In the middle of the ongoing territorial dispute over the Sabah between the Malaysian government and the Sulu Sultanate, the Inquirer and GMA 7 are the first Filipino news teams to be accredited by Malaysian authorities to go in-country and cover the crisis.
Despite the Malaysian government’s reported ban on foreign journalists, the Filipino reporters were green-lighted by the Information Communication and Culture Ministry. “This was a far cry from the experience of Filipino journalists who came here earlier, just as the first shots were fired between the followers of the Sulu sultanate and the Malaysian security forces” noted reporter Nikko Dizon.
The Sabah standoff resulted from the arrival of armed men Feb. 9 from a part of the Philipines known as the Sulu Sultanate. They were sent to assert a territorial claim on the land, which once belonged to the sultanate. A series of armed shootouts after their arrival left 63 people dead.
In response, Malaysian officials have cracked down, with widespread arrests and the reported forced evacuation of some Filipinos from Malaysia.
Some evacuees from Sabah who were prevented from leaving have asked for the Philippine government’s help. President Aquino has said that both Malaysia and Philippines should negotiate on a rule-based approach. Yet the people have criticized Aquino for not doing enough to end the crisis peacefully. A Filipino hacker group defaced the Philippines’ government telecommunications website recently, accusing President Aquino of being pro-Malaysian.
Hopefully the Filipino news reporters can inform the public and reveal if the evacuees are suffering from maltreatment or abuses. This is progress, despite tight security checkpoints, identity checks, mug shot requirements and even a requirement that journalists wear bright yellow vests with “MEDIA” to identify them as noncombatants. At the local press center Malaysian journalists are working side by side with Filipino journalists. Malaysian journalists have also become the Inquirer and GMA 7’s resource persons, and they exchange notes and even banter. Perhaps such media cooperation can set an example for both countries relations and encourage negotiation.