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Regarding the Pain of Others As Well As Our Own (An Open Letter on Safety and Well-being Among Media Workers)

Free the Bansil Sisters, screen-grabbed from Amnesty International-Philippines Facebook Page

(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.)

Dear Linda,
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.

Curricular Malnourishment
"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.

Always,
Lina

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.

Free the Bansil Sisters/AI-Philippines

Comments

Cali gal Michelle's picture

Lina- The originality of the

Lina-
The originality of the opening line immediately captured my interest. Your compelling and well-crafted prose kept my interest. Your story touched both mind and heart, weaving together facts and emotion to create a piece I hope will draw the attention it deserves.

While so many journalists risk their very beings in bringing issues and stories to the forefront, you have reminded me that it is the journalists who are also the story.

There are a few different points that strike me as I re-read your article. But I will highlight the one that I relate to most: There is "curricular dissonance" in so many lines of work; experiences we are never taught in school. In some cases, it is a sad fact that we have to learn those lessons through less-desirable situations, as you have discussed. It IS so important to have appropriate mental health for those who provide help to others. We need to take care of ourselves so we can care for others, but oh, how many times it is not available.

And, oh, how this speaks to me: "Hope is a surfacing, water-blowing whale"

You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Blessings, and

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

libudsuroy's picture

Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your kind words, Michelle.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Dear Lina,

Once again I am in awe of your persistence, courage, professionalism and writing skill. This particular issue -- that of the Bansil sisters --which I have followed since you first told me of it right after they were taken -- is one that feels closer than others, for the reasons you so eloquently describe above. Whew. I feel as though we know them a bit, and that may be because of your connection to them, and because they are women who set out to be honest and good at the expense of their own safety. . . not unlike you. I pray for their safe return.

As for you, never lose sight of the difference you are making by speaking up at all costs, and by your ongoing 'crusade' to preserve your own, valuable ancestry by writing about indigenous peoples of your native land.

And never forget that by devoting your professional career and your life, really, to the promotion of peace, you are leading by example and showing yourself to be a woman of great integrity, dedication and compassion.

With Love and Respect,

Sarah

libudsuroy's picture

Dear Sarah, Through these

Dear Sarah, Through these past months, you and Leigh Anne have been such a guiding mentor to me. I have learned so much from you. From your humor, positive attitude and sense of hope. I still have much to learn now. And to unlearn. Sometimes, my own curiousness and stubbornness are my own undoing. Sometimes, that is what hostages me, my own flawed thinking about things. I have scant hope that I be given half a chance to make up for what I have done and set things right. But I do not know if I can afford the ransom. Thank you for sharing Wild Geese with us.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Dearest Lina!

Dearest Lina,

You are very much on my mind. You so beautifully express being held hostage by your own psyche -- your own misgivings -- and I understand that and certainly have experienced it, albeit no doubt in a different way.

If you could stand back and see what we see in you; your courage, your grace, persistence and eloquence, your determination to make the world a better place . . . if you can remember and focus on that when things seem to be falling apart, it will help you begin to resurface, to rise up out of the miasma of pain, injustice and unkindness by which you have been surrounded, all too often.

So, Dear Lina, take courage from our respect, admiration and devotion; we at World Pulse, Leigh Anne and me and this sacred community of deeply compassionate women, all of whom are hearing you.

With Ongoing Love and Support,

Sarah

delphine criscenzo's picture

Your reality

Dear Lina,

I am speechless. Your piece was so powerful and well written that I am not sure how to communicate to you what I have learned and how upset I am of the danger you have to face daily to be a journalist in your country.
It is my belief that when women journalists are kidnapped in the Philippines, freedom of speech and freedom of the press everywhere is threatened. Your choice of writing an open letter to Linda is genius, powerful and so revealing of your reality as a women, covering traumatic events and violent events in your country.
I hope Linda and her sister are released soon and I pray that you are safe everyday.
Thank you for this amazing piece.
Much love,

Delphine Criscenzo

libudsuroy's picture

Dear Delphine, Thank you for

Dear Delphine,
Thank you for kind words.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

I am a fan of your writing and stories and I must tell you that as usual, your piece is well written, impressive and touching. You have your way with words and you brought a sad situation to light in a manner that leaves one wanting to know more.

Thank you for shedding great light on the issue of stress and trauma which I am sure that women journalists, in general, are exposed/susceptible to in their quest to cover news.

I stand in prayer and hope with you that Linda and her sister will regain their freedom and I can already imagine the joy they will feel after reading your Letter. I would also like you to know that I always draw inspiration from all that you share about nature. You are a gifted writer who is changing the world with every word you share.

Best wishes and much love,
Greengirl

libudsuroy's picture

Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your kind words, Greengirl.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Leigh Cuen's picture

heartfelt

Thank you for this heartfelt article!

Leigh Cuen, @La__Cuen
Like Leigh on Facebook

Dear Lina, thank you for our poignant article. I especially like your personal touch and writing directly to Linda. A moving testament to your own dangers as well as appreciation for the plight of Linda, her sister and other hostages, as well as a clever and powerful way to share the message.

I especially liked this passage:

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’’.

Thank you for your creative and compassionate efforts to "get the word out and stir others to support equal rights for ALL of us.

Warm regards,
Virginia

Virginia Williams, MBA, PCC | Executive Coach and Learning Facilitator

libudsuroy's picture

Thank you for your words of

Thank you for your words of praise.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

JaniceW's picture

Beautifully written

I loved that this was written as a letter to Linda. Your respect and empathy for her is clear.

Your writing is so powerful and a moving testament to the dangers you and others face in exposing the truth. Thank you for reminding us that freedom of speech is a luxury and privilege not everyone enjoys.

libudsuroy's picture

Dear Janice, Thanks for your

Dear Janice, Thanks for your kind words.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

The World That Swallows Us

Dearest Lina,

And now I've just read your final draft of Module 3, and am more moved by it than I can express. I am determined to read and view each book and film to which you refer, particularly the Weingarten. Her quote, "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," is profoundly helpful and certain applicable to a wide variety of painful situations.

How unfortunate that Susan Sontag grouped all the media together in her criticism about lack of empathy -- surely she was referring to the sort of "paparazzi" who seek sensationalism, rather than to exquisitely empathetic journalists like you who so acutely share the pain of others.

At any rate, your approach here, writing Linda a letter, is so touching and personal, so accessible and deeply meaningful, this piece of work is surely ground-breaking.

Your closing, in which you express concerns for whether Linda is warm enough or sufficiently nourished, makes me weep, and I join hands with you in sending out those loving, maternal, primal concerns.

I continue to pray for the release of the Bansil sisters.

With Love and Sorrow,

Sarah

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