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Rules in armed conflict

Bencyrus Ellorin .

IN a dialogue recently called by the 4th Infantry Division of the Armed Forces, an officer made a categorical and sweeping statement that propaganda is a lie.

The statement, I understand, is to emphasize a point about news organizations to filter out leftist propaganda, hence lies.

I understand the point of that officer which may give away their penchant to dichotomize conflicts into two warring parties.

Such dichotomy is wrong. In armed conflict, not all are open targets of violence. Exempted are civilians, journalists, even military workers like medics and those disqualified from combat like the wounded and prisoners. The Protocol 1 of Geneva Convention is clear on that.

Going back to reporting the truth, the best method of reaching it or even near the truth is disclosure of all available facts and information. The news media is not a preacher of truth or dogmas but witnesses of events. Journalists are said to have the front seat as history unfolds. Their pieces are quick snapshots of history.

Let journalists do their work. Whichever side they are when guns are firing doesn’t make them combatants. They remain protected as non-combatants in any armed conflict. How can the likes of news desk-bound Cong Coralles, an editor of a daily community newspaper be a combatant?

Red tagging is dangerous as it creates an impression that certain journalists have shed their status as non-combatants and thus open prey. Wrong, as long as anyone is not holding a gun, ready to fire at state forces, no one can be considered a rebel. Having leftist thoughts is not a crime. Last I heard, the anti-subversion law remains repealed.

In any armed conflict, there is the battle of minds and actual violence. PH military strategists are aware of this. I have reviewed early works of military engagement in the war to win hearts and minds, and the doctrine espoused by the likes of Col. Alex Congmon — one of those who articulated the concept of civil military operations in post-Martial Law AFP. It looked sound. In fact, as a regular staff service of military commands, the CMO has gained a lot of ground for government forces. In fact, papers on CMO have made reference to earlier nationalist struggles like the nationalist propaganda movement of Marcelo del Pilar, Graciano Lopez-Jaena and Dr. Jose Rizal.

In the propaganda war, government has vast resources. It has strategic communicators in their ranks. A number of journalists, including red tagged Froilan Gallardo, have been embedded with government troops several times.

If ever that statement of an Army officer about reporting the truth has redeeming value, it is the challenge for journalists to be balanced and objective in reporting. No problem with that.

But huwag na idiin, do not push it further. In an environment of fear as a result of red tagging, any statement from state forces about how journalists ought to do their jobs can be considered a threat of subsequent punishment.

The constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and of the press disallows two things: censorship and threat of subsequent punishment.

Lastly, armed conflicts, ironically, have peace and order as driving themes. History is replete with examples where conflict is better resolved in the negotiating table not escalation of violence.

Thus, I propose we go back to the peace theme in resolving issues like red tagging. Red tagging journalists would hardly result in tactical military advantage. Let the journalists do their work unfettered, the people informed better and the objective of peace better served.

(The author is a former journalist. He is an environment and peace advocate. He had worked as a peace communication worker in Myanmar as a fellow of the Fredskorpset Norway.)

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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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