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Restless, relentless ex-journalist Mei Magsino laid to rest

Buena Bernal

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Restless, relentless ex-journalist Mei Magsino laid to rest
Notwithstanding allegations against her, there is no justification for the heartless and brutal slay of Batangueña journalist Melinda 'Mei' Magsino

BATANGAS, Philippines – In a cramped living room right above a bakery, prayers in the vernacular were offered for the soul of slain ex-journalist Melinda ‘Mei’ Magsino.

On top of her casket, along with a picture of her smiling in brushed out curls with her head tilted sideways, are framed certificates attesting to her journalistic flights.

She won Best Scoop in the LPR Award of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) for the story “Swiss government probes $2-M Nani account,” an article she co-wrote for the PDI Southern Luzon Bureau.

Named after Louie R. Prieto, the late brother of PDI bosses Sandy and Tessa, LPR is an in-house award granted to recognize achievements of PDI reporters. 

Published in August 2003, Magsino and Clarissa Batino’s winning news report was based on the narrative of two unnamed cabinet officials who disclosed the content of documents showing former Justice Secretary Hernando Perez was being investigated for money laundering.

This money laundering probe turned out to be linked to Perez’ alleged extortion of former Manila Congressman Mark Jimenez and would prompt a Senate hearing that same year. (Ten years later, Perez’ robbery with intimidation case was dismissed by the Supreme Court for its unduly delayed resolution.)

Proof of early involvement in journalism, another of Magsino’s framed certificates shows she had won 1st place for photojournalism in a regional college-level contest organized by government.   

Mei’s mother Amelita couldn’t recall her child’s foray into journalism, but said her daughter had always been a wide reader as a kid with Reader’s Digest as her favorite material.

The librarian at Sta Teresa College in Batangas province at the time Magsino studied high school as a young teenager there remembers her fondly as the girl who read the newspaper every day.

There are more of those in our apartment, her live-in partner said, as he motioned visitors to look at the framed certificates.

A chiropractor by vocation, Magsino’s partner Benjie Reyes said he met Mei Magsino some 3 to 4 years ago on Facebook. He said he had fallen in love with her “smile,” her “perkiness,” her “unpredictability.”

Last April 13, the former PDI correspondent was shot dead while walking in a Batangas City highway near her apartment at high noon.

State investigators are looking into a possible love triangle she was in and the politicians she criticized in social media in their probe into her murder.

Her lifeless body lay for hours for all to see right before an alley entrance to her home on April 13. A photo of her corpse on the side of the street shows her lying face down, covered only by a flattened brown carton.

SMILE. A photo of Mei Magsino beaming with a smile is placed right above her casket. Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler

‘Fearless’ development journalist

One of her businessmen-contacts in Occidental Mindoro keeps her print articles framed in his home, where Magsino had often stayed when reporting about issues in Mindoro island.

Rodolfo “Plops” Plopinio, general manager of Jopson Aqua Livestock Integrated Resources Inc, remembers Magsino as a “balanced journalist” who was always “on site.”

Hindi siya nagsusulat nang wala sa actual news area (She doesn’t write without being in the actual news area),” explained Plopinio.

“Fearless… Hindi (Not) polluted. Very intelligent. Non-conformist,” he proceeded to describe Magsino.

Plopinio remembers Magsino’s story series on dynamite fishing in his province, an exposé, he said, that ended the illegal activities of Navotas-based fishing magnates on the island.

He and his wife have only good things to say about Magsino, who they refer to as one of a kind.

It was through Magsino’s bureau chief in PDI that the Plopinios met the woman who they said focused on “development” issues in their area. 

Rarely is there media focus on such local matters nowadays, they added.

They said there were fewer articles on – and visits by journalists to Occidental Mindoro for – hyperlocal stories, after Magsino was forced to leave PDI in 2005.

Her live-in partner Benjie said the local reporter was forced to leave the paper, when a co-worker ratted on her to the bosses and accused her of recruiting from among their ranks for competitor TV5.

At the time, Magsino was moonlighting for the network, said her partner. Fellow reporters who wanted the same sideline had asked her to connect them to TV5, he said, but she was never actively recruiting.

Inquirer insiders said an internal committee looked into other allegations against her, forcing her exit. These included supposed questionable deals with local businesses and ties with sources. 

After her work with PDI, Magsino wrote for investigative news organizations Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and Vera Files, and founded her own online publication in Batangas province. She became a talking head in TV5’s election documentary “Balwagan” and was among the panelists in its 2013 elections interview with senatorial candidates.

DEVELOPMENT ISSUE. This photo shows an article about the Mangyans written by Mei Magsino. Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler

Politician friends, enemies

The Batangueña’s focus on under-reported development issues in the provinces was always accompanied by links to alleged corruption and lavish lifestyles of local politicians.

A story she wrote for PDI published on April 25, 2002 entitled, “Mangyans starve in food basket” occupied an entire page of the paper.

“In what appears to be the most cruel joke in the province known as one of Luzon’s food baskets, the Mangyans of Occidental Mindoro have been subsisting on poisonous mountain yams and unsafe freshwater snails since December last year,” she wrote.

“Worse, Malaria has spread among the Mangyans, according to a village leader,” she continued.

But she does not stop there: “This, while the town mayor recently purchased a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup worth P1.1 million.”

Such attacks on government personalities became even more rampant and aggressive after she left mainstream media and brought her crusades to social media. 

In Facebook groups she is active in, she would target the Dolor dynasty in Bauan town and the Dimacuhas in Batangas City.

Mei’s uncle Sael said the exchanges have become “personal” and vicious, with some of the Bauan mayor’s supporters even “hacking” into the group to provoke its members.

Magsino has gained a fair share of friends, enemies, admirers, and critics from among local politicians. 

Among those who paid her wake a visit were Batangas 2nd District Congressman Raneo “Ranie” Abu, former Padre Garcia mayor and sacked Batangas provincial administrator Victor “Vic” Reyes, and even the political neophyte Batangas City Vice Mayor Emilio Francisco “Jun” Berberabe Jr. 

Unlike Abu and Reyes, Berberabe did not know Magsino personally but knew her through her live-in partner. He had come to the wake to personally extend his condolences.

A first-termer, Berberabe said he is sure to run in 2016 but unsure for what position. If he pursues the mayoralty post, he will likely be up against the Dimacuhas.

Ang tagal na rin kasi nila eh (They have been in power for long),” he told Rappler, referring to the dynastic rule Magsino attacked in her posts.

Return to mainstream media?

Magsino’s partner Benjie said his “love” had always been a restless soul. “Like me,” the tall, long-haired US citizen added. 

He said Magsino was a good cook, raised poultry, was into gardening, and had theater training with the Philippine Educational Theater Association.  

Every day with her was an adventure, he added. He said she was the perfect woman.

Magsino’s friend Bong Macalalad wrote in a tribute for her that “her write-ups do not necessarily say much about the real person that she is.”

He wrote of Magsino being “such a wonderful, jolly and witty person,” despite being known to be hard-hitting in her articles.

Magsino went into hiding in 2005 due to alleged death threats, after she wrote stories on the alleged illegal gambling operations of then Batangas Governor Armando Sanchez, now dead.

Macalalad recalled how Magsino questioned him if he had ever referred to her as “Sisa” the way other members of the local media in Batangas do. He said she was “a ‘woman with balls’ as she could really be very acerbic to her enemies.”

“Sisa,” a complex character immortalized in Philippine national hero Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere, has evolved in daily Filipino parlance as a term referring to a crazy woman.

During Magsino’s interment, a local priest noted on social media the utter lack of local reporters in attendance.

He stressed the symbolism of Magsino’s death – that it was not about whether one liked Magsino’s personality but about the lack of respect for human life. 

In the years after they met, Mei’s partner Benjie said Mei did not – save for a brief moment two months before her death – consider returning to mainstream media. She had wanted relative privacy and “peace,” he said. 

PARENTS. Mei Magsino's parents take glimpse of their journalist-daughter. Photo by Buena Bernal/Rappler

Rest for the restless soul

Magsino’s father Danilo said his daughter had always been a relentless reporter.

Yung anak ko basta’t siya’y nasa katotohanan, ang kanyang pinaglalaban, mahirap pigilan. Kaya nga yung kanyang pagkakuha ng journalism eh kaakibat niya diyan ang disgrasya kung sakali,” he said.

(That child of mine, as long as she’s on the side of truth, what she’s fighting for, she’s hard to stop. That’s why along with her journalism is danger.) 

Media ethicist Luis Teodoro agreed it is important that journalism be protected, no matter the brand. He said every voice matters in a democracy. 

“Any journalist killed diminishes the number of voices necessary in democratic discourse,” he explained in an e-mail to Rappler. “The possibility of (journalism) being abused is part of the risks of free expression. The abuse of press freedom can and should be addressed through self regulation,” he added. 

Magsino’s parents said they had asked their daughter to tone down many times in the past her crusades.

Mei’s aunt Edna said the younger Magsino was always “independent,” while her partner said she “doesn’t want to be told what to do.”

Her mother Amelita said she and her husband Arnold Lupis “parted” due, in part, to the nature of her work. Upon the advice of his counsel, Lupis refused to be interviewed.

To the people who criticized Mei’s derogatory remarks posted on social media against politicians she believed were corrupt, Benjie said he only had one word for them: “Cowards.”

While the motive behind her slay has yet to be established, Mei’s father Danilo said murder is never the answer to her mere words, no matter how hurtful, no matter how piercing. 

Magsino was laid to rest on Sunday, April 19.

She left behind a colorful career and finally found rest – but neither in the way her parents had hoped, nor anyone. – Rappler.com 

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