At least one member of the Ampatuan clan seems to have recently discovered how important the media can be when the shoe’s on the other foot, and you’re being oppressed rather than doing the oppressing. Outraged over the supposed use of excessive force when Army troops stormed the hospital room of Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., an Ampatuan relative called ABS-CBN to complain about it.

The media had been barred by the military from covering the Army’s decision to finally arrest Ampatuan, three days after he checked himself into the hospital, in a ruse that should by now be familiar to most Filipinos. To escape the discomforts of a Philippine jail, every politician or similar creature of influence who has troubles with the law nearly always pretends to be sick so he can be placed in what’s known in this sorry country as “hospital arrest”. Claudio Teehankee Jr. did it so he wouldn’t have to spent a minute in Jejomar Binay’s Makati City jail while on trial for murder. Convicted but pardoned rapist Romeo Jalosjos also did it before he found heaven in the comforts of, and in his own hamburger stand in, the National Penitentiary.

“Hospital arrest” is practically an institution of the so-called justice system. It assures those used to air-conditioned comfort and edible meals, though not necessarily to the manner born, that they won’t have to swelter in 35+ degree heat with the poor detainees crammed into Philippine jails who also have to eat prison food in addition to inhaling each other’s breaths. Instead they can eat hospital food, which isn’t really much of an improvement, but at least they can recline in real beds instead of cement floors, and watch TV instead of their fellow inmates gutting each other.

In Maguindanao more powerful than Saladin, and affluent beyond Muslim dreams — in fact the owner of several 30-room monuments to bad taste that have been described as “palatial” homes — Ampatuan Sr. was not about to spend any time in one of his own fiefdom’s nasty prisons. Surrounded by a battalion of family members, relatives, lawyers, bodyguards and “followers,” he checked into the Davao Doctors Hospital last Saturday in the wake of rumors — some of it fed to him by his friends in the police and the military — that he was about to be arrested.

That the military illegally banned the media from covering an event in Davao City in Davao province, which is not covered by Presidential Proclamation 1959 which placed only Maguindanao Province under martial law, was largely unremarked, but the media were nevertheless dutifully at work, trying their best to get footage of the incident as well as interviewing witnesses.

The network thus reported the Ampatuan relative’s claims. One of its reporters on the scene also managed to catch an Ampatuan partisan’s lament that the troops did not have a warrant of arrest when they took the supposedly ailing Ampatuan into custody, and what’s more hurt members of the retinue that was looking after him in the hospital, and milling around in the hospital corridors.

And yet whoever ordered the massacre of November 23 and carried it out, apparently with a great deal of enthusiasm, did not hesitate to kill the 31 journalists and media workers accompanying the Mangundadatu convoy. They didn’t think the media were important then, and indeed demonstrated that they cared so little for the press and for the media workers who report and interpret the news daily that they could blithely kill so many of them in the worst incident of its kind in all of media and human history.

The Ampatuans, particularly that bloated toad witnesses said was not only directing the mass murders but also firing his assault rifle at the 57 men and women murdered last November 23, could be the monsters that they’re now widely believed to be. But they could also be completely innocent. Whether innocent or guilty, however, they do have rights, just like other monsters in human guise.

It is when those rights — among them the right to due process — are in danger of being violated, or are actually being violated, that media and public attention are most needed, either to prevent the violation or to stop further abuse.

As those Filipinos who’ve never had any experience of martial law — and who’re supporting Proclamation 1959 in the mistaken belief that its intentions are pure — anything that removes those checks on the arbitrary use of state power that are meant to protect citizen rights is likely to be abused, particularly in this country, where regimes such as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s first weaken the state by bending the laws when it suits them, only to try to repair the damage later by pretending to be strong. Usually this attempt at demonstrating strength ( remember “the strong Republic”?) ends up attacking the weak and the powerless — meaning ordinary citizens protesting the demolition of their homes, condemning the latest corruption scandal, or who insist on being shown a warrant of arrest when the police start breaking down their doors.

By merely reporting — without embellishment and even without comment — what government and its armed cohort are doing, the media can already prevent or even stop abuse. National and, in some cases, international scrutiny is the one thing the worst of tyrants abhor. Even Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who doesn’t particularly care for what Filipinos think or want, has been known to temper the most egregiously lawless policies of her despised regime because of the international attention extrajudicial killings were getting due to, among others, reporting by the Philippine media.

The killing of the media workers, in addition to the killers’ need to silence all witnesses to the horrendous crime of November 23, implicitly recognized the power of the media to embed in the consciousness and conscience of nations and the world those events and issues that concern all men and women of goodwill, compassion and common decency. That is why the media are among the first targets of all tyrannies, including the Philippines’ own, current version and burden, as well as of its little clones in backwoods Maguindanao.


Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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