Jamela Alindogan remembers an instance when she had only P20 in her pocket. She was still a college student then, mulling over whether to buy a can of soda or take the jeep to get home. She decided to spend her last money on the syrupy concoction and let its fizz cool down her throat as she walked all the way home.
It was an emblematic scenario for the now 33-year-old correspondent for Al Jazeera—a course of action among many that have tested her mettle and taken her places in her more-than-a-decade long affair with a craft, an affair she describes as both a life of hardship and a legacy.
But tracing Alindogan’s journey from her internship days at Al Jazeera to who she is and what she does today would only be seeing the process through a simplistic prism. Rather, it’s in the unremitting transits from one assignment to the next and the compounding impressions of each that paint a fuller picture of the journalist she has become.
“I’ve lived alone since I was 16 and I’ve never looked back,” Alindogan reveals. “I put myself through school, and my cousins, too.” In college, she juggled her studies at Far Eastern University with the work she did for the school paper, which involved courtside reporting.
Dead set on becoming a human rights lawyer, just as her grandmother had dictated, she treated journalism as her pre-law course.
“I grew up from a very strict upbringing. We were a poor family and I was raised in a very simple way of life. I had relatives in the province whose land was grabbed and couldn’t afford a lawyer to take it back.”
In her first year at the university, though, Alindogan’s involvement with the school paper and the debate group indicated a change in her long-held plans. “I shifted to journalism, which I thought I’d be more effective in. I’m still thinking about shifting to human rights law, but because I come from a simple background, it’s easier for me to speak to people. I understand what their needs are. I understand their situation. I empathize,” she says.
You cannot remain emotionless or impartial. I side with the oppressed, with humanity. We should speak up when there’s something wrong.
Fresh out of university in 2006 and desperate for work, Alindogan begged for an internship at Al Jazeera English, which had just opened then in Manila. She took what was given to her, including a year without pay. “I come from a background where I really, absolutely cannot afford to fail, and I knew it. And it wasn’t a fear of failure that was borne out of a desire to succeed. I didn’t have the notion to save the world; I just wanted to get out of my situation. School was something I had to finish because here in the Philippines, we always base our success, as it should be, on how well we do in school. That was my basis, and the discipline and tenacity [from how I was raised] helped me. I knew how to make sacrifices.”
After her internship, Alindogan went on to work as a reporter for ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol and Bandila, then as a weekend morning news anchor in ANC. Her graveyard shifts as a crime beat reporter exposed her to the underbelly of Manila, a preparation she would later rely on after Al Jazeera hired her again in 2008, first as a producer, then four years later as a correspondent.
The fortitude that saw Alindogan through her career advancement remains resolute in the face of constant adversity, which is a principal component of her job. As the popular face of Al Jazeera for Philippine reportage, mostly about conflicted areas in Mindanao and in parts of Southeast Asia, Alindogan is always armed against the unexpected with a bag already packed with her absolute necessities. “[In this line of work,] you don’t get to mentally prepare for situations like disaster zones; you just rely on a set of skills. You tend to know what to do and what to expect. But you’re also never prepared for what you’ll see or encounter. Every single disaster is different, but the stories are always the same: of loss, grief, displacement, dispossession,” she says.
Alindogan has been arrested and detained in Sabah while covering a story, has witnessed the Bohol earthquake, and has endured 21 days in the front lines of the Zamboanga siege—all just in 2013. “But [covering] Typhoon Yolanda was really the most difficult. My crew and I went missing for four days, three of those with no food. I had to loot,” she recalls. Despite the floods that almost drowned her and the equipment that went missing, her team kept going. “With only the camera and the microphone working, we kept on. I didn’t feel hungry, I didn’t want to come back home. At one point, I was standing in place, thinking where I’d get my next meal. It turned out I was standing on a body. It was surreal.”
She took a breather in Jakarta after the ordeal, but the impulse to finish what she had started was far more powerful than her fear. “I couldn’t leave everything just like that, surviving something and then completely turning my back on that reality. After four days [in Jakarta], I went back to Tacloban and stayed for two weeks. It was good for me. It was therapeutic for me to process the experience.”
Soon after, Alindogan gave birth to her son, an adventure on its own that has played into her public role. It was an intimate experience that still affects the civic perception she brings into her stories. “The difference with having a child is that the stories I cover have become harder to process,” she admits. “Every single boy I see in a disaster zone is my son. I tend to take things more seriously, and motherhood really taught me that. Grief feels a lot closer to me now that I have a child.”
[In this line of work,] you don’t get to mentally prepare for situations like disaster zones; you just rely on a set of skills. You tend to know what to do and what to expect. But you’re also never prepared for what you’ll see or encounter. Every single disaster is different, but the stories are always the same: of loss, grief, displacement, dispossession.”
And she’s angry at what she’s seeing in the Philippines. Alindogan constantly implores her viewers to speak out because silence is consent and dissenting voices are an absolute necessity today.
“You cannot remain emotionless or impartial. I side with the oppressed, with humanity. We should speak up when there’s something wrong. Technically, with the reportage, that impartiality comes to play when you have to balance your story, but objectivity itself is a farce. If you see a violation, call it for what it is. Is that impartiality? To a certain degree, yes, because your fidelity and loyalty is to the truth.” Where most will fold under the pressure or settle for an easier life, she becomes an even finer journalist with a profound understanding of the field.
For most women, their professional and personal lives run on contrasting paths. Alindogan, however, has been able to merge both into a solid entirety. Together with Nikki Luna and Ella Mage, she has established the Tala Foundation, which provides school supplies and toys to children living in areas of military conflict. It’s the kind of work that allows her to contribute further even after a story has been told. “[Combining the professional with the personal] tends to build your understanding of your work. It builds confidence, it builds instinct, but you master it only after you’ve done it. It’s a skill that has to be developed and cannot be fast-tracked.”
In an industry where public trust takes years and plenty of hard work to build, Alindogan knows all too well the delicate nature of credibility and how keeping it is a lifelong duty. “It takes only one day to ruin everything: one wrong reporting, one small scandal for a reputation to be tarnished. As a journalist, I adhere to the guidance that moral outrage and ethics provide me.”
This story was originally published in Northern Living, March 2017.
Writer: SAMANTHA RAMOS-ZARAGOZA
PHOTOGRAPHY JOSEPH PASCUAL