‘Journalism — A mission, more than a job’

Community News & Features Nov 23, 2018 at 5:52 pm
2018 Marshall McLuhan Fellow Jeff Canoy

2018 Marshall McLuhan Fellow Jeff Canoy

By Irish Mae Silvestre
The Philippine Reporter

While people are running away from a volcanic eruption, landslide, earthquake or super typhoon, journalist Jeff Canoy is heading towards it.

The correspondent for ABS-CBN joked that he has covered so many natural disasters during his twelve-year career that, even on vacation, people who recognize him assume that he’s there to cover an impending disaster.

“And that’s why I feel like I’m the sign of the apocalypse every time I go to those places,” he quipped.

JEFF Canoy speaks in Toronto on Nov. 13, 2018, on ‘Reporting from the Margins: The Role of Journalism in covering crises and conflict situations,’ organized by FC-WJNet.

JEFF Canoy speaks in Toronto on Nov. 13, 2018, on ‘Reporting from the Margins: The Role of Journalism in covering crises and conflict situations,’ organized by FC-WJNet.

Canoy, 34, was awarded this year’s Marshall McLuhan Fellowship and travelled across Canada for a two-week speaking tour. During his stop at the University of Toronto on November 13, Canoy discussed the role of journalists in conflict zones, a topic borne out of the five months he spent covering the Marawi siege. His time covering the battle between the Philippine military and ISIS-affiliated Maute group resulted in the 2017 TV documentary called ‘Di Ka Pasisiil’ (Never Shall Be Conquered) that won him and fellow journalist Chiara Zambrano several international accolades, including a Gold Dolphin award for Best Documentary at the Cannes Corporate Media and TV Awards.

Five Months Later

“Overnight, [Marawi] became a ghost town and a war zone,” recalled Canoy.

When he was assigned to cover the conflict, many believed that the siege would be over in a week; it lasted five months. For Canoy and his colleagues, that meant five months of sleeping on floors and in cars. Five months of finding stories beyond the carefully orchestrated tours by their military guides, of reporting about the escalating violence, while wearing the obligatory helmets and cumbersome bullet-proof vests.

Having reported on the extrajudicial killings and torture, as well as the Maguindanao massacre, Canoy has seen violence in varying degrees. The ongoing conflict had reduced Marawi into a pile of rubble, reminding him of the war-torn city of Aleppo. Militants were also going door to door killing Christians, as well as Muslims who mispronounced the Quran.

But even in the bleakness there were stories of courage and compassion.

“What the [Maute] group didn’t expect was that the Muslims would be protecting the Christians inside the city,” he said. “They would put hijabs on the women, hide people in their basements, and teach them prayers so if they were accosted by these armed men, they would be able to say those prayers.”

He added that it was important to inform people that it wasn’t a war of religions. “We didn’t want Islamophobia to spread,” he said.

P42_DSC2199There was also the story of Saipoding Mariga, whose injured wife Geraldine was trapped in the city. Carrying a plastic bag with bottles of water, a banana and a slice of egg pie, he would plead with the military to let him through the checkpoint to no avail. When she was rescued three weeks later, Canoy was there to witness their reunion.

He also heard about how, during a daring escape, a father carried his 17-year-old son in his arms after his son had collapsed on the street, too sick and too weak to run for safety.
“Usually, in [places of conflict or disasters], you hear the numbers: the number of evacuees, of those killed, of those injured. But the numbers don’t really tell the story,” said Canoy. “You really have to rise above the clutter and look for those stories. When you show people’s stories, you hope people are watching at home in Manila or other islands and that they spring to action, whether they volunteer, send donations or help out in any way they can.”
“I always tell my colleagues: the mind easily forgets but the heart always remembers,” he added.

The Aftermath

“It’s important that you don’t become too jaded or too hardened by the things that you see,” said Canoy, adding that it’s always difficult to see children and the elderly in disaster areas or conflict zones.

He added that stress debriefings at the office are mandatory. “We have to go through that or we’ll be classified as not fit for work,” he said.

Carlo Figueroa

Carlo Figueroa

And, of course, alcohol helps, he joked. “And by that I mean hanging out with friends and fellow journalists who’ve experienced the same things,” he said.

There is, however, one person who’s less enthused by the nature of his job: his mom.

“[Covering Marawi] was stressful – not just for me but for my mom as well,” he said. “My mom was freaking out. It’s so funny that she still gets freaked out after all these years. She’s had her fair share of trauma watching from her living room.”

“It’s hard to explain it as a job but it’s easier to explain it as a mission,” he added.

When it comes to misconceptions, he said that people assume he lives a life of adventure and glamour. And he’d like to set the record straight.

“It’s not like we stay in a five-star hotel,” said Canoy, laughing. “We sleep on floors in evacuation centres or in cars. Essentially, when you do those things and you’re with the people you cover, you kind of gain more empathy for what they’re going through and I think that makes for better and more powerful journalism.”

(Event organized by Filipino Canadian Writers and Journalists Network in partnership with Marshall McLuhan Program (Canadian Embassy) and Women and Gender Studies Institute, UofT)

Nastasha Ali

Nastasha Ali

Rachelle Cruz

Rachelle Cruz

Lisa Valencia-Svensson

Lisa Valencia-Svensson

Fe Bisuna

Fe Bisuna

Jeff Canoy and Carlo Figueroa with members of Filipino Canadian Writers and Journalists Network (FC-WJNet) and guests.

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