BEFORE leaving for the United States to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President Benigno Aquino III said during a press conference that he had the report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) released first to the Chinese government because he wanted to repair the country’s relations with China. He also said he hoped that the Report would “restore confidence that we know how to run our country and we had taken appropriate actions to prevent such (a) tragedy from happening again.”
The IIRC report was on the hostage-taking incident of August 23, which ended with eight Chinese tourists from Hongkong and Canada dead, the country’s relations with Hong Kong and China in shambles, and the media under intense criticism. Upon receipt of the Report, the Chinese government expressed its “appreciation” for the Philippine government’s “sincere and serious manner in handling and looking into the incident,” but asked for more time to study the document.
It’s just as well. Doubts over Mr. Aquino’s capacity to run the country are spreading even among some of his devotees in the media who, in merry disregard of journalism ethics, campaigned vigorously for him in their columns because they thought he was the messiah the poor and the powerless have been waiting for since the country’s Spanish captivity.
Indeed, it’s beginning to look as if Mr. Aquino can hardly do anything right. He very early raised eyebrows when he appointed his sisters’ choices, and his classmates, friends and shooting range partners, to some of the highest positions in the Philippine government, named two secretaries to replace the Press Secretary to accommodate the demands of the Palace factions vying for his favor, and seemed so clueless about the implications of the August 23 hostages’ coming to harm that he left it to the police to resolve the crisis in their usual bungling way.
The IIRC Report’s being released to the Chinese first has naturally provoked protests. But the contents of the IIRC report as Mr. Aquino summarized them last Monday have also come in for questioning, and by some members of the IIRC itself.
A member of the IRRC told the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines that the Report contained no recommendation to file criminal and/or administrative charges against the three media practitioners and the three networks Mr. Aquino named together with eleven government officials as culpable for the bloody outcome of the August 23 incident. It seems that there were at least two versions of the Report, one that did recommend the filing of charges against Erwin Tulfo of TV5 and Radio Mindanao Networks’ Michael Rogas and Jake Maderazo, and another, the final version, which contained no such recommendation.
And yet Mr.Aquino very clearly said, as he named the media people and networks for all the world to hear, that they would be charged in court — except that he didn’t know with what exactly, and that he was leaving that to his legal advisers to decide once they had reviewed the Report.
The IIRC itself is made up lawyers, and chaired by the government’s own Secretary of Justice. But for all its supposedly high level mandate, Mr. Aquino has chosen to have its Report reviewed by “his” legal advisers, thus undermining the credibility of his true, government-based legal adviser, the Secretary of Justice, who incidentally dutifully supported Mr. Aquino’s pre- departure statements on the issue by saying that yes, indeed, Tulfo et al. will face charges for “violating their Code of Ethics.”
Count that among Mr. Aquino’s many gaffes. Assuming that the Report he received contained the recommendations he said last Monday it did, the statement that the media would be sued, but on charges he did not specify, implies that the government has so frail a legal leg to stand on it still has to shop around for the appropriate charges. It also comes across as a threat not only against the media people and networks concerned, who’re now going to have to wait for Mr. Aquino to return from the US and for “his” legal advisers to conclude their review, but also against the entire media community.
Mr. Aquino needs to be reminded of his pledge that he would protect the freedom of the press and of expression the Constitution recognizes. Filing charges against Tulfo et al. for violations of the Philippine Journalists Code of Ethics or of the KBP Broadcast Code makes no sense, ethics not being a matter of law. Whatever we may think of Tulfo et al.’s ethics and professional credentials, the fact remains that ethical compliance and adherence to professional standards are the domain of the media themselves in a self-regulatory regime, not the government’s.
The media do need to be criticized. They must also criticize themselves. The criticism must be as rigorous, as severe and as uncompromising as their horrendous mistakes — among them interviewing and negotiating with the hostage-taker, airing footage that provoked the hostage taker into shooting the hostages, reporting police movements and sniper positions — deserve.
What to do about them to prevent their repetition in similar crises is the media’s inalienable responsibility if they are to remain free. They’re already doing that.
Mr. Aquino can better serve the urgent need for media accountability by rejecting any attempt to sue media practitioners no matter how ignorant, biased, insensitive, corrupt and stupid they may be, or to sanction the networks no matter how ravenous for advertising revenues they are. He can instead remind the media community of its duty to police its ranks, and to penalize and educate its erring members. For him to do otherwise by going after the media will further add to perceptions that he can’t do anything right.
ABS-CBN’s Maria Ressa denies that she told the Senate Committee looking into media performance during the August 23 incident that “Journalism ethics are universal,” as this column alleged she did last week.