THE SUPREME COURT has granted a petition for live coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre trial filed by media advocacy groups, TV networks, individual journalists, and academics from the University of the Philippines. But it has imposed conditions some media organizations are already describing as difficult if not impossible to meet. Some are already talking about filing a motion for Court reconsideration of some of the conditions. Others may decide not to cover the trial at all.
Among the guidelines media organizations find problematic is the Court’s requiring coverage of the entire proceedings each time there are hearings. The trial is currently being held twice a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays), and usually lasts from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Any TV or radio station that applies for and is granted permission (one of the conditions the Court is imposing) to cover the trial Branch 221 of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court is conducting would have to devote as much as five hours of coverage each time. No interruptions and commercial breaks are allowed except during recess periods, and no repeat broadcasts will be allowed on pain of the RTC’s withdrawing the station’s permit.
Certain assumptions apparently inform the Court’s conditions. The prohibition against voice-overs and comments and camera panning and zoom shots is meant to prevent trial by publicity via biased comments and visuals (without directly commenting on the proceedings, a skilled cameraman can manipulate video shots to imply condemnation or approval of a statement, or of a personality). The prohibition against commercial breaks would prevent not only interruptions but also advertisements’ detracting from the dignity of the proceedings.
The requirement to cover without interruption can be explained in terms of the Court’s fears that selective coverage could lead to predisposing the media audience to prejudging the guilt of the accused. But it seems to be an unrealistic expectation of organizations that are, after all, profit-driven.
One of the Supreme Court justices did say that the public’s need for information should supersede the media organizations’ drive for profit. The argument is valid enough. Most media organizations forget that it is the public’s need for information they must serve rather than the commercial interests of the corporations that own them. But compelling them to cover without interruption for as long as five hours also undermines the right of media organizations to editorial judgment: in deciding what parts of an event to air on the basis of the conventional news values, among them that of significance. Some media organizations could refuse to cover the trial altogether as a result.
This issue regardless, what should disturb the Philippine press and media organizations is the probable assumption behind the Court’s imposing the above conditions. It is that the media cannot responsibly cover either the Ampatuan Massacre trial or anything else similar, and must be told what to do to the point of the Court itself’s usurping the media right to decide the extent and manner of media coverage.
The media are already objecting to the Court guidelines, one suspects because they can sense that behind those guidelines is a low regard for the media — which is understandable, given their repeated failure to voluntarily observe the ethical principles and professional standards that can protect the right of suspects to a fair trial, or even the right of ordinary folk to life.
Which is what some of the media organizations including the supposedly self-regulatory KBP have been implying, although, one suspects, without being aware of it: that they are indeed unable to observe those standards to the extent that they need government intervention — that they are, in effect, unworthy of the protection of Article III, Section 4 of the Constitution.
In the aftermath of the August 23, 2010 hostage-taking, for example, four of the country’s largest TV and radio networks justified the way they covered that incident by declaring that the police had not told them to keep away from the tourist bus where the hostages were being held, and not to interview the hostage-taker. TV 5 repeated basically the same argument in its protest against the recent KBP decision to fine it, ABS-CBN, and Radio Mindanao Network the ridiculously paltry sum of P30,000 for their violation of KBP standards on the coverage of crises during the same incident.
But the KBP itself asked for government intervention in its own decision as a supposed “solution” to its inability to investigate and sanction non-KBP member GMA7. It solicited the support of “the office of the President through the Office of the Executive Secretary, and with the assistance of the National Telecommunications Commission… in establishing a system or mechanism by which the (KBP) Broadcast Code is made to apply to all broadcast stations in the country without exception.” Incredibly, KBP was asking for Malacanang intervention “in the interest of promoting the principle of self-regulation”!
Some journalists keep raising the very same plea for government to fix the limits of coverage when they’re caught violating such ethical principles as not causing harm and refusing to negotiate with kidnappers, hostage-takers, hijackers and terrorists. Without realizing it, they imply that they don’t know their own ethical and professional standards and are clueless as to how such events as hostage-taking or the suicide of an ex- defense secretary and armed forces general should be covered without furthering the agenda of the hostage-taker, and encouraging copy-cat suicides in the latter case.
And yet they complain when government agencies such as the Philippine National Police and the National Telecommunications Commission, the Office of the President, the Supreme Court and Congress accept what amounts to an admission that they can’t really regulate themselves, and proceed to tell them how to do their jobs. Isn’t being told by government how to cover events precisely what some broadcasters and their media organizations have been practically begging for via their words as well as deeds, in the process subverting the principle of self- regulation that’s at the heart of a press freedom regime? The broadcast media are turning out to be their own worst enemy.