it seems that Bongbong will not be able to get what he wants, specially regarding the irregularities of the elections.

It’s so incredible that the people were so forgiving. These people were able to return without having to face a trial.

TPR: Do you still think there is hope despite this?

SK: There should be – for my grandchildren. They deserve that.


(2 Photos: HG)

TPR: How do you feel about your children going into journalism?

SK: She (Nona) studied Journalism in La Salle without asking me. My son is more of a photographer, went to the UK without asking me. My daughter is more into digital technology.

TPR: Does she also have the same attitude about social justice?

SK: This kind of social justice attitude, she takes from her father and me.

She also led the union in Manila Times. My other three children were boys. I was lucky my sister was there to help with the two older children. After two years, I returned, but I was arrested, and once they called me very late in the night and the main questioner was one of my staff, who kept asking me about Kabataang Makabayan, and I countered him with – you know more than I do, since when I left, you remained with KM. The 60s was really the birth of student activism, and was also triggered by the Vietnam War, because Marcos wanted so send troops to Vietnam. I also remember Tañada. Once we were called to a Congressional hearing: Me, Joma Sison, Binay, some others – and it was good. At least there was due process at the time.

TPR: Do you think another people’s power movement can do it?

SK: It takes a very emotional event that sparks off a people’s power movement. Plus all leaders should cooperate to control the military forces. Then a charismatic leader is needed too. We had Tañada and Diokno. Where are the people of the same caliber as these people?

TPR: Earlier, you were telling me about some of the organizing you did in Sweden.

SK: I chaired and organized a human rights forum in 1989. Women are usually the subject of violence, and many of them who come to Europe, and find those men who have a fiancé-type of arrangement with them, and when the men tire of them, pass them on to other men. And then there’s the mail-order bride type of arrangement – the same thing, the men pass them off to other men. We held forum-type of events to tell them about laws and other information about their rights. Over all of Europe, there are many organizations like this now.

TPR: How did you help the women?

SK: We held seminars to give them information about their rights. We also had fundraisers, so we can have more seminars. We also encouraged them to get education, and get better jobs. The good thing in Sweden is that they criminalize those who abuse the women, and even young women.

TPR: Your message to our public?

SK: Leaders, come out and lead! Organizers, organize!

At Distillery District in Toronto

At Distillery District in Toronto

Sonora “Nona” Ocampo

Nona, Sheilah said, had a good transition in Sweden. She was then 26 years old. She passed the National Examination, then took up Public Administration, and then was ready for the labor market. Took my work up as well. Before that, she worked in Manila Times, working on the foreign affairs beat.

TPR: How did you decide to be a journalist? How much would the impact of your parents’ lives as journalists shape that decision?

Nona Ocampo: I am very proud of my parents. Yes, they were a great part of my decision, which I am proud of, too, and consider my journalistic life in the Philippines as the best years of my life. Maikli lang, but very rewarding, and perhaps I will go back to it. Once a journalist, you always are a journalist, and regardless of anything, you’ll go back to it. It has changed radically, though, although the tenets have not changed – to pursue truth, and all that – even though there was that frozen old guy. And now it’s more dangerous, and the changes have been going even more quickly so you think you need to go back to journalism. It’s not just a profession. It’s a noble calling. So I guess, I cannot close doors on it – I can always go back, but with new tools. You have to be as digitally savvy as those who disseminate falsehoods deliberately to mislead you, and put people in power who actually don’t belong there!

TPR: You think then, that this “Fourth Estate” is no longer the “Fourth Estate”?

NO: It all depends on what you mean by that, of course. I think what’s important is for a journalist to have this critical thinking, kasi it’s so easy to Google and all, but you can’t expect a search engine to provide you with the truth. It’s important for us to start with young people who learn critical thinking, and not be just these gullible people. It’s so easy to believe, especially to believe things that you are already convinced about. Then you start picking up stories and news that you think are according to what you believe in, which is a dangerous thing.

TPR: With all this technology surrounding you, so many dangers caused by the way we think become obvious. So you if you surf, already believing something is right and true, you select the kind of data that will support you.

NO: Have you heard about this woman, who was so shaken when she found out how easy it was to gather all the falsehoods and the lies, and spread them and there was no way for you to correct that unless you had some control of the whole thing? It’s a relatively new discovery, and it’s frightening because if that’s what’s happening among many who use the internet, we seem to be losing the War on Information.

TPR: So we’re now in the dark again, you seem to be saying.

NO: And we have no choice but to fight this darkness. There must be some light somewhere, you know. I look at my daughter, and I feel hope. I know her friends, and have seen how they discuss, what they say to each other on email. They’ve been exposed to the many things happening in Europe, and they don’t like it. They’re thinking critically, and that’s good. They have the tools, the youth. And if their elders can give them guidance, as much as is possible, give them insights and things they see with hindsight, then there’s hope.

TPR: I’ve seen people who have backed out of internet.

NO: I know some friends who say, don’t trust Google, don’t trust Facebook, because all these social media just probably get money out of gathering your data, for marketing purposes, so you can’t blame them for not wanting to be involved in this, since they love their privacy. You post everything that you do everyday, they gather that, then you notice that ads pop up that seemed to be tailored for you. They’ve started profiling you. Your taste, your circle of friends.

TPR: What of the people who are from rural places who need others to know about their needs and conditions?

NO: Technology is neither good nor evil – we just have to make sure there are people who use technology more for the good. It has done wonders in Africa, where women have been empowered. I guess we have to democratize the ownership and control of technology instead of just three or four giant monopolies who divide the world between themselves.

TPR: A message especially, then, for the youth?

NO: Just don’t believe everything you hear, or read. It’s better always to question everything, and gather all the facts that you can, before even forming an opinion. It’s so important these days to have critical thoughts. Don’t let the Trumps and the Dutertes win over critical thought. There are more people with good intentions in this world than those with bad ones, I believe.

TPR: And perhaps, a little note now about your father?

NO: I’ve always admired his tireless dedication to the cause. He sacrificed his life, and even now, when he’s already a senior citizen, he’s still going strong about this work. I just hope that people respect him for what he’s doing, which is not selfish at all. For me, I always tell people in the Philippines, he’s our Nelson Mandela. All hats off!