More than 600 American troops arrived recently on the southern island of Basilan to help the Philippine army in its efforts to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Islamic state.
On February 9, Captain Harold Cabunoc, who commands Philippine Scout Ranger troops operating on Basilan, warned all foreign journalists about the risk of kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf and advised them against traveling to the island alone. More than 100 journalists are in Zamboanga City on the island of Mindanao, near Basilan, to cover joint military exercises by Philippine and U.S. troops.
One local journalist has been reported missing after traveling to Basilan. Filipino officials say three foreign reporters recently escaped kidnapping attempts, according to local press reports.
"The Abu Sayyaf has taken journalists hostage before, so reports that the press may be targeted should be taken seriously," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "However, it is critical that journalists are able to cover events in Basilan. Officials should make every effort to ensure the media the access they need to report fully on the military operations there."
Arlyn de la Cruz, a local reporter for the cable channel Net 25 and a contributor to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has been missing on Basilan since January 19. De la Cruz conducted the only interview with American hostages Gracia and Martin Burnham, who have been held by the Abu Sayyaf since late May 2001.
On February 8, former Ilocos Sur governor Luis "Chavit" Singson received a phone call from a woman claiming to be de la Cruz, who said that an armed group had kidnapped her and was demanding a ransom of 40 million pesos (US$780,000). The Philippine military has ordered troops to search for de la Cruz, although it has not classified her disappearance as a kidnapping.
Journalists escape kidnapping?
On February 8, free-lance journalists Christopher Johnson, a Canadian, and Urban Hamid, a French national, were boarding a ferry to Basilan when two men approached them, saying they were soldiers sent to escort them to the island. Johnson and Hamid became suspicious and reported the encounter to local military authorities, who denied having sent an escort.
In a similar incident, on February 11, two unidentified men approached Japanese journalist Jun Ida, Manila bureau chief for the Tokyo-based newspaper Mainichi, just after he arrived in Basilan. The men offered to guide Ida to Abu Sayyaf hideouts, according to local news reports. Ida declined the offer and reported it to the authorities.
Philippine military authorities claimed the incidents were kidnapping attempts by members of the Abu Sayyaf, according to local press reports. These claims have not been independently verified.
In his February 9 announcement, Captain Cabunoc asked foreign journalists to notify the military before arriving on Basilan to report on the military exercises.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas kidnapped a total of 15 journalists at various stages of a hostage crisis on the island of Jolo, near Basilan. Most of the journalists were released after their news organizations paid hefty ransoms to the kidnappers. Local journalists have expressed concern that those events set a precedent and have encouraged rebel groups to kidnap journalists as a source of revenue.