Armed Forces Chief of Staff Efren Abu dissociated the AFP from Deputy Chief of Staff General Edilberto Adan’s proposal to penalize media practitioners for interviewing “known terrorists”. But that has not prevented Adan from accusing “some media” of being “virtual mouthpieces of terrorist groups”, while denying in the same breath that his proposal would abridge press freedom.

Adan told radio listeners last Tuesday that the media must “act responsibly” and “regulate themselves.” General Alan Cabalquinto, Chief of the National Capital Region Command, echoed Adan’s “responsibility” theme, but added that the media could “act responsibly” by helping the police and military capture the “terrorists” reporters interview.

These statements were made in the wake of Adan’s earlier argument that media interviews with “terrorists” imperil national security, and that practitioners who do so must be penalized. While he did not specify what the penalties would be, one could expect them, in broadcast media, to include the withdrawal of franchises. In print, where there is no government regulation at present, the penalties could be prison terms.

(One of the ironies in the Philippine media situation is that since no one has to be licensed to practice, there is nothing one can threaten journalists with except jail terms or fines. Any penalty imposed on journalists would necessarily be severe under existing conditions.)

A ban on media interviews with “terrorists” would formalize a common practice among reporters: that of relying solely on the government, specifically on the police and the military, for information on, say, who’s likely to have committed the latest bombing in General Santos or Davao City.

That would make the practice of media dependence on government sources no longer a matter of reporter choice, which already compromises journalistic independence, but a matter of compulsion. The practice already mocks the Constitutional protection of press freedom, and also violates the fundamental journalistic principle of consulting several sources.

That long-established principle assumes that reliance on a single source is likely to lead to one-sided, and therefore misleading, reports. But it is rarely followed in Philippine media practice in areas of conflict. Reporters rely almost solely on the police and the military for information in the war zones of Mindanao, Central Luzon and the Visayas either because they can’t access other sources, they’re in the payrolls of the police and the military, or are biased in the latter’s favor, anyway. As much as 90 percent of news sources in conflict areas are in fact military and civilian bureaucrats.

In Adan’s and Cabalquinto’s ideal world, the police and military would be, as they were during martial rule, the sole shapers of public opinion along the lines they want it to be. And yet, they’ve lost that Eden only partly. Media interviews with “terrorists” are noticeable only for their rarity, and it’s military and police information that’s grist for the media mill.

Most media people are also government partisans rather than secret Abu Sayyaf supporters. While some journalists have made it a career to present Abu Sayyaf and similar personages in a good light, they have not been driven by political conviction as much as by careerist ambition. The media people in this category, among whom only one has had national prominence, may be counted on the fingers of one hand.

All this puts the military ahead in the propaganda game. Apparently, however, that’s not enough for Adan and company. They would also urge the media to be “responsible” by not interviewing “terrorists” and by talking only to the AFP. And yet the media do try to regulate themselves, either singly through internal guidelines, or through professional organizations like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Some newspapers keep manuals of professional and ethical behavior. ABS-CBN and GMA 7 have had rules of coverage in place for some time. The Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP–Association of Philippine Broadcasters) is revising its martial law-era TV and radio codes.

Many media practitioners have long understood that responsible behavior is indivisible from the freedom the Constitution guarantees them, and they don’t need Cabalquinto (whom they don’t know from Adan) to lecture them about it. But they also understand that responsibility is best exercised by reporting the views of all those involved in complex public issues.

Implicit in Generals Adan and Cabalquinto’s statements, however, is the demand that the media report only the views of one side, the government’s. Cabalquinto would even have the media help the police and the military capture those they interview, who could presumably include common criminals, terrorists, rebels, and whoever else is opposed to the government.

What Adan don’t know is that taking sides is contrary to the principles of fair and accurate reporting; and it also makes the media’s job so much harder. Getting sources to talk to reporters is inherently difficult, and being biased in one’s reporting makes it ten, twenty times more problematic. But to actually help the police and the military capture those one interviews is worse– for reasons obvious to everyone except generals.

What’s at stake is not so much press freedom by itself as its role in developing the capacity of the citizenry to form intelligent opinions in making decisions about the issues that affect them. Terrorism is one of those issues. The public benefits from being informed about an Abu Sayyaf warning that it will bomb certain public places, but can’t possibly gain anything from the media’s airing the incoherent ramblings of Abu Sayyaf leaders. Most media organizations have been wise enough to report the first, and to ignore the second.

But beyond the public’s immediate need for information is its need to understand what drives groups that have been tagged as terrorist–to make up its mind, in the first place, as to which groups can be justly so described–so it can intelligently evaluate the proposed solutions to the problem.

Is police and military action enough, or should we also address such issues as the grinding poverty and marginalization of the Muslim community, for example? These are decisions citizens must make, and media can help them by keeping all avenues of information and debate open. Penalizing journalists for interviewing “terrorist” groups will shut down those avenues, to the long-term disadvantage of this country and its people.

(Manila Standard Today/

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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