UNESCO Trains Filipino Women Journalists ahead of Elections

On 28-29 April 2022, UNESCO conducted an in-person training of journalists from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), in collaboration with the Mindanao Journalism Institute (MIJ), on “guaranteeing free, plural and fair elections in times of disinformation”.

19 women journalists benefited from this training ahead of the national and local elections in May 2022. The participants came from various areas, with historically high sources of conflict: Cotabato, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. Amalia Bandiola, MIJ training director, said it was the first time that a training focused on women journalists covering BARMM was conducted. The training aimed at strengthening the capacities of women journalists covering the area, identifying their needs in covering the elections under a pandemic and raising awareness of media’s role in promoting women, peace and security.

The training  focused on today’s burning issues for women journalists: Mindanao and the 2022 elections,  disinformation, women and peace building, covering the pandemic, and digital security.

Rowena Paraan, the Communication and Information Consultant at UNESCO, introduced the UNESCO handbook “Journalism, Fake News and Disinformation,” which highlights the importance of quality and verified information in a democratic society. She further discussed how disinformation has caused decrease of public trust in journalism, difficulty in discerning truth from lies, and threats to critics and journalists. She also introduced the different fact-checking tools that journalists can use to verify information, including photos and video.

Starting from the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security which acknowledged the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls, Professor Rufa Cagoco-Guiam, director at the  Institute of Peace and Development at Mindanao State University and  former journalist, discussed the topic “Women, Peace and Security and the Role of Journalists.” She noted how only two offices in BARMM have followed the mandated 5% allocation to Gender and Development programs. She criticized the thinking that inclusion of women in the peace process is a Western-driven concept and culturally inappropriate in the Philippines. Professor Cagoco-Guiam stressed the need for a gendered lens in peace and war reporting.

The word “election” in reference to the Moro region usually invokes images of gunfire, bombing, vote buying, cheating, and command votes, among others. This was noted by the participants during the discussion on the 2022 elections led by Mindanews editor in chief Carolyn Arguillas. The veteran journalist cited election issues in the Bangsamoro, such as instances of statistical improbabilities (more votes than voting population), the Bangsamoro region serving as “vote bank” for national candidates due to command votes, and, in the 2022 elections, the high number of areas with unopposed candidates due to negotiations between candidates.

Julie Alipala, a trainer on digital security for journalists and Zamboanga-based reporter for national broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer, shared digital hygiene musts for journalists. Foremost of these are basic security measures, such as the use of updated anti-virus program, strong firewall software, strong passwords, two-factor authentication, and end-to-end transcription. She also gave tips on how to deal with phishing.

Another lively discussion was the session titled “Lessons from the pandemic: Women covering COVID-19” during which Myrna Jo Henry, executive assistant for operations of BARMM’s Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence, talked about the challenges faced by both journalists and government in responding to the pandemic.

One of the most successful parts of the training was when participants shared their experiences of covering BARMM. Among the issues raised were: discrimination against women reporters, lack of resources for coverage, safety problems, unwillingness of sources to talk, poor ICT infrastructure and widespread disinformation on social media.

“It was the first time women journalists covering BARMM got together and shared concerns that would have otherwise not surfaced, such as their vulnerability in the field,” said Ms Bandiola.

The training participants were a mix of veteran and new journalists. For the veterans like Maria Vema Caticales of the Tawi-Tawi Communications Network, the training was a reaffirmation of the “conviction that media practitioners should always be on neutral ground engaging on fact-based reporting and giving readers and listeners the chance to critically think for themselves.”

For journalism newbie Crizbelle May Lorenzo from Kutangbato News in Cotabato City, the training was an important reminder to carefully fact-check and ensure story balance. She said that she also appreciated the discussion on the role of women journalists in highlighting women’s contributions to promoting peace.

“We’re looking forward to another training. Para mahasa pa po kami (So we can further hone our skills),” she said, thanking MIJ and UNESCO.

As part of the UNESCO project, the training participants will be provided with grants to work on stories about BARMM. They will receive mentoring from veteran journalists under MIJ.

“The training is just the beginning. With the political turn of events, we need to hone their capacity to do better content. The story grants they are working on is a step in that direction,” Ms. Bandiola said. She cited the need for a follow-up activity which MIJ hopes would lead to an organization of women journalists in Mindanao.

The Mindanao training was part of UNESCO’s larger strategy to promote the safety of women journalists and the role of media in safeguarding democracy. The training outcomes will inform UNESCO’s future actions in the region, as it strives to support media development in the Philippines. The training was supported by the UNESCO Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists. Follow-up activities with the MIJ are planned under the UN Joint Program for Human Rights in the Philippines.