Anticipating criticism that it was, as usual, being partial to the government, TV station RPN- 9 claimed that it was “not siding with anyone…not passing judgment on anyone…” when it released the other day video footage showing reporter Dana Batnag in conversation with fugitive Marine Captain Nicanor Faeldon last November 29 at the Manila Peninsula Hotel.
RPN-9 has been under government sequestration since 1986. It used to be the most watched TV channel in the country — until the government’s reverse Midas touch (everything it touches turns to dung) drove its viewers to other channels.
An RPN-9 spokesperson hastened to add that the footage, which the TV station has submitted to the Philippine National Police, had been taken “accidentally.” One can presume that the station meant that its cameraman had not deliberately focused on either Batnag or Faeldon, although that takes some suspension of disbelief, Faeldon at least being news.
RPN-9 may have a different definition of news from the non- government-sequestered media, and it probably does, judging from the way it usually reports events, which is heavy on the government side and ever so lightly on its critics. But the interesting question is what it was really doing, and in whose behalf it was at the Peninsula, because it certainly didn’t air much on the goings-on there last November 29. Did it also take “accidental” footage of the other luminaries of the Magdalo group as well as whomever they were in conversation with, perhaps the better for the police to identify the latter later?
No matter. The “accidental” footage doesn’t show much, and certainly doesn’t prove police allegations that Batnag gave Faeldon a press ID so he could escape the police gauntlet. The most the video proves is that Batnag, a vice president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, was at the Peninsula lobby along with at least three dozen other journalists, and was either interviewing Faeldon on his group’s intentions, or making somewhat earnest conversation.
That shoots to pieces the latest police justification for the arrest and “processing” of several dozen journalists and media technicians in the evening of November 29. But not even the possibility that a journalist, whether male or female, had helped Faeldon escape could ever justify the mass arrest of journalists.
The journalists were arrested when the police did not even know if Faeldon had escaped. Much less did they have any inkling as to who might have helped him do so, if anyone did. Even if we assumed that they suspected a media person of helping him, the arrests targeted no one in particular, but every one of the journalists and media technicians present.
However, the fact that the arrests were unjustified is a totally separate issue from the ethical problems that arise whenever journalists and their sources develop relationships beyond the professional.
Like most thinking people, journalists have their own convictions and even advocacies as members of society. They don’t leave their citizenships behind when they join the media. The ethical norm in journalism is not to allow those convictions to interfere in the basic responsibility of reporting the truth.
But personal involvements especially romantic ones are tricky, a slippery slope on which journalists would do best not to be caught on. In such instances the accepted protocol, as tough as it may be to follow, is to inhibit one’s self from reporting on the sources with whom one is involved, given the difficulty of retaining one’s neutrality when reporting on those sources.
Most journalists are aware of and understand the ethics of reporting on sources with whom they may have developed close ties. Journalism ethics does not demand that journalists abandon their advocacies, or forbid their acting on them. But acting on those advocacies does have consequences, among which being hauled off to court and even to prison are, or should be, accepted risks.
Many journalists amply demonstrated this understanding during the martial law period, when criticism of government was against Marcos law. They nevertheless defied the prohibition, as a result of which a number of them were jailed.
If any journalist indeed helped Faeldon escape, and the police have the evidence to prove it, they must file the appropriate charges instead of gossiping like fishwives over the backyard fence. As it is, the police are giving fishwives a bad name by muddling the issue in an obvious campaign to use its claim that a journalist helped Faeldon escape to justify not only the November 29 arrests, but also the succeeding government attempts since then to intimidate the press. No one, least of all the citizenry, should be so confused as to believe that the first, if it indeed happened as these tattletales claim, justifies the second.