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#FiringSquadforCeliaVeloso: New low for PH journalism

I almost do not want to type the words #FiringSquadforCeliaVeloso. It brings for me an avalanche of shame and anger—shame for my countrymen, who have seemingly lost all sense of decency, and anger at, well, almost everything that brought Mary Jane Veloso to the brink of death and moved sympathizers around the world to act […]

komentaryoI almost do not want to type the words #FiringSquadforCeliaVeloso. It brings for me an avalanche of shame and anger—shame for my countrymen, who have seemingly lost all sense of decency, and anger at, well, almost everything that brought Mary Jane Veloso to the brink of death and moved sympathizers around the world to act up until the last-minute reprieve, early morning of April 29.

Three days after, Philippine Daily Inquirer comes out with a report that “the tide has shifted”–from overwhelming support for Mary Jane and her family, to that of disdain and outright violent calls for their execution. All  simply because the Velosos dared to criticize President Aquino—a right of every citizen, more so of those who have been highly aggrieved.

It is “public opinion” that is difficult to swallow: #BitayinNaYan sounds something like only a soulless person would say, and I refuse to believe that that many Filipinos have traded their souls for access to the internet and the opportunity to trend on Twitter. So I took a peek at the timelines of some of these “netizens” to try to get to know how these people think, as their apparent barbarism confused me.

The first “netizen” that PDI quoted was a certain Stewart Sotto, who supposedly used the hashtags #ItuloyAngBitay and #IsamaSiNanay.  This is the whole of his Facebook post:

"Stewart Sotto"

So he’s an obvious anti-communist—that was conveniently omitted in the Inquirer report. I then took to Twitter to randomly search for netizens advocating #FiringSquadforCeliaVeloso and stumbled upon @JMiguelO, who has for his profile a photo of a guy’s naked chest and no further information. With a total of 10.7K tweets, he sure does have a lot of time on his hands, spewing vitriol like this:


Interestingly, he also often takes to attacking what the media calls “militant groups,” with no other basis than the anti-communist line.


Also using the hashtag #ItuloyAngBitay is @lehmargaretjoy1. She created her account on April 16, and of the 31 tweets that she has sent, almost half bashes the Veloso family. Her cover photo is that of a Japanese cartoon, and no other information is available.

Dream Pearl

Aside from anti-communist posts, another thing these “netizens” have in common–if you scroll down their timelines far enough–is an enormous amount of anti-Binay posts. Most likely, these are the same “yellow trolls” most active in vilifying the vice-president online (thus making sure he poses no threat, politically, to the president).

This is not to say that everyone who bashed Celia Veloso was a troll—I did see real persons posting, expressing close to the same sentiment, using the hashtag #Ingrata. But it does seem highly plausible that the most vicious attacks on the Veloso family was a move instigated by trolls, also known as “government shills” in social media.

According to a research paper entitled Practical Steps for Dealing with Government Shills in Social Media by Hadrian Mâr Élijah Bar Israël of the Libertarian Center for Peace and Justice, “The United States and other governments are now using advanced propaganda campaigns, aided by years of psychological studies to train shills to troll the Internet and actively change our national (and international) narrative….these are ‘seemingly random antagonizers who always end up diverting the conversation in an online chat room or article comment section away from the issue at hand, and towards a much different agenda.’”

Israël lists several ways to identify government shills. First, “Their profiles rarely have photos of themselves on their profiles or much personal information.” Second, “They use foul, offensive and often racist language without needing to. In part to overcompensate for their lack of knowledge or interest in the specific subject, and in part to stigmatise those weaker persons who are scared to be called names online.” (In the case of Celia Veloso, the victim is so marginalized she doesn’t even have her own social media account to defend herself.)

That the online demonization of Celia Veloso is a desperate and calculated move by government shills mobilized by the Aquino government’s communications team (the former head of which you have suddenly appearing out of the blue and being quoted by PDI), seems to me the only logical explanation to the seemingly abrupt shift in public sentiment–unless we are ready to accept that we are, indeed, a nation of heartless schizophrenics.

But the question begs to be asked–will such an online smear campaign succeed without the participation of big media outfits? I think not. Fact is, things that go “viral” on social media are only legitimized once picked up by the “reputable” mainstream media.

And this is where Philippine journalism–at least the one that splashed the hashtag #FiringSquadForCeliaVeloso all over its front page–utterly failed us. If there is one thing taught in journalism school that I agree with wholeheartedly, it is that the media has an obligation to lead and responsibly shape public opinion. Instead, for breakfast, it made us digest as legitimate news and views the kind of irresponsible and insensitive trash talk usually only found in troll havens, or the comments section of online news articles.

One could have chalked it up to a merely sensationalist bent– after all, this is the same newspaper that “killed” Mary Jane in their April 29 headline, a major blunder that will go down infamously in journalism history. But then came another headline, Militants use Velosos in labor protest rallies. The story itself is faultless, a fair account of the Labor Day protests and the Veloso family’s participation. The story itself served to amplify the lack of basis and maliciousness of how the headline was written. This is, I think, a new low for the newspaper, the obvious making not so much of its reporters, but those in its highest echelons.

With disregard for the most obvious facts of the Veloso case (a conviction based on government neglect), and in violation of even the most formalist standards of journalism (which says you do not put in the headline what is not in your story), the Philippine Daily Inquirer allowed itself to drown in the very muck of “public opinion.” At worst, it allowed itself to be “used” (employing their own term) by government spinners. At best, it was remiss in its basic duty to enlighten the public, instead pandering to the vulgar and the uninformed.

The thing that saddens me most about what has transpired online since I first joyfully typed the hashtag #MaryJaneLives, is the disunity that it has sown among the same people who just a few days ago exhibited an inspiring show of unity. For a few, brief elatory moments, we Filipinos were on top of the world. We saved from imminent death our kababayan Mary Jane, who symbolizes the deepest exploitation of our most commonly-held dreams. We made 200,000 individuals from more than a hundred countries rally to our cause. We caught the attention of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Axl Rose. Indonesians interceded and cried in front of their own president, for us. Through everyone’s effort—yes, including President Aquino’s, when it was obvious that he needed to step it up—we made a foreign government listen and act.

What was the first thing Aquino did the next day? Instead of taking the chance to unite the nation over a rare collective victory, instead of thanking everyone around the world who helped save Mary Jane (and his sagging popularity, following the Mamasapano tragedy), he was ungrateful. Instead of begging the Veloso family for forgiveness over their years of neglect that led to such a close call, the government unleashed an army of trolls, and otherwise did everything in its power to make it seem that the people were willing to shoot in the head victims who have just been through the wringer, in defense of a president who acted only at the very last minute. Imagine that.

To be fair, not all media outfits played Aquino’s blatantly cruel game. In fact, I think only PDI did, for reasons I will not pretend to know. It gives me a sense of relief that other big media outfits seem to be pressing on with reports on the developments of the case. Lest anyone forget, Mary Jane is still on death row—so are 87 other Overseas Filipino Workers. The duty of every journalist is to uncover and report all facts truthfully, to dispel the lack of information that allowed an innocent woman to languish in jail for five years, as well as the disinformation that has further brought her family unnecessary pain, and which may yet lead Mary Jane to the firing squad.

The real people who have called Celia Veloso “ingrate” say that they are apparently miffed and baffled over her statement that Aquino owes their family (“maniningil kami”). To journalists, this makes some sense. Even the most cursory study of Mary Jane’s case–the details of which were brought to light only by their “handlers,” Migrante and National Union of People’s Lawyers, mind you–reveals the extent of neglect that the Veloso family has suffered. And yet this information seemingly has not reached the larger public that the mainstream media is supposed to serve.

Is that the fault of migrant groups, the lawyers, or the Veloso family? Or is that the fault of the government–which covered up for its own negligence, which ordered the Velosos not to speak about the case, and which even maligned the family and Mary Jane herself? And what of the media–how has it treated the information it has received from both sides? Did it verify? Did it discredit the information it certainly knew not to be true? Did it surface the most relevant facts? Did it help enlighten, or did it contribute to the obfuscation of the truth, the sensationalism of lies, leading to where we are now?

The only good news is there is no new low after #FiringSquadForCeliaVeloso. There couldn’t and shouldn’t be. All those who claim to be sincere in helping Mary Jane must now work to bring her back home. For the media, this means at least bringing decency back to the headlines.