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Army holds journalists at Mindanao checkpoint

(CMFR/IFEX) - Members of the Philippine Army stationed at Bagan village in Guindolongan town, Maguindanao province, Mindanao, held 52 journalists at a checkpoint for over an hour on 30 June 2009 to allegedly "guarantee their safety". Maguindanao is approximately 930km from Manila.

The journalists from Manila and nearby Mindanao provinces were on their way to visit evacuation centers in Datu Piang, Maguindanao as part of a three-day joint media coverage of the state of "bakwits" or evacuees in Mindanao when the soldiers manning the checkpoint at Bagan village refused to let them pass. The journalists, who were in a convoy of eleven cars, were held from 8 to 9 a.m. (local time).

The number of evacuees or internally displaced persons in Mindanao, estimated at around 700,000 by the government's National Disaster Coordinating Council, surged as a result of the intensified conflict between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Fighting between the government and MILF intensified after a memorandum of agreement over ancestral domain between the Arroyo administration and the MILF leadership - which has blocked the formulation of a final peace agreement - was revoked in August 2008.

Nonoy Espina, vice-chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and one of the journalists held, told the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), by phone, that the soldiers at the checkpoint said they had been ordered by Col. Medardo Geslani, 601st Infantry Brigade (IB) commander, to "hold" the media. The journalists were not to be "released" without Geslani's clearance, Espina added.

When asked why they were being held, the soldiers could not give any clear answer, said Espina.

The "Philippine Daily Inquirer" reported on 1 July 2009 that the soldiers tried to bring the journalists to the 64th Infantry Battalion headquarters on the orders of Maj. Gen. Alfredo Caytona, commander of the 6th Infantry Division (to which the 601st IB belongs).

In a phone interview with CMFR, Col. Geslani explained the military "had to secure" the area from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and lawless groups before letting the journalists pass. He said they needed an hour, until 9 a.m., to secure the area since detecting IEDs and clearing the area had to be done "meticulously".

"We wanted to guarantee their safety and security. Never mind if we delayed them, at least they were safe. It's my responsibility anyway if something happens to them." Two weeks ago, according to Geslani, the Army recovered around 45 IEDs from the area.

However, Espina said, only members of the media convoy were stopped. "Civilians were still allowed to pass," he said in Filipino. Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were also allowed to pass the checkpoint, reports said.

Asked why civilians were allowed passage, Geslani said the civilians were mostly residents of the village known to the "bakwits", while the journalists and members of civil society organizations were new faces and could be targeted. The ICRC members, the "Inquirer" reported, were allowed passage on the evening of 29 June. "We were simply ensuring their safety. There's nothing more to it," Geslani said in Filipino.

Journalists' groups, however, said they believe that the army was delaying media coverage as civil society groups had reported that the military had been involved in food blockades and harassment of civilians.

The incident was reminiscent of the arrest and detention of some three dozen journalists and media technicians at the Peninsula Hotel in Manila in November 2007, when they were covering a press conference by military officers who had gone to the hotel from a court hearing on charges of plotting a coup d'etat.

The Mindanao ComStrat and Policy Alternatives in cooperation with the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, MindaNews, the NUJP, and the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network organized the three-day joint coverage, MindaNews reported.

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