For choosing to document the impact of armed conflict on civilians, Fr. Eduardo “Ponpon” Vasquez calls himself a "dead man walking."
On Tuesday, there was life in his steps as he strode to a stage in a five-star hotel in Manila to accept the prestigious 2011 Ninoy and Cory Aquino Fellow for Journalism from President Benigno Aquino III.
Vasquez, a Cotabato City-based Oblates priest trained in France in communications, was cited for producing risky stories about the effects of war on communities. He is the founder and director of i-Watch Media and a GMA News stringer. Vazquez's team documented the aftermath of the Maguindanao massacre in 2009.
i-Watch Media is a video documentary outfit of the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate based in Cotabato City. Vazquez received a diploma in Social and Religious Communications in Crec-Avex, France.
Under Fr. Ponpon’s leadership, i-Watch has documented battles between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, including the deadly skirmishes in Pikit, North Cotabato after the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain was withdrawn in 2008. Video shot by Vazquez's team has frequently been aired on GMA7 newscasts.
Needless to say, it is a very risky mission.
“For all his good work, Father Ponpon has received death threats from some parties, which has forced his congregation to ask him to go on hiatus for his personal safety. But despite the dangers he faces, he maintains that what motivates him is simple: that his documentaries give the poor a voice – that they allow the poor to be recognized in society,” President Aquino said in his speech at the awarding ceremony.
The US Embassy in Manila initiated the Aquino fellowships in 1988 in collaboration with the Aquino Foundation to honor the martyr Ninoy Aquino's contributions to the fields of journalism and public service. After former President Corazon Aquino died in 2009, the fellowship was renamed the “Ninoy and Cory Aquino Fellowship for Professional Development.”
'Threats will just be around me'
Vazquez's superiors had to invoke the “vow of obedience” to force the 38-year old priest to leave Datu Piang, Maguindanao in November 2010 at the height of another conflict.
“I obeyed the order not for my own sake but for the sake of the people in our mission field. I was very aware that their lives would be at risk too if I did not distance myself from them,” Fr. Ponpon said in his acceptance speech.
“I have considered myself a ‘dead man walking’ even after I left Mindanao. I am deeply aware that wherever I go as long as I carry with me the truth that I know and I fight for, threats and dangers will just be around me,” the journalist-missionary added.
Meanwhile, Lt. Jr. Grade Roberto Beltran, a Navy Special Operations Group officer, was also named the 2011 Aquino fellow for public service.
Beltran was deployed to Western Mindanao after he graduated from elite NSOG training, one of the most rigorous in the Philippine military. He served as team leader, weapons officer, communications officer and supply officer of the NSOG.
According to the US Embassy web site, "Beltran’s record reveals a deeply compassionate Special Operations Officer who has exhibited the potential to excel through the ranks while inspiring others to public service."
As Aquino fellows, Vasquez and Beltran will travel to the United States for three weeks to join the annual International Visitor Leadership Program, an exchange program of the US State Department for current and emerging foreign leaders.
Among past Aquino Fellows for Journalism are Yvonne Chua, Cheche Lazaro, Senator Loren Legarda, Tina Monzon-Palma, Luz Rimban, Vergel Santos, Howie Severino, and Marites Vitug.
Previous Aquino Fellows for Public Service include lawyer Mary Ann Arnado, Governor Arthur Defensor, GSIS Chairman Daniel Lacson Jr., NAMFREL stalwart Guillermo Luz, ex-Isabela Governor Grace Padaca, and Dr. William Padolina.