The journalist in times of inhumanity


MANILA — Often, I am torn between being a journalist and an activist, especially when covering human-rights issues.

Last Saturday was the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of Leo Velasco, a consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). Velasco’s daughter, Lorena “Aya” Santos, together with families of other victims of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and other human-rights violations, trooped to Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame.

In front of the towering gate of Camp Aguinaldo, at the foundations of a flyover at Santolan, Aya’s colleagues posted coupon-bond sized papers with Velasco’s photocopied picture. As expected, soldiers attempted to stop the protesters. One officer said: “Itigil nyo na ‘yan! Aabalahin n’yo pa kami sa pagtatanggal niyan!” (Stop that! We don’t want to be bothered taking those off!) To which Roneo Clamor, Karapatan secretary-general, replied: “Yan lang ang abala sa inyo. Ang mga nandito, kaanak ng mga nawawala. Matagal na silang naghahanap.” (That would be the only inconvenience on your part. Here are the families of the disappeared, they have long been searching for their loved ones.)

I could imagine how hellish those four years of searching had been for Aya. As I should, I asked Aya for an interview. She recalled how they went to every government agency seeking for help, how the Court of Appeals junked their petition for habeas corpus and writ of amparo, how the court told them that they failed to produce evidence that the perpetrators behind his father’s abduction were state agents.

I have heard similar stories many times before, in the cases of Jonas Burgos, Prudencio Calubid, father and son Rogelio and Gabriel Calubad and many more but each tale is different as every pain is unique.

I asked Aya her message for her father. As she spoke, I felt that my heart was also being squeezed. I fought back my own tears. She said sorry for not being able to find her father for four years. I was tempted to stop recording her on video and just hug her, comfort her, but I knew I must go through it. I needed to listen to what she wanted to say, to capture even the most painful moments. I embraced her after the interview. I felt it was the humane thing to do.

I am convinced again and again that enforced disappearance is the cruelest form of human-rights violation. I heard families of the desaparecidos say how envious they were whenever they attend wakes of victims of extrajudicial killings. They neither have the bodies to bury or graves to visit. There is no closure to their endless search.

And so, whenever I see Nanay Connie (mother of Karen Empeno), Nanay Linda (mother of Sherlyn Cadapan), Nanay Lolit (mother of Romulos Robinos), Ate Bilet (sister of Cesar Batralo), I would kiss them, hug them, hold their hand or simply engage them in small talk. To me, it is a gesture of sympathy, not pity.

In fact, I am amazed at their courage. Aya said her father’s disappearance has led her to continue what her father strived for. I think the same goes true for the other families of enforced disappearances. Before their loved ones went missing, Nanay Connie was a simple public school teacher, Nanay Linda and Nanay Lolit were housewives, Nuki Calubid (son of Rogelio Calubid and Celina Palma) and Ipe Soco (son of Gloria Soco) were ordinary students, unmindful of activism. They have been transformed into human-rights advocates, fighting for justice not only for their loved ones but for all victims.

Yes, there are times when I see righteous anger in their eyes but I could sense that their actions are grounded in deeper convictions. This is something that the state could not understand. By sowing terror and violence, they produce more activists and dissenters. The military could succeed in making some cower in fear but many have chosen,  to borrow my dear friend Beng Hernandez’s words, “to raise their fists to continue living.”

In these times of inhumanity, the thin line between being a journalist and an activist is blurred even more. I know in my heart that I owe no one an apology. (

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  1. Thank you for sharing this. It must really be hard to be a family member of the desaparedicios (the disappeared). Munting bagay lang, pero sana maparating sa mga kapamilya na naghahanap ng mga minamahal nilang nawawala—mas lalakas ang paglaban sa kamalian sa mundo dahil sa sakripisio ng kanilang minamahal—at magiging mas posible ang panalo ng karapatan ng tao sa madaling panahon. Marami tayo kesya sa mga sakim sa mundo. Kaya natin sila timbuagin—sa madaling panahon. Nandito na ang hangin ng pagbabago. Gising na ang mga tao sa mundo!

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