GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Confronted with bleak prospects of financial assistance for her education, 16-year-old Rhully Mae Shula Montaño is almost sure that if she can ever afford to go to college, she will take up journalism.
Never mind that it was that profession that killed her mother 10 years ago.
On November 23, 2009 Marife Montaño and 31 other journalists covered the filing of candidacy of then Maguindanao governor aspirant Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu, along with 26 family members and supporters of the Mangudadatus, including Toto's wife and sister. They were massacred and buried in a shallow grave in Sitio Masalay in Maguindanao with their mangled cars, and mangled dreams.
Rhully remembered not having too much as a child, but just enough. Her Mama provided for her and her older brother, now 26 years old. (READ: Children bear the brunt 10 years since Ampatuan massacre)
Her mother always worked late, Rhully said, as a staffer of the newsweekly Saksi Mindanoan, but she always brought home her favorite food.
Rhully also didn't mind coming to the Saksi office.
"Kuwento nga ng lola ko sa akin, since bata pa si Mama pangarap niya maging journalist. Gusto kong ipagpatuloy 'yung nagawa na nya," Rhully said in a forceful tone you only hear from much older people.
(My grandmother told me, Mama has dreamed of becoming a journalist since she was young, and I want to continue what she's done.)
But the kind of life she's lived has made her tough. "Kasi kung hindi ka magiging malakas, babagsak ka. Lumalaban ako kahit masakit (If you're not going to be strong, you will fall. So I'm fighting even if it hurts)," she said, tearing up, but with a strong resolve.
In Grade 9, she tried out newscasting, and got praises for her skills. Since then, journalism became a top college prospect, next to nursing.
Dried out financial aid
Two things have made that plan a little challenging for Rhully.
One is that the family did not know where to get money for next year, when she enters her last year of senior high at the General Santos City National High School. College is a problem a little far beyond, but already threatening.
Rhully is one of the casualties of the dried out financial assistance given to the kin of the Ampatuan massacre victims.
Since her mother died, Rhully and her older brother have had to rely on their grandmother Maura who sidelines as a helper to relatives. Others in the clan chip in every now and then, and her father – separated from her mother long before the massacre – contributes what he can, which is not much, according to Rhully.
On May 5 this year, Rhully's father died in a motorcycle accident, leaving her and her brother orphaned.
For years, a scholarship program coursed through the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) funded the education of the children, including Rhully's and her brother's.
"It was last year when our partners informed us they could no longer fund the program. We had to tell them (the children). It was very painful. It was painful for us but I can imagine how much more painful it was for them," said NUJP chairman Nonoy Espina.
The second challenge is that journalism is a dangerous job, especially for the community press landscape in Mindanao. That is not lost on Rhully.
The grief she has been carrying for 10 years reminds her of that. (READ: 'Press freedom is dead' if Ampatuans not convicted for massacre – lawyer)
The UNESCO observatory of killed journalists says 104 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1996.The 2019 Global Impunity Index ranks the Philippines as the number one country with the most number of unsolved media killings at 41.
Such figures would have proven daunting to others but not Rhully.
"Hindi po ako natatakot kasi alam kong may Diyos na nasa tabi ko; hindi ako nakakaramdam ng takot. May Diyos ako, saan man ako patungo (I'm not scared because I know that God is with me; I don't feel fear. I have God wherever I go)," said Rhully, her innocence betraying the maturity she has shown thus far since we started talking.
The threats to journalism do not only come from its enemies, but also from within the labor conditions of the profession – low pay and contractualization.
Although the massacre spurred several movements to protect press freedom and uphold interests of media workers, Espina said the situation "has worsened."
"Community media aside, even the mainstream especially broadcast, there are more and more contractual workers, there's no security of tenure, no benefits – that's harsh," said Espina.
We felt it was imperative to tell Rhully this. In response, she said: "Hindi basehan ang pera sa gusto mong kunin na kurso. Kung mag-e-enjoy ako bakit ko pagbabasehan 'yung pera? As long as kaya akong buhayin ang pamilya ko."
(Money is not the basis for choosing your course. If I will enjoy it, why will I base it on money? As long as I can fend for my family.)
Justice, not money
Throughout the years, the families claimed to have received offers of as much as P50 million to drop the case.
Nobody ever did.
"We were upfront with them. Look, if they offer and you took the money, we will not begrudge you for that; they've taken a whole lot from you. In fact they've taken your whole lives basically; your economic bedrock. If they offer you 50 million, take it, why not?" said Espina.
"They refused. You have to give it to them: the courage, the integrity of these people," he added.
At 16 years old, with the struggles she has faced, Rhully perfectly understands that justice is the main goal for her and the other families.
"Wala sa 'kin ang pera. Hustisya kailangan ko. Ibigay 'nyo (Money is nothing to me. What I need is justice. So give us justice)," she said.
Rhully recalled the time her grandmother told her daughter Marife to quit journalism.
"Before po 'yung nangyari, sinabihan siya ng lola na umalis na sa pagiging journalist kasi nakakapagod. Pero sabi niya hindi, ito 'yung pangarap ko (Before she was killed, my grandmother told her to quit journalism because it's an exhausting job. But she said she wouldn't because it's her dream)," she said.
"'Nung kwinento ni lola 'yun sa 'kin nagsink in sa utak ko na pinangarap ng Mama ko. What if ipagpatuloy ko (When my grandmother told me that story, it sank in that it was my Mama's dream. What if I continue it)?" the teenager added.
Espina admitted there were still a lot that needed to be done to improve the state of media in the country, including closing ranks to fortify the profession against attacks and pressures.
If she decides to pursue journalism, Rhully will also bear the many, many problems of the media that even the killing of her mother could not solve.