On the air: a voice for the voiceless

by Kim Kierans

This story was more than a year in the making. It started in May 2006. I was in Manila researching a paper on radio in Asia and teaching at the Konrad Adenaeur Asian Centre for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University.  A student told me about a new community radio station opening in the northern Philippines. The peasant farmers had saved for three years to buy the equipment and open this station. The station gave them an outlet to talk about issues that affected farmers, women, children and the poor and unemployed in Cagayan province – “to give voice to the voiceless.”

Radyo Cagayano sounded too good to be true in a country where it’s often dangerous to speak out against authorities.

I was back in Canada when I got the email informing me that the middle of the night on July 1, 2006, masked men wearing army uniforms kicked open the door of the Radyo Cagayano, assaulted volunteer staff and set fire to the station, a small metal building the size of shipping container. The community’s hard work and dreams went up in smoke. At that moment I knew I had to tell their story – the heartbreak and their instant resolve to rebuild.

I was going back to Manila in July 2007 to teach and immediately started the research, planning to travel up north. CBC radio’s The Current was interested in the story, but I had no firm commitment and no financial help. As a freelancer, I was on my own.

Former student, Raymund Villanueva of Kodao Productions, helped me via email to track down people including former employees of Radyo Cagayano and arrange interviews. Raymund grew up in the area and had great contacts.  I flew into Manila on June 29 and the next morning Raymund and I were in a rented van driving to Cagayan province to do the story. It took more than 12 hours, through two mountain ranges on narrow winding roads to drive the 350 km.

On Sunday, July 1, 2007 – the first anniversary of the burning – I accompanied supporters of Radyo Cagayano to the market where they announced that the station will reopen. Then we set out to the rice paddy to bring former employees, Eric and Joy, to the site, on a hill behind the local Catholic Church. As they sifted through the rubble of what was once their home and workplace, they recalled events of that night and spoke of their desire to see the station reopened.

The underlying tension that I observed among people at the market and in Joy and Eric became concrete when Raymund cut short lunch with farmers. The military were looking for the people who held “the rally” at the market. I saw the soldiers with guns getting into trucks. Our van drove by other trucks carrying armed soldiers. Then I understood the courage of Eric and Joy and the others and felt deeply humbled.

When I returned to Manila, I hired a second source to verify the Tagalog and Ilocano translations and transcribe the hours of interviews. The translation, travel, and associated costs all came out of my pocket. The rest of my CBC fee went to Radyo Cagayano towards its rebuilding.

I didn’t do this story for money. I did it because this is a story about people who have nothing yet are willing to risk their security and in some cases their lives to give their community a voice. It’s a harsh reminder that we should never take freedom of expression and a free media for granted because once they’re gone, it’s a deadly battle to get them back.

The reward was giving these people a voice and sharing their story with a wider audience who were moved by the drama and the fight for justice.

Listen to “Rising from the Ashes”