CONGRESSIONAL hearings are held “in aid of legislation,” and the leading members of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, and the committee on public services, made it clear last Tuesday that they did not call the heads of the news sections of TV networks ABS-CBN, GMA7 and TV5 just to pass the time. Senator Joker Arroyo, who used to defend journalists from government harassment during the martial law period, warned that the Senate could pass a law to regulate the networks’ coverage of hostage-taking and similar crises if they did not restrain themselves.
The operative word was “restraint.” Despite the lame excuses and the evasions worthy of contortionists, the truth is that television news displayed the exact opposite of it – i.e., the frenzy of predators – when covering the hostage-taking crisis at Manila’s Rizal Park last August 23.
One network provided the hostage-taker such information as the positions of the police snipers and the deployment of the police assault teams. RMN radio interviewed the hostage- taker, in the process enabling him to plead his case to a wider public and gain public sympathy, and ended up mediating between him and the police. All the networks and their affiliate radio stations also broadcast the arrest of the hostage-taker’s brother, and thus contributed to his being provoked into shooting the hostages.
They earlier claimed that the frenzy of their coverage did not contribute to the bloody outcome of the August 23 crisis. But the networks aren’t saying that now. Instead they’ve taken refuge in the argument that they had no choice because the police had not set the limits of media coverage. As for RMN, it is unrepentant and insists that it was “just doing (our) job.” Apparently, doing the human thing as the ethics of journalism demands — preventing further harm, and not risking the lives of people other than themselves — is beyond them, if the race for the ratings and advertising revenues are involved. By abandoning their supposed preference for self-regulation, on the other hand, that excuse also invites government regulation.
But does it really need the government and the police to tell presumably adult, mature individuals that the hostage-taker could have been listening to radio and/or watching television and therefore likely to react to what he’s hearing and seeing? Does it need a set of guidelines in black and white for broadcasters (one of the loudest of whom admitted he’s untrained even for his own job) to realize that they shouldn’t be negotiating with a hostage-taker because they’re not trained for it?
Not that the guidelines for ethical and professional coverage during hostage-taking and similar crises don’t exist. They do, and they’ve been in place for decades. The injunction against covering events live, providing information on police movements, airing interviews with the relatives of hostage-takers, as well as the warning that the media should assume that the hostage- taker has access to TV and radio broadcasts have all been in place for years. So have the internal rules of such models of competent and ethical coverage as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
(Maria Ressa of ABS-CBN earlier took exception to observing those guidelines by reason of “cultural differences” — but later told the Senate committees last Tuesday that “journalism ethics are universal.” Practically the same guidelines are also in the KBP Broadcast Code, which, among others, warns against airing reports on police and troop movements as well as media’s negotiating with hostage-takers.)
Visibly angry, and themselves hardly restrained, Arroyo, Juan Ponce Enrile and other senators showed little of the fear of the media Arroyo claimed was inhibiting Congress from quickly passing a law to prevent a repetition of the irresponsibility the leading TV networks exhibited last August 23.
But the House of Representatives may yet beat the Senate to it. Without the benefit of any public hearing, Congressman Gabriel Luis Quisumbing has introduced a bill declaring it unlawful “for any media person to report or present publicly the positions, movements and actions done by (sic) the members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) during crisis situations.” The penalty for violations is either imprisonment from six months to six years, a fine of P20,000, or both.
We can all be certain that if this bill reaches the committee and floor levels, the honorable congressmen of the 15th Congress will add to it, as well as suggest amendments to make it even more repressive.
But isn’t this what the networks have really been asking for, their half- hearted expressions of preference for self-regulation as well as their demand that the police tell them where, when and what to cover constituting an invitation for government intervention and the imposition of that oxymoron, legislated ethics?
Their seeming confusion proceeds from a presumption no one has so far mentioned: it is that they do what they do, and did what they did last August 23, in furtherance, not of the truth they always claim to be for, but of their commercial interests. Those interests dictate a race for scoops and exclusives, or, at least, not to be the only station not to cover an incident, especially one as inherently sensational as a hostage-taking. It makes perverse sense: if government sets the rules, complete with penalties for violators, then everyone should follow, with no one having an edge over the others.
And that is why, ladies and gentlemen of the supposedly free media community of the Philippines, as the demands of both government and the public for media regulation grow louder and louder, the TV networks are silently but surely supporting them– if not in speech, certainly in such deeds as the way they covered the hostage-taking crisis of August 23rd . They’re asking for it, and in the process undermining the freedom of ALL the media including print, whose coverage of the same event was, lest we forget, incomparably more responsible and restrained.