Regarding the Pain of Others As Well As Our Own (An Open Letter on Safety and Well-being Among Media Workers)
(Linda Bansil, 33, is a citizen journalist and filmmaker who, together with her sister, Nadjoua, 35, was abducted by the infamous Abu Sayyaf while filming a documentary in Patikul, Sulu, Mindanao in the Philippines last June 22, 2013.)
I was at a bus stop-over karinderia when the news of your disappearance, together with Nadjoua, was on the primetime television news. As your photos were flashed on the eatery’s TV screen, I realized that we had taken parallel excursions into the fringes. You filmed farmers among fruit-bearing coffee trees in Patikul, Sulu while I listened to fledgling coffee farmers at their seedling nurseries. Like you, I stayed overnight at the farming village in Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur. But unlike you who had become hostages, I took an air-conditioned bus back to the city, back to a room of my own, brewing tongue-scalding-hot coffee, safe among a stack of books and stale laundry.
And yet, I am also aware that any woman reporter’s sense of well-being and safety remains fragile, if not illusory. We had discussed this particular female vulnerability, remember? Way back in 2007, at the Silsilah Dialogue Center in Zamboanga, where we held a workshop on engendering peace and conflict coverage in Mindanao, our consensus was: women reporters, more than our male counterparts, because of our social roles, biological make-up and cultural orientation, are exposed to low-intensity, high-frequency stress at work. More than ever, even as they (we) do not cover directly the island’s hydra-headed armed conflict.
Bringing up those discussions now do not belittle the extraordinary challenges that captivity now imposes on Nadjoua and you. It is not meant to trivialize the experiences of other kidnapped women journalists before you, like Ces Drilon and Arlyn de la Cruz.
Instead, reflection steers attention to the marginalized, but common, theme of stress and trauma among women journalists on the island. I lean towards something energy-sapping, seeping through our lives: increasingly, in covering Mindanao’s communities, we expose ourselves to "common shock", a spectrum of daily violence and violation psychiatrist Kaethe Weingarten tackles in her book, "Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day, How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal".
In the book, Weingarten, includes us journalists among those whose functions place us in harm’s way. Indeed, often, we and other caregivers (like teachers, clerics, doctors and police officers) have been unaware and uncaring of the cumulative perils of bearing witness to events and their cost on our well-being as well as its effects on our reportage nor its audience impact. Now, this recollection bridges your plight to the larger yet mundane, day-to-day experiences of media women minding their daily beats elsewhere in Mindanao.
It shortens the distance between your ordeal and the dilemma besetting community-based reporter Judys Cogo who cries out in Facebook: ’’How can you handle a situation when you witness (a) woman crying for justice for the killing of her brother last May and also witness to the gay man who was abducted by (the) unidentified men who held him in the jungle for three days with nothing to eat.’’ She did handle the situation(s) well as a journalist, dispatching reports on these crimes to Zamboanga Peninsula Journal, but I wonder what she does so as not to lose her way in the labyrinth of the police and military beats. It makes me empathize with T., who has thrown in the towel after years of keeping watch over a community paper because literally -- in the lingo of the digitally savvy youngsters – "she can no longer heart it". (Imagine black <3, sad-faced emoticon here.)
As Weingarten has expressed, "While it is absolutely essential that we be capable of registering differences in the scale of suffering, it is not useful to use the appreciation of the difference to trivialize (our) distress if it comes from a lesser cause....The goal is to care about all kinds and degrees of suffering, although mindful that they are not the same."
A State of Risk
Ironically, you have gone to a peace front, transitioning from conflict to post-conflict, nine months after a peace pact was inked between the government and the Islamic rebels. Yet, with your own safety in mind, you’ve mapped out a security plan with colleagues at the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network as well as with relatives.
No less than the international non-government organization, Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) pointed out that the province of Sulu has made long strides in conflict transformation. "Look, it (Sulu) is no longer among the election hotspots this year," pointed out Michael Frank Alar, ICHD program officer at a forum early this year. Alar even stressed the pivotal role of grassroots Suluan women mediators as documented in "Taking Peace into Their Own Hands."
But I also realized, in reading Maria Ressa’s article on your kidnapping that, as elsewhere, peace has not spread on Sulu as evenly as margarine on bread. Certain villages are still in thrall of the power dynamics, "the world that swallowed (you) the Bansil sisters," as Ressa wrote on Rappler.
You know, Linda, somehow, despite the cynical mood of her analysis, I like Ressa’s choice of the word, "swallowed." It brings to mind the Old Testament fable. As a Muslim, you’ve read the Quran mostly but you must have encountered the fable in your Religion 101 class at the Catholic university. The story goes that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and then burped out. Hope is a surfacing water-blowing whale, as in my mind Nadjoua and you heave out from the bowels of the Sulu jungles, safe in the harbor of family and friends.
But I am reminded again of our discussions on gender and the news-media during those 2007 workshops. We told participants that Anywhere can be rife with terror, a woman-devouring Godzilla. Even the home, the refugee camp, the police station and the newsroom can be potential venues for gender-based violence and sexual crimes, we admonished the practicing younger media practitioners.
"As the independent media tell untold stories of women as prime news agenda, the messenger will be always in peril,’’ we further said. “It pays to be aware of the potential risk of trauma." We cited psychiatrist Frank Ochberg’s observation that female crime survivors and first-responders as the most likely sufferers. We began to be more aware of the silent plague, aside from the spate of unsolved extra-judicial killings, that can possibly afflict, not only our subjects and sources, but also our very own selves.
"I never learned these things in college," you said repeatedly, obviously excited. Neither did I. And we are not alone. Several generations who went to college before us and became media professionals were not prepared for this, too, because nothing was taught to us.
Instead, we were told by professors to publish or perish, never mind our menstrual cramps, or the grip of post-partum blues. We were told to be objective: separate the personal from the professional. We were taught to be detached, to rein in our feelings; thoughts are superior to emotions. We feel extreme shame and guilt when we acknowledge our own pain when it cannot compare to the plight of refugees, the landless farmers, the survivors of ill-treatment and rape whose sagas we cover. We refused to seek therapy because we feared the stigma attached to it.
And the ‘’curricular dissonance’’ continues today. I looked quickly at the curricula among three universities and two colleges offering journalism and media courses in Cagayan de Oro and saw that there is a surfeit of courses on the new media technologies but almost nothing on how to cover trauma and violence daily.This could mean that unless something is done soon the next generation of journalists in the region will also be mostly clueless on the impact of trauma on their own lives and on their audiences.
But I cannot begrudge the local academia as even in the United States, The International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) surveyed 106 accredited journalism schools in 2009 and found that 75 percent of these schools do not teach their students the essentials of covering trauma and crisis and taking care of themselves during and after coverage.
Not surprisingly, almost half a century after the armed conflicts began on the island, "no data is available on the nature and extent of conflict-related psychological disorders in Mindanao, how they may impact on the social functioning of women and men, or how they may be effectively addressed," noted gender expert Rufa Cagoco-Guiam, director of the Institute of Peace and Development Studies at Mindanao State University-General Santos.
"Recognition of the magnitude of (mental) health problems in conflicted areas in Mindanao has also been hampered by stereotypes such as ‘tough’ or ‘warlike’ people for whom violence has become normal," Cagoco-Guiam and co-researcher Leslie Dwyer said in the pamphlet, "Gender and Conflict in Mindanao".
Both Dwyer and Cagoco-Guiam were aware, that in other conflict-affected areas, "(research shows that) people do not get used to violence; rather repeated exposure to traumas may produce chronic or complex stress disorder that impacts social functioning."
Weingarten urges that much will have to change: "journalism education must include training how to recognize and manage common shock reactions like vicarious trauma.Journalists, women and men, need to be prepared to handle this occupational hazard." She foresees shifts in social expectations and social support.
“As a global village, we cannot afford for those who are on the front lines of mediating violence and violation to be overwhelmed by it," she adds.
Self-Care Strategies for Ukay-ukay Blues
Subtle change is happening, too, among ourselves. We are wiser now than culture critic Susan Sontag who admonished us journalists to regard the pain of others with more mindfulness rather than detachment. Today, we continue, yes, to regard the pain –and joy-- of others as well as our own.
Made aware then that like other service-oriented professionals, we could have the contagion of ‘ukay-ukay blues’, second-hand post-traumatic stress disorder, we drew up frugal do-it-yourself kits to keep safe, sane and soulful. These preventive self-care strategies include: exercise, walking, singing(even just off-key and at the videoke or the shower, journaling, having pets, reading books, friendships and community.When you are free soon, find time to enjoy most of these pleasures again and more often.
I will send you a copy of Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “Five Broken Cameras’’, the film you’ve been rooting for since it got an Oscar nomination. My latest find at a book sale (P40, barely a US dollar!) is Lila Abu-Lughod's "Veiled Sentiments", a critical discourse on Bedouin poetry, which might also interest you.
You must read Weingarten, too. Like the pioneering psychiatrist Ochberg, she refuses to medicalize trauma. She does not prescribe mood-stabilizing drugs to restore vitality. Instead, she urges us to cultivate habits of compassionate witnessing and identifies cultural healing balms like rituals, collective artmaking, communing with Nature, as "the ocean to whom you speak the fish language".
The poster seeking your release is now my Facebook profile photo. The 24/7 presence of your faces at the popular social media network keeps you in mind always among colleagues in media and human-rights activism.
Linda, how do you ward off the cold at night? Do you eat enough? May you and Nadjoua endure with willpower that’s deep as your awe for the ocean, until and beyond your release. Most of the women in Mindanao who’ve got stories to share with us haven’t lost hope nor courage in waging peace. In solidarity with them and you, we who are free won’t, we mustn’t.
This article is a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.