Warning: Spoilers ahead.
What happens when the pursuers of truth are themselves pursued by the very individuals whose wrongdoings they are committed to expose? Such is the question raised by “Deadline” (2011), the last in a trilogy of advocacy films helmed by Joel Lamangan and penned by Bonifacio Ilagan. In a bid to project social realities on the silver screen, the duo also produced “Dukot” (2009) and “Sigwa” (2010), films on extrajudicial killings and the First Quarter Storm of 1970. With “Deadline”, the filmmaker and scriptwriter paint a grisly picture of the situation of local press freedom and reels audiences into the lives – and in certain scenes, even the gruesome deaths – of journalists in the Philippines.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked thePhilippinesthird in their 2011 Impunity Index, a globally-recognized litmus test for press freedom that quantifies the number of journalist killings in various countries vis-à-vis the number of unresolved cases. The country’s high-ranking but dismal performance in the Impunity Index was caused by the dearth of justice for victims of the Maguindanao massacre, where 58 (previous reports counted 57; the body of one victim has yet to be recovered) people were murdered in a horrific display of election-related violence on November 23, 2009.
Lamangan and Ilagan incorporated real life elements and personalities into the screenplay, thereby making a significant chunk of “Deadline” a cinematic allegory to the Maguindanao massacre. The most discernable similarity to real life is the film’s antagonist, long-time governor Muntazir Ghazi of the fictionalMindanaoprovince Abdul Rabb, whose position, political and military influence and ruthlessness is patterned after former Maguindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan, believed to be among the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre.
In the film’s most gruesome tragedy, a press conference with close to a hundred attendees was bombed by Ghazi’s goons – leaving 57 dead, 32 of whom were media practitioners. Although her lines are brief and her face is never revealed to the audience, the nasal intonations and word choices of the unnamed Philippine president in “Deadline” is reminiscent of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, under whose term 79 journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to data from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
The journalist-characters portrayed in “Deadline” and the circumstances surrounding their practice introduce viewers to ethical dilemmas that media practitioners often find themselves in. One prime example of this is the columnist Ross Rivera (TJ Trinidad), whose role as a “government apologist” earns him and his publication Metro Times Manila not only hefty bonuses from “clients” in politics, but also the disdain of their more critical colleagues.
Another ethical dilemma depicted in the film is plagiarism. When Henry Rosales (Luis Alandy) of the Philippine League of Journalists published groundbreaking articles on warlordism in the Philippine Sentinel, he failed to give credit to his main sources, reporters Azad Sinan (Allen Dizon) and Claire Pasinan (Ina Feleo) of the Mindanao Weekly Herald. When Claire expressed some regret over relinquishing the byline, her editor pointed out that the very exclusion of her name was the best defense against Ghazi, the unidentified but heavily-implied subject of the exposes.
The film concluded with Ghazi gunned down in his verbose mansion; the lone soldier who fired the fatal shot made like an armed David against a political Goliath. The casualties of the bombing were laid to their final resting place, but one is left to ponder about the quality of the “justice” they received. While the image of Ghazi being felled by bullets registers a sense of poetic justice, it is interesting to note that by letting justice be dealt by the hands of a man (in this case, the soldier), the film – intentionally or otherwise – discredited the due process of law. Perhaps this disregard could be interpreted as a metaphor for the disillusionment, or even distrust, towards the slow-moving judicial process that the loved ones and colleagues of slain journalists are left to contend with.
The practice of journalism is rooted in the thorough pursuit of information. Resourceful reporters do not only gather facts but rather hunt them down, especially when there are deliberate efforts to hide or distort them. At that point, the work is far from over – the conscientious journalist knows the importance of separating the grain from the chaff and enriching content by providing context.
It is no secret, however, that the fulfillment of professional and ethical standards comes at a price. All over the Philippines and indeed, all over the world, there will be powerful parties with close minds, deaf ears, iron fists and stone hearts who will attempt to hammer the last nail in the coffin of press freedom. But for as long as there are journalists who commit and continue to fight when they write and speak what is true, the watchdogs of society will not cower away amid the threats to their ranks and lives, and will never be rendered toothless.