Smashing the media glass ceiling

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am


Shortly after being released by the southern Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in 2008, ABS-CBN TV news anchor Ces Drilon gave away two of her once-prized Louis Vuitton handbags to a charity auction.

Her nine-day journey to hell and back had made such 'things' lose their importance. Since then, Drilon hasn't bought a designer bag. Her abductors had taunted her: 'Go ahead and put on makeup so that when we mail your head to ABS-CBN you will look pretty.'

The ordeal was terrifying, but the fact that Drilon was on Jolo island in rebel territory looking for a scoop was testimony to the position that she and other women journalists have worked so hard for in the macho Philippines - a position of equality.

'I was scared to death,' the 49-year-old broadcaster said of her captivity by a group known worldwide for decapitating hostages. 'I prayed for the grace, for peace to accept it when it comes, but I was ready to go.

'I didn't want to beg them for my life. It wouldn't help. They'll kill you anyway,' she said.

Accepting death enabled Drilon to argue for her life. 'My [four] kids have insurance. If you kill me, you won't get any money,' she told them.

After her release, she was suspended by her network for three months for disobeying editors' orders not to interview an Abu Sayyaf leader in his jungle lair. She also suffered public humiliation amid speculation over whether she was raped.

It could have crushed anyone's spirit. 'In front of the whole world I had to admit my mistake,' Drilon said. But she loved her work and so decided 'to reclaim my work back'.

Barely a year after her abduction, she forced herself to return to the southern island of her nightmare, this time to cover the release of another Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim - International Red Cross worker Eugenio Vanni. They swapped detention stories on the plane back to Manila.

'I needed to go back so that I won't be afraid,' Drilon said. And no, she was not raped by her captors, she said. Many Filipinos admired Drilon for her courage, but also blamed her for putting herself and two cameramen in harm's way.

No one, however, questioned her for trying to do a 'man's job'.

It was not always that way. Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, 64, recalls that when she started out in journalism, women were relegated to the lifestyle section or copy-editing, like herself. 'My father didn't want me to be a reporter ... in those days you didn't defy your parents,' she said.

It was the violent and repressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos, climaxing with the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr, that changed the media landscape.

The male-dominated industry had been gutted by Marcos when he jailed dozens of male editors and reporters and shut down newspapers and TV stations in 1972.

The assassination outraged female journalists and prompted them to fill the gap by writing on forbidden topics like human rights violations. 'I just felt it was the right thing to do,' Kalaw-Tirol said.

For her efforts, this mother of two was slapped with a libel suit by the Constabulary chief who was 'very, very angry.' She and seven other female journalists were ordered before a military board where an officer scolded them, saying that rebel communist leaders were avidly reading their magazine Panorama because of such stories. Kalaw-Tirol instantly shot back: 'Well, that just goes to show they have good taste.'

It was also around the same time that journalist Marites Danguilan-Vitug ventured into the dangerous field of political journalism. It was a difficult transition for her.

Danguilan-Vitug was stunned by the reaction when she called in absent one day to be with her sick child. The editor-publisher asked her: 'Do you really want to be a journalist or a mother?' She wanted to be both.

Today, Danguilan-Vitug, 56, is facing her toughest challenge yet. For writing the groundbreaking investigative book Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, a senior member of that body slapped her with two libel suits. She also faces three other libel suits as editor-in-chief of the investigative magazine Newsbreak.

More worrying than the lawsuits, though, were the series of chilling mobile phone text messages she received in connection with her book.

One said 'you should have been one of those killed in the Maguindanao massacre,' referring to the November 2009 mass murder of 58 people, including 34 journalists.

Vergel Santos, board trustee of the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility and publisher of BusinessWorld, said that more and more senior positions in Philippines journalism were being filled by women. Compared to men, 'I think [it's because] they endure longer. They are more thorough. They don't complain very much. They take assignments and criticisms well. They seem to me more professional.'

The only area where 'women have not been tested enough' is in opinion writing, he said

Beth Angsioco, 53, defies that convention. In her column 'Power Point' in Manila Standard Today, she takes on the most contentious issues in the Philippines - women's rights and birth control.

For advocating the passage of a reproductive health law giving access to a wide range of birth control, Angsioco has been branded 'Nazi', 'Lucifer' and 'abortionist'.

None of the women journalists said they will give up their profession. It's all about 'the thrill of uncovering things' and sharing it with the public, Danguilan-Vitug said.