Opinion & Analysis

Incredible opportunity to cover stories of huge significance

The Philippines is a fascinating yet frustrating place to be a journalist, writes Auckland freelance journalist Janie Cameron, who spent five weeks at The Philippine Star in Manila.

OPINION: I arrived in the Philippines almost a year into President Rodrigo Duterte’s infamous “war on drugs”, and shortly after martial law was declared in the region of Mindanao due to the ongoing siege against the Maute terrorist group. This made for an interesting and often harrowing reporting experience, but was also an incredible opportunity to cover stories of huge significance and immerse myself in a diverse and vibrant culture.

I spent my first week in the newsroom, editing copy and getting a feel for the reporting style of the newspaper, which I found surprisingly more relaxed than the newsrooms I have worked in elsewhere. I was then rotated through four main beats: Police, Malacañang (Palace), Senate, and the Armed Forces. I spent a week on each beat with a senior journalist, writing daily news stories for both print and online publication. I also took a few days out to do some of my own reporting on issues of personal interest.

Filipino kids

Having spent a bit of time living in Asia, I was prepared to face some language barriers. Although English is widely spoken throughout the Philippines, many press conferences are held in the local dialect, Tagalog, or a mixture of Tagalog and English. This often made it tricky to follow what was going on, which was at times frustrating, but luckily my colleagues were more than happy to fill in the gaps. I also managed to pick up a bit of taxi-level Tagalog while I was there.

Another challenge was navigating the heightened security throughout the city, implemented due to the threat of terrorism moving north from Mindanao. This was exacerbated by a suspected terrorist attack in a nearby hotel during my first week, which later turned out to be a botched robbery – but made it even more difficult to gain access to certain places as a foreign journalist. Despite being told that Manila’s streets had become much safer since the drug war began, my colleagues were hesitant to let me go anywhere on foot. As someone who is used to walking everywhere, having to obediently wait for a press van or Uber to take me to or from work was often frustrating.

“Although English is widely spoken throughout the Philippines, many press conferences are held in the local dialect, Tagalog, or a mixture of Tagalog and English.”

It’s hard to choose a single highlight, as I squeezed so much into such a short space of time, but there are definitely a few that spring to mind. I spent a day in a slum with a group of local artists and political activists who dedicate their free time to putting on workshops and free events for children in the poorest areas of the city.

I also had the opportunity to interview a captured Korean fugitive on local television, attend the official Philippines Independence Day ceremony, and get an insider’s look into Manila’s underground punk music scene.

Political activists entertain kids at a slum in Santolan

But ultimately, it was the people who really made my experience. Filipinos are incredibly generous and warm. Whether a fellow journalist or a shop assistant, everyone I met went out of their way to make me feel welcome.

The Philippines is a beautiful country, but it is tainted with corruption from the ground up.

I’ve previously spent time travelling around the Philippines, but things have certainly changed in the wake of Duterte’s administration taking office. Despite the president’s widespread popularity and support, there’s an undeniable anxiety among the people, and for those who have lost family members, a sense of unwarranted loss.

It’s a fascinating yet frustrating place to be a journalist.

Janie Cameron's stay at the The Philippine Star was made possible by an Asia New Zealand Foundation internship.

– Asia Media Centre

Read some of Janie Cameron’s work from Manila: