“IS it necessary that journalism be a widow-maker?”

We raised that question eight years ago in Sun.Star. By then, journalists killed, on duty, reached 40. Before 30 newsmen were slaughtered in Maguindanao last

November, the body count exceeded 70. No murderers were nailed.

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“It’s one of the world’s worst records,” International Press Institute said then. But worse was to come.

We didn’t come to this mess overnight. Inept law enforcers linked to the underworld and zero convictions spawned a pernicious “culture of impunity” for 132 private armies. President Gloria Macapgal-Arroyo benefited from rule by the Ampatuans.

Nothing prepared us for Maguindanao, we say.

But fragmentary reports on “Chainsaw Murders” seeped out of Maguindanao long before.

Commission on Audit reports documented repeated failure by officials to account for IRA and other funds. A climate of fear blanketed the province.

The Ombudsman turned a blind eye to the clan’s “unexplained wealth."

“Myrna Reblando, Glenna Legarta and Mary Jean Merisco refer to each other as 17, 20 and 19—-numbers assigned by the police to their husbands’ bodies,” Vera Files Mylah Reyes-Roque wrote.

Norma Parcon recalls her husband’s body was recovered by a backhoe. “Nalaglag yung green ID holder nya–-alam ko siya yun (A green ID holder fell—-and I knew it was him).”

The face of Glenna Legarta’s husband bore torture marks. All victims bore multiple gunshot wounds. The day Myrna recovered her husband’s body was their 25th wedding anniversary.

Noemi got a call on her husband’s cell phone: “Patay na, patay na (He’s dead, he’s dead).” To date, she does not know who answered.

Mary Jean Merisco recites the order in which names were read on radio. Her husband was the fifth.

Has the history of Philippine journalism now been split into two new periods? Is “BA” followed by AA? “Before Ampatuan” and “After Ampatuan”?

Until Maguindanao, journalism history was informally sliced into two chunks: “BD” and “AD.”

“BD” was shorthand for “Before Dictatorship.” It’s cut off point was Ferdinand Marcos silencing a free press through Proclamation 1081. “AD” stood for “After Dictatorship.” Corazon Aquino restored liberties in the wake of People Power.

What will the “After Ampatuan” era, or AA, show? That depends on how journalists react to today’s threats.

Community papers and provincial stations are front liners. Can we connect the dots? Can we sift significance from facts better?

Superficiality still hobbles some of us. “It takes less work to mock the pretensions of public officials than to analyze their policies.”

Media must make “values that endure even after the sun goes out” operative in newsrooms. Accuracy to old-fashioned integrity offer the most enduring protection.

Cell phones, Internet and new technology are recasting our newsrooms. But technology is made for man, not vice versa. If we forget that journalism is a service rather than a power, technology can be warped.

“(Technology) diminishes the importance of news, which is the ultimate journalistic standard,” Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez warned. “Never has this profession been more dangerous."

The Ampatuans and their patrons proved that in Maguindanao.

(juanlmercado@gmail.com)