Atop a hill overlooking the grey wasteland wreaked by Taal Volcano, I felt that the depressing lay of human catastrophe all around me may be an omen. It was early January, but there I was, struggling to breath in a foreboding N95 mask and setting up a live disaster coverage with our cameraman so early in the year.
Indeed, it turned out to be a grim curtain raiser for a horrific year of deaths, economic meltdowns and human tragedies across the world. But in the Philippines, 2020 ravaged like a perfect storm.
It was two weeks of intense on-the- ground coverage in Taal, a tiny volcano that suddenly came back to life and turned the surrounding tourism boom towns into a catastrophe zone engulfed in ash. Our days were spent listening to stories of dispossession and despair while our nights were often threateningly shaken by intense aftershocks.
I returned to Manila for a respite but came home to the heart-rending news of Gaby Tabuñar’s death. For those of us who knew Gaby, it was an end of an era.
For decades, Mr. Tabuñar was like a shell that protected us. He co-founded the foreign correspondents club in Manila at the height of martial law in 1974 that would serve as a press freedom shelter for new generations of journalists like me. He led and guided us but did not dictate and stayed away from the spotlight, but he loomed large as an icon all the more. He was a simple man who wanted to do the right thing _ no projections, no garnishes. His death in February was a shattering blow, like a death in the family.
As journalists, we’re constantly on the run, chasing stories of human frailties and triumphs in war and peace all our lives. But by mid-March, all that would be upended by the coronavirus pandemic in an unprecedented global scale. Like the rest of humanity, we were grounded … literally.
Journalists, however, had to return to the field at some point and cover the story of a lifetime. Covering wars and erupting volcanoes, we would realize, wasn’t as complicated as reporting on COVID-19. In a battlefield, the lines of combat are often drawn and the sound of a bullet whizzing by is a red flag. In the pandemic, death can come without a warning with the stealthy virus and its uncharted battleground.
While the pandemic menaced practically all aspects of life, it also imperiled independent journalism at an existential time. With most journalists sidelined in their homes and with reporting severely restricted by lockdowns and the contagion, the public would be deprived of independent sources of information.
The FOCAP Board readily recognized the dilemma and acted rapidly to fill the news vacuum. We shifted online. In the months that followed, FOCAP organized dozens of online news forums, mostly via Zoom, that gathered independent voices and experts. The first forum centered on how a total lockdown in Luzon was threatening civil liberties. Another Zoom session dealt with the mass arrests by police of shanty dwellers who gathered in Quezon City to plead for food but were hauled to jail instead. Independent experts provided clarity and offered insights amid the chaotic government response in the initial months of the crisis.
FOCAP opened its online news forums to the Philippine media and livestreamed them on Facebook for the quarantined public.
The initiative proved crucial because of a major debacle that would hit the industry and shock many: the closure of ABS-CBN by the government. Thousands of ABS- CBN employees, including news staffers, were laid off and millions of Filipinos lost a leading source of news in a massive news blackout at a time when access to timely health information could mean life or death.
FOCAP condemned ABS-CBN’s shutdown.
It would later launch a new platform for independent news with the revival of its website: focap.ph
While we look forward to a new year of renewal and hope, there is no guarantee that 2021 will be less daunting. It’s critical that democratic institutions, including the media, remain steadfast to empower the people at their most vulnerable point.
Despite all the assaults and spins, journalists should continue to demand transparency, accountability and access to accurate information in FOCAP’s ironclad tradition as a beacon of truth. I have never been prouder and comforted to be a part of this pillar for democracy.
It shelters us in the worst of times and provides the ground to fight back harder.
Jamela Alindogan, Al Jazeera Correspondent | FOCAP President