Not a bang, but a whimper

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Speaking for the last time as Armed Forces Chief of Staff last October 29, Narciso Abaya had critical words for the media, the politicians and the civilian government. He was correct on all counts–but incorrect in making the AFP seem like the hapless victim of both in the making of the scandals that have rocked the military establishment.

The media do tend to sensationalize. They do publish unverified information and even to present speculation as fact. And in cases too numerous to mention, they do engage in trial by publicity. Conventional journalism wisdom declares these practices to be unethical and unprofessional.

The first refers to the practice of finding the most shocking aspect of a story, and then making it seem more important than it is by giving it a prominent place on the front page, where it could be the lead story, or at least printed above the fold. In those publications that practice sensationalism most, the tabloids, the lead story, or banner, could be nothing more than a report on the killing of a gay beautician’s lover.

While Philippine broadsheets have not gone as far as their tabloid counterparts, they too have sensationalized by emphasizing the most gruesome aspect of a killing, or the most titillating detail in a rape, often in addition to printing a particularly gory photograph–of, for example, the bombing of the LRT in 2000, or of bodies lying on the pavement after a street shooting.

Meanwhile, unverified information is almost routinely published, despite the ethical and professional principle mandating checking and double-checking for the sake of accuracy. About two weeks ago, one Manila broadsheet published photos of the alleged mansions of Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia without checking their actual ownership, but depending only on the say-so of neighbors. The houses could eventually turn out to be Garcia’s. But that had not been established at the time the photos were printed.

Trial by publicity, on the other hand, refers to the practice of making it appear that an individual or group is guilty of certain offenses even before any court trial. One of the ways in which this is done is through the publication of information on past wrong doing. When the son of a former Chief Justice was being tried for murder several years ago, one broadsheet dug up the fact that he had once fired several shots at the guardhouse of the Makati village where he lived. The report tended to make it seem as if he were already guilty, even before the court had handed down a verdict.

While digging up derogatory information on the past of someone accused of a crime obviously constitutes trial by publicity as well as invasion of privacy, the practice of printing reports on the details of a scandal involving public issues as they unfold is more problematic. While such details can predispose the public towards a judgment one way or the other, the same public has a right to them because of their impact on their lives.

Perhaps uniquely in the situation of countries like the Philippines, a higher need also tends to supersede the ethical imperative against trial by publicity. Media attention too often makes the difference between there being a trial, or none at all in these parts. In many instances, without media attention and the resulting public fury, even the worst wrong-doing has gone unpunished.

The very case General Abaya could have been thinking of as illustrative of trial by publicity, that of Maj. Gen. Garcia, is an example of something that could have passed investigation and even notice had it not been for the media.

Abaya has admitted hearing “rumors” about Garcia even before the December 2003 incident in which one of Garcia’s sons was caught by the US Customs Service at the San Francisco Airport with the undeclared sum of $100,000. Evidence of Garcia’s ostentatious lifestyle–his fleet of luxury cars, his frequent trips to Europe and the United States–abounded, but Abaya insisted there was no evidence against him.

Abaya had in fact received reports about the San Francisco incident by February 2004, but did not order any investigation of Garcia. Instead he merely relieved Garcia of the AFP comptrollership and moved him to another office.

Only when the media got wind of the story last month was the AFP forced to do something beyond being satisfied with Garcia’s explanation that the money his son was carrying had come from relatives and friends–and even then the AFP acted with the greatest reluctance.

One result of the media attention was Garcia’s being summoned by the House Committees on National Defense and Banks. Only then did the AFP decide to court-martial Garcia–but only upon the direct orders of President Arroyo. Abaya himself had earlier argued before the House committee against a court-martial, saying that the AFP had been overtaken by the Ombudsman’s order suspending Garcia and the filing of charges against him.

Abaya, in short, was correct about certain media practices. He was incorrect in assuming that the media have not thought of these issues when he told reporters present during his speech to observe the Davide Commission’s recommendation that media regulate themselves, because they do try (there is no dearth of self-regulatory bodies in the media).

But in too many instances, specially those that truly matter to the public, unethical and unprofessional media practices have been driven by certain institution’s–including the military’s– tendency to protect their own by, first, not doing anything about wrong-doing, and second, by concealing and/or distorting information to protect their “image.”

Abaya was equally correct about the fact that the government has not punished those involved in coup attempts, and that certain officials “grandstand” and even humiliate their “fellow workers” in the government service including the military.

About the first the government should have no real excuse. Not only have those accused of involvement in past coup attempts including the most recent in 2003 not been charged with anything; many are in positions of power and influence, among other reasons because they weren’t brought to court.

But Abaya should also consider the fact that one of the reasons for government reluctance to prosecute these worthies–at least two of them are senators–is the military itself, given the ties that bind these civilian plotters with military conspirators.

The weakness of the government in dealing with the civilian component of past coup attempts is due to the politicization of the military, which has persisted from the days of Marcos to the present. It is in fact among the roots of the basic weakness of the Philippine state.

About grandstanding there is no excuse either, not only because only an inordinate love for media attention seems to have driven one shrieky senator to put her motor-mouth in gear, the next elections being six years away for her, but also because senators aren’t supposed to behave that way–at least not in civilized countries. But Abaya should remember that this same senator had in the past humiliated even her betters–meaning ordinary citizens who’re supposed to be the sovereigns of presidents, senators and generals.

What all these add up to is a culture of governance and politics that prevents justice from being served, and reforms from being carried out. Judging from Abaya’s own behavior, he was as much part of that culture’s military expression–the kind of culture that looks out for one’s own, even if it be to the detriment of the public. Abaya’s broadside was no bang, but a whimper.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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