From seeking answers, journalist Jamela Alindogan takes a turn at answering questions
Philippine society from a journalist’s standpoint
“If you want to become a good journalist, study philosophy. Don’t study journalism,” advises Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan. She says philosophy teaches critical thinking and empathy, two vital qualities that journalism requires; in college, she herself took up journalism as a pre-law course, with no intention of becoming a journalist.
From a recent interview with the president and surviving a chest-deep flood during Yolanda to covering a crime scene where “a piece of the victim’s brain was left on my sneaker,” Alindogan has done everyhing imaginable. After a decade of delivering news, the table turns for her as she takes the interviewee’s seat to dissect the landscape of journalism in the Philippines.
How would you describe a typical work day?
I always have two travel bags ready: one for 10 days and one for three days, both equipped for coverage on either a natural disaster or armed conflict. In Manila, I always wake up at 5:30 a.m. I go through the morning news and I just live in my head for a while. I like those mornings. After that, I help
my son prepare for school. For the rest of the day, I can say that, often, I do not own my time. Sometimes, I don’t know if I have to get on a chopper or brave the waters or cover a street rally. Anything can happen in a day.
Journalists are expected to maintain neutrality, but do you think they should take a stand?
Demonizing journalists seems to be the latest trend. Some call us biased; they even coined a new term, ‘presstitutes.’ I believe that all journalists [should be] moralists. Our mandate is to stand for truth and humanity. There has to be objectivity in reporting as a method, but our fidelity is to the truth. Our job is to bear witness, so if we’re in a situation where we see a violation is being committed, our job is to call it for what it is. Staying silent means we are party to those crimes. No situation, though, is black or white; I always say there are so many different shades of gray, and our job is to report on context. [To] always be the voice of the minority. With all the human rights violations around the world, I say there’s never been a better time to be a journalist.
And, there are so many fake news sources on social media now.
There is so much disinformation now, and social media sites are also responsible for that. I believe that there are deliberate, state-funded efforts to discredit journalism, to weaken the Fourth Estate in order [for the heads of state] to pursue their own political agenda. We now live in the post-truth era where debate is now largely framed based on emotions. Truth is not being respected. That is dangerous, and we must all fight against that. When a new hegemon is rising, a war should also rise.
What do you think is happening right now?
What’s happening is the normalization of dictatorship, the normalization of fascism, the normalization of bigotry and sexism. This is not just a job for journalists. This is what civil societies should fight against. History is the best indicator of what could transpire. I may sound like a pessimist, but the future is not looking too rosy.
With all the challenges we’re facing this year, do you still believe in citizen journalism?
To a certain degree, yes. I still believe that they help shape the agenda for a lot of newsrooms because the feedback is instant and direct, but it has also been largely abused. We need to police the information that we have out there: sift through fake information, expose fake stories, and speak strongly against violent rhetoric.
From a vantage point inside the newsroom, how would you describe 2016 so far?
It was a very, very newsworthy year because of the outcome of elections. Thankfully, there were no major natural disasters like the Yolanda typhoon or the earthquake in Bohol, but the war on drugs has clearly dominated our coverage. And rightly so. The year is not over yet. We also have a controversial president who seems to rattle everyone every time he opens his mouth.
You’ve been delivering news for many years. Do you still fear anything?
I have covered so many dangerous assignments that when soldiers see me landing in a town or an island, they ask me ‘Jam, why are you here, is something bad about to happen?’ I have, sadly, become the deliverer of bad news. Like a bad omen, perhaps?
There’s been a long discussion about gender roles. As a woman journalist, what can you say about it?
Cultures evolve differently. Women have different roles in different societies. I have been to far-flung places, embedded with rebels who were surprised to know that I am married and with child. Some of them tell me they have not met anyone like me before. I think it is not that a lot of them look down on women; they just have different expectations. What we have in the Philippines is a machismo society, but this is also a country run by women. I don’t go to work thinking that I’m a woman. I am a humanist and in the field, I don’t expect to be treated differently.
Duterte has been called out for catcalling female journalists. What can you say about that?
You know, his behavior is very typical of a lot of provincial politicians. He does not shock me because I’ve traveled to many places where they actually speak like that. If they insist on it, I call their bluff, or call out their behavior. No one is exempt from this, not even the president.
Are there any books that you would recommend for aspiring journalists?
Elements of Style. That’s number one, that’s a bible. I love magical realism so yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love the classics: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and George Orwell’s 1984. I also read a lot about war. Chris Hedges is my favorite. He’s rough. He’s been a war correspondent for the longest time, and he wrote a book called War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It’s a journalist’s perception of war. Bao Ninh’s Sorrows of War is also another favorite— achingly beautiful.
“What we have in the Philippines is usually machismo society, but this is also a country run by women. I don’t go to work thinking that I’m a woman. I am a humanist first. In the field, I don’t expect to be treated differently.”