November 23, 2009 started as a typical Monday. But it wasn’t meant to be.
At the end of that day, the Philippines would then be marked as the deadliest place on the planet to be a journalist.
Before I made my way to the ABS-CBN newsroom where I was helping lead the online news group, I had called my mom to greet her happy birthday, and have said my prayers for the death anniversary of my grandmother. Over 200 emails were waiting before I sat on my office chair.
Top stories for the day included Filipino Efren Peñaflorida who was named the CNN Hero of the Year, and the expected filing of candidacy of Chiz Escudero for the VP post.
By 3:25pm, the alert system beeped: “vehicles allegdly boarded by members of toto mangudadatu factions whch were held hostage by abt 100 armed men as of ths moment. Victims reportdly being brought near an mnlf camp. Progres rpt to follow. (military sources)”
4:56pm: “I cannot give you the exact number of all the dead persons but rest assured merong namatay, some o them were beheaded, some of them were shot to death, some of them sinagasaan….(Toto Mangudadatu quote)”
The cable news channel ANC’s studio, which was next to our online team’s corner of the newsroom, has been feeding live phone interviews with several sources to TV audience. Audible gasps. Harried steps. Calls for huddles. Hashtags and tags set for news monitoring. Everyone seemed to be on the phone or their keyboard. At the end of the day, our banner story on the news site had the death count: 21.
It would only be weeks later when the official death toll reached 58 (one body was never found). The death toll for journalists would later be pegged at 32.
Local radio, TV and print reporters were part of the convoy accompanying the wife of politician Toto Mangudadatu whose candidacy was being registered for the May 2010 elections. The local journos were caught in the middle of the clan war between the Mangudadatus and Ampatuans in this part of Muslim Mindanao, south of the Philippines.
The gruesome story hugged the headlines for several days before it succumbed to the usual news cycle. Other stories — election-related, holiday cheers, etc — took over not long after. The complicated cast of characters, the long and winding legal ramblings and grumblings got tiring. Interest waned on what would be dubbed “the world’s deadliest single attack on media workers, and the worst case of electoral violence in the Philippines.”
Then today, December 19, 2009, happened.
It’s not over, I know. The case will still likely be heard at the Court of Appeals, then eventually at the Supreme Court.
But for now, I rejoice. The first hurdle at the lower court is over.