On Guam, ‘watchdog’ doesn’t bark at military misdeeds
You don’t expect to have to defend the position that the 175,000 residents of the small Pacific island your newspaper serves have a right to know about the brutal, nearly 40-year-long history of assault, rape and other crimes shadowing the 8,000 Marines set to be stationed in their backyard (Asia Times Online, 3/5/08). But that is exactly where a fellow reporter and I at Guam’s largest newspaper, the Gannett-owned Pacific Daily News, found ourselves on several occasions. After each battle with the editor, the truth of the situation became more and more evident: This was no “watchdog,” and we reporters were no more than fleas on a lapdog.
This story began for me in August 2008. I was at the family home of Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Anthony Carbullido, Jr., whom the Department of Defense had recently listed among the dead to be routed back from Afghanistan to Guam—the victim of an improvised explosive device.
I had arrived on Guam, a U.S. territory since 1898, less than a month before to work for the PDN. My assigned beat was “health and environment,” and while the Carbullido rosary service did not exactly fall under that banner, it was assigned to me when the reporter who was usually assigned to such functions, William Martin, Jr., said he needed a break, as the process of extracting a story from a grieving mother is, at best, draining.
There had been a steady succession of these stories, as Carbullido was the 17th casualty from Guam and the 29th from the Micronesia region since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The region, with a population of under 400,000, has per capita casualty rates up to five times higher than on the mainland (Washington Post, 1/27/08).
In the Carbullido family’s darkened living room, I understood my colleague’s sentiment all too well, as I held my little recorder in the mother’s face and asked her how she felt about her son’s death. “I’ve seen past pictures and articles and it scares me because my son is over there,” Aurora Carbullido said. She spoke of her son and her fears in the present tense; the idea that they would soon be shoveling clay into their son’s face seemingly had not yet hit home.
My editor, though, changed “scares” to the past tense, because, he said, “we don’t want to make them look stupid.” He also buried it at the back of the article (PDN, 8/9/08), after canned statements from the island’s acting governor (“Anthony will rest in the hearts and minds of a grateful people who are humbled by his ultimate sacrifice”) and congressional representative (“We extend our sympathies and prayers to his family, friends and loved ones”).
This same editor had lectured me on previous occasions about putting the statements of “real people” above whatever hollow canned crap you may get from the desk of a politician. This rule apparently did not apply to cases involving a military death.
In 2006, the DoD announced plans to relocate some 8,000 Marines and their dependents from the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa to a new base to be built on Guam. At present, the DoD owns about 29 percent of the island’s land, where two major installations are located: Anderson Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam (Federal Times, 4/8/09). The island is often proudly referred to as the “tip of the spear” for U.S. military operations, as it is the military outpost furthest from the U.S. mainland.
The military buildup translates to at least a 20 percent population increase on the island over the course of a few years—currently set to begin in 2014. Some project the increase will be much higher. Many members of the Guam business community and government are bedazzled by what they anticipate to be a cornucopia of new possibilities for profit and employment. Many of these bedazzled individuals are the same ones who advertise in, and thereby underwrite, the island’s news media, chief of which is the same PDN that I covered the Carbullido rosary for.
So it should have been no surprise when months later the PDN refused to cover any story outlining the long history of rape and assault allegations against Marines stationed in Okinawa, whose arrival was being staged on Guam.
Martin and I had been pressing our editors to do a story on this history, as there had been virtually no coverage of it in Guam media to that point. Nothing ever came of it; each day we logged on to the program that contained the daily budget and found that the item had either been pushed back or removed entirely. Eventually, unable to stomach their editorial policy any longer, I jumped ship and went to work for the PDN’s only competition, the family-owned Marianas Variety.
One day Martin said he had given up trying to get the Marines story into the PDN, after an especially acrimonious exchange in which the editor had indignantly exclaimed, “I have friends and family in the military!”
“In personal, heated discussions with the newsroom’s then and current managing editor, it was frankly put to me that the military does wonderful things for the island of Guam and any type of thinking casting them in a negative light was ‘flawed,’” says Martin:
I had been holding the story up to that point out of respect for my friend, but on hearing this, and with his blessing, I decided to run with it.
I set out to get some information on the allegations from the Navy and the Joint Guam Program Office (JGPO), which had been set up by the DoD to act as a civilian/military liaison to pave the way for the Marines. But it seemed that once the Navy figured out I was going to write a critical article, my phone calls and emails went unanswered. Despite this lack of cooperation, the Variety finally ran two articles (10/30/08, 11/7/08), highlighting the grave concerns of many Guam senators (from both sides of the aisle) over the violent history of the Marines in Okinawa.
At about that time, the Navy’s public information officer met with the Variety’s general operations manager, saying that I was harassing him and didn’t know what I was talking about. He said the Navy did not keep any records of allegations against its servicemembers and complained that I had not done my research.
Given the Navy’s reticence on the issue, I cited numbers directly from the Okinawa prefecture government website, as well as data compiled by Japanese activist groups: “A report filed this year by an activist group, the Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, documented over 400 alleged cases of rape, abduction, assault, murder and other forms of abuse committed by U.S. forces in Japan from the period of their post-war occupation  to the present,” I reported (Marianas Variety, 10/30/08). In addition, I cited the Okinawa prefecture’s tally that the military occupation had resulted in more than 5,076 cases of crime during this period (Marianas Variety, 11/7/08).
Conspicuously, the PDN, which usually rabidly pursued any story the Variety scooped them on, did not run any similar story.
In December, following the story on the Okinawa Marines, I wrote an article for the Variety titled “DoD’s ‘Mystery’ Project Puzzles Guam Officials,” which examined a tip I had received that JGPO was looking to convert about 650 acres currently belonging to the Chamorro Land Trust Commission and 250 acres belonging to the Ancestral Lands Commission into a firing range.
On January 15, Variety reporter and editor Mar-Vic Cagurangan wrote a follow-up article, based on a written statement from JGPO pperations director Lt. Col. Rudy Kube, confirming the suspicions.
On April 28, the Variety received payback from JGPO for its role as a watchdog paper when Variety reporters were barred from attending the Guam Industry Forum III, while all other media outlets on the island were granted access. Variety reporter Jennifer Naylor Gesick (4/29/09) wrote:
Onsite industry forum personnel notified the reporting staff that the ban was on a “federal level” and was issued as a “government order” from U.S. Marine Corp Capt. Neil Ruggiero with the Joint Guam Project Office…. The ban was in effect in all venues, as confirmed by Variety reporters in the field. Press passes were printed for every media company on island, except for the Variety.
Subsequent forums held on Guam to discuss both concerns and progress with issues surrounding the buildup have drawn large and varied crowds. One can only wonder how many more would turn up if the military didn’t exercise such a tight grip over the island’s media.
Beau Hodai is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Marianas Variety, the Pacific Daily News, Tucson Weekly and the Naughty American, among others. A version of this article appeared in News From Indian Country (indiancountrynews.net) on July 9.