Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Journalists visiting refugee shelters held by military in Mindanao

COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / June 30, 2009) – Government troops briefly held Tuesday dozens of Filipino journalists who were on fact-finding mission in the strife-torn province of Maguindanao.

About 60 journalists from different outfits in Manila and Mindanao were stopped by army soldiers on a highway in Guindulungan town, scene of fierce fighting between military forces and Moro rebels. The area is also where soldiers allegedly burned houses owned by Muslim villagers.

“I don’t know why they are preventing us from inspecting villages affected by the fighting. This is a violation of the freedom of the press,” said Romy Elusfa, a freelance journalist.

He said soldiers stopped the journalists, but allowed other civilians to pass the village. GMA Television also reported that soldiers were insisting journalists get a clearance from the Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade headed by Colonel Medardo Geslani.

The journalists, who were on a convoy of eleven vehicles, were held for about an hour and eventually allowed them to go after news of the incident broke out and reached top military leaders in Manila.

Elusfa’s group is also schedule to inspect refugee shelters in Maguindanao to see the plight of those who fled their homes because of the strife.

Colonel Jonathan Ponce, a spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division in Maguindanao province, said the journalists were stopped because soldiers were clearing a road planted with improvised explosives on the village of Datu Piang near Guindulungan.

“It is for the safety of the journalist, soldiers have discovered explosives planted by rebels in Datu Piang and journalists can proceed after the area has been cleared,” Ponce said.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front last week said an army shelling hit a house and killed a woman and injured another in Guindulungan, an accusation strongly denied by the military.

Ponce insisted the attack was launched by rebels to discredit the military ahead of the three-day fact-finding mission by journalists from June 29 to July 2. The mission was organized by various nongovernmental and media organizations for journalists to see the situation and plight of war refugees in Mindanao.

Ponce also linked the organizer of the media fact-finding mission to the MILF.

“An NGO identified with the MILF invited media from Manila paying all expenses and pocket money,” Ponce said.

Ponce did not identify the NGO, but the mission was organized and supported by independent and credible groups - the Mindanao ComStrat and Policy Alternatives, MindaNews, Center for Community Journalism and Development, National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, Peace and Conflict Journalism Network, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the Oblate Media’s I –Watch and the Asia Foundation.

The MILF has previously accused the military of shelling civilian targets on suspicion rebels were hiding in the area. It also charged army of widespread human rights violations in the Muslim autonomous region where soldiers looted and torched civilian houses.

Some 31,000 people are in different refugee shelters in Maguindanao’s Datu Piang town alone and that at least 95 civilians, many of them children, had been killed since fighting between military and rebel forces began last year.

“The world's largest new displacement last year happened when 600,000 people fled fighting between the Army and rebel groups in the southern region of Maguindanao,” reported the Oslo-based Norwegian Refugee Council.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines also reported that representatives of nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations were being prohibited by the military from going to evacuation centers in the guise of protecting humanitarian workers from being caught in the crossfire.

Ponce denied all the accusations against the army and branded them as propaganda. (Mindanao Examiner)

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