Saturday, June 28, 2008

To an unknown god

THIS is an interesting tale for these confusing times.

Standing northwest of the Acropolis in Greece is a stone hill where believers and unbelievers, if we heed the stories, meet and sometimes end up not parting ways.

The ancient Romans named this hill the “Areopagus” because this was the “pagos,” or hill, where Areios was tried and then acquitted by the gods for murdering Poseidon’s son.

Areios came from Ares, where so many murderers hid to escape retribution, a temple was erected to appease the Erinyes, also known as the Furies.

With heads seething with serpents and eyes, dripping blood, the Furies embodied the vengeance of the dead. The terrible trio—Alecto (“unceasing”), Megaera ("grudging") and Tisiphone ("avenging murder")—sprang from the blood dripping from Ouranos, castrated by his son, the Titan Cronos. Some Romans even believed the Furies came from a darker source, Nyx (“Night”), and were not limited to three but were beyond reckoning.

For bringing murderers and other lawbreakers to justice, the Areopagus became a city-state known for investigating the corrupt. When Paul and the apostles entered it in 63 A.D., they found Stoics, Epicureans and other philosophers who lived for nothing but to listen to and discuss the latest ideas.

Unlike other places where the apostles were nearly stoned for worshipping their God, the Areopagus accommodated all ideas, all creeds.

“As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship,” Paul wrote in Acts 17:23, recounting his speech to learned Athenians gathered in the Areopagus to hear the apostles expound on this latest of ideas, “I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”

What was unknown to the ancient Athenians has become a familiar figure to anyone following the aftermath of the sinking of the mv Princess of the Stars.

Though unnamed, this seems to be the same god invoked by Coast Guard officials and Sulpicio Lines executives and owners to explain why the ship was allowed to leave Manila, only to capsize when it ran into the full force of typhoon Frank, leaving most of its nearly 800 passengers and crew dead, unrecovered or missing.

The cited reason: miscommunication about the government policy barring sea travel during a storm.

This same, unknown god hovers over the frequent appeals of the ship owners for understanding, patience and order from several parties. First, from frantic families and friends made to wait or scramble on their own for information about their loved ones days after the sinking.

Reason: information must be verified before the ship executives or owners can act, an irony lost on a company that seems to have neither an organized system nor a sense of moral culpability even after causing four other major sea tragedies within a 21-year practice, including the sinking of the mv Doña Paz, considered the “world’s worst peacetime shipping tragedy,” with its 4,341 dead.

This same god, Reason, forces local governments to split their limited resources to help traumatized ship survivors and searching families, along with other typhoon victims. To prevent health risks, the government has to bury bodies in temporary graves and suspend the recovery operations after the mv Princess of the Stars was found to carry a toxic cargo.

Reason: no information has been volunteered by Sulpicio executives or owners if it will pick up the tab of local governments in “cleaning up” after the sea tragedy or if there are other cargoes endangering the search and retrieval team, nearby coastal communities, or the marine ecosystem.

In the presence of this god—pat and empty Reason—one is tempted to imitate the pagans and summon the Furies to teach every Sulpicio executive or heir a lesson in karma.

Or one can listen to Paul.

Addressing the Areopagus, historic center of reason and human justice, the apostle said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious… Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.

“He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31) 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 29, 2008 issue

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rape by publicity

THERE is none like the fear of rape to terrorize women.

A few days before the release of abducted journalist Ces Drilon and co-workers, I was having merienda with my mother and grandmother. My grandmother is nearing 90; my mother, approaching 69; and I will soon be 43.

But this discrepancy in age did not affect what was on our minds that afternoon: the fear that Ces, the only woman in the group, would be raped by her abductors.

While beheading or certain death was feared for the cameramen and guide, rape was viewed as the “worst fate” for Ces. My mother added that no one is spared anymore, neither infants nor grandmothers, from being a victim. My grandmother mused about pregnancies resulting from rapes. Can any psychological treatment erase these scars?

Given the deep, unreachable roots this act of violence sinks into the lives of victims, will there be an end to its use as a weapon to not just scar women for life but also strike a mortal blow against a race, an unborn generation, even abstractions like dignity and honor?

In its campaign to stop violence against women, the Amnesty International (AI) has tried to raise global awareness of rape as the most commonly resorted to form of sexual violence during armed conflict.

Women are treated as objects, part of the war spoils going to the victors. Due to their positions in the family and clan as daughters, wives and sisters, women are reduced as symbols for oppressors to humiliate and obliterate because, according to the dictates of machismo, polluting their honor is worse than spitting on their menfolks’ manhood.

Reduced as symbolic tokens, flesh-and-blood women bear the lifelong brunt of these “insults.” The AI reports that in conservative societies, rape victims are rejected and even murdered by spouses and partners who blame them for not choosing death over “dishonor.”

Yet, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, rape is defined as a situation that deprives the victim of not just her right to give consent to sex but also forces her to provide sex to escape harm or secure necessities.

According to the AI, the Rome Statute declares the rapes perpetuated by combatants as “war crimes.” When rape is systematically carried out against a segment of a population, rape becomes a “crime against humanity.”

Yet, despite reports of Filipino domestics raped and brutalized, or raped and killed, by overseas employers, no Filipino official has yet spoken out against this crime against humanity. Is it because the noun “humanity” does not explicitly refer to us women?

International law declares as “torture” all acts of sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, abduction and sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, forced maternity and sexual mutilation. AI documents that rape camps in war zones are not just brothels for soldiers but a systematic campaign for racial cleansing or mass terror.

In the coverage of the news team’s release, no report I’ve read or viewed answers categorically if Ces was raped during her abduction. Rape or no rape, the silence is chilling.

The silence of victims, according to the AI, is a major reason why sexual crimes in war remain unpunished. Even women raped in front of their husbands or clans have been unable to talk about their ordeal.

In this Age of Information, technology deepens the damage left by sexual criminals: a victim can be as effectively brutalized by the perception of rape as by its actual commission. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 22, 2008 issue

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Slipped desks

ON THE first day of school, I got reminded of an invaluable lesson.

I was leaving the university newsroom when I lost my feet and landed on the corridor. But after I gave the shiny floor the brunt of my accusing glare, I remembered that I already noticed the first-day sheen of the hallway when I arrived. I resolved to walk carefully then but forgot to in my distraction to get some references.

Bum smarting, I consoled myself: some of the most invaluable lessons take place outside the classroom.

The recent kidnapping of the ABS-CBN news team and their guide, which has sent shock waves in the nation and abroad, is particularly worrying in one aspect. What is its impact on the perceptions and attitudes of the present generation of Mass Communication students towards a career in news?

Dubious at best describes the pull of newsrooms’ attraction for college graduates. In the 80s and 90s, the glamour of television and advertising, and later of corporate communication and event organizing, diverted many from a life of pounding the typewriter or, much later, encoding stories for newspapers.

The lopsided competition for young blood has been recently reduced into an oxymoron with the entry of call centers’ pay and perks. Yet, it is not journalism’s undeniable lifetime of penury that makes many students turn cool about chasing the news.

A journalist’s life is risky and not worth it. That is the gist of the views of Mass Communication students of three colleges offering journalism. They either finished their newsroom internship or dabbled as news freelancers or full-time journalists at one time in their careers after graduation, according to undergraduate theses and tracer studies conducted by Mass Communication students and faculty of the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College.

Out of about 60 Mass Com sophomores and juniors met last week, less than 10 saw a life of newsprint in their future. Lack of confidence in writing, facility with English, or meeting deadlines were reasons some cited to explain their ambivalence about news gathering and writing.

But in a seatwork to select and analyze samples of news stories and interpretive articles, several students tellingly picked out banner stories and commentaries about the ABS-CBN kidnapping and the libel conviction of The Daily Tribune publisher Ninez Cacho-Olivares.

After a Makati Trial Court found Olivares guilty of libel for a 2003 article she wrote about a law firm’s alleged influence over the Philippine judiciary, administration officials pointed out the need for media to examine its sense of responsibility. If I were a neophyte about to learn how to write the news within four months, the hand gripping my pen would be understandably clammy: what separates news professionalism from the “pernicious practices” the government is accusing Olivares et. al.? When can one get away with using “he said, she said,” and when is this kind of sourcing malicious and libelous?

On the ABS-CBN abduction, any first-time news gatherer can break out in a sweat over the “ifs and hows”: was the military right when their officials decried the news team for failing to coordinate with them to pursue a scoop? Was it cutthroat competition or personal lapse of judgment that led to the ABS-CBN team taking up the invitation to an interview with an Abu Sayyaf source, the same offer that other journalists declined, citing suspicions that security arrangements seemed to be amiss?

Teaching taught me to heed students as well as updated references, industry trends and career vogues. To steer them past writing news for academic credit into contributing to public discourse, I must focus on more than the basics of crafting a lead.

More than a slippery hallway after all awaits those who leave the classroom. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 15, 2008 issue


FEATHER-LIGHT, a touch should be the least intrusive and the most inoffensive of gestures.

Yet in the recent case involving a Mandaue City instructor accused of harassing his students, the authorities may consider that, aside from cleaning classrooms and dusting books, back-to-school preparations for teachers and students should also include a refresher course on naming.

Unlike the seemingly innocuous “touch,” the French “touché” makes a point that all teachers would do well not to ignore.

In Oscar C. Pineda’s report in the June 7, 2008 issue of Sun.Star Cebu, two Mandaue City College (MCC) students filed a case of harassment against their instructor.

In their joint affidavit, the students cited six incidents when the teacher allegedly touched the breasts, embraced and kissed them, and made sexual insinuations against their will.

The teacher has denied these accusations. According to the Sun.Star report, he has presented notes written by students, clearing him of wrongdoing.

One note pointed out that “the issue is all about wrong interpretation of closeness.”

It is odd and disquieting to hear this old excuse is still part of public discourse, given that sexual harassment is more prominent than it used to be.

In the university setting particularly, there are widely circulated guidelines regulating the faculty’s one-on-one consultation with students. For instance, the policy of leaving doors open is supposed to protect both the teacher and the student from the possibility of actual and trumped-up charges of harassment.

Inappropriate conduct includes jokes, remarks or gestures that are offensive to a party. There are grounds for filing a complaint of inappropriate behavior after the accused repeats a behavior or remark after he or she has been explicitly told to stop as he or she is causing distress.

According to The Cavalier Daily, the defense of “innocent flirting” is a bit of grey area sometimes cited as a defense.

But sexual harassment guidelines explicitly state that when there is an imbalance of power, all relationships beyond the professional should be avoided. Even a consensual relationship entered by a teacher and a student is risky because, according to statistics, many harassment cases are filed after a romantic relationship grows sour between a student and a teacher.

A teacher is vulnerable to accusations that he or she has taken advantage of his or her ascendancy to either academically reward or punish a student for personal favors or slights.

So the prudent advice is for teachers to take extra precautions to avoid, at the very least, of being misinterpreted. “Avoid any apparent or actual contact,” advises

Adds William Shakespeare, “Their touch affrights me as a serpent's sting."

Touché, teachers.

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 8, 2008 issue