WAS THAT airport incident in which a columnist (Ramon Tulfo of the Philippine Daily Inquirer) got into a scuffle with an actor (Raymart Santiago), his actress-wife (Claudine Barretto), and their friends when he took videos of Ms. Barretto with his cellphone, and ended up the worse for it, an assault on press freedom?

The argument in favor says that Mr. Tulfo had a right to take photos and videos of a public figure in a public venue. The group’s supposedly ganging up on him constituted suppression of that right– which, it has also been argued, Tulfo was exercising in fulfillment of his duty as a journalist.

The argument unfortunately neglects to mention that the facts of the encounter have not been established, among other reasons because the media themselves have further stoked the passions of the moment by milking the incident for all it’s worth, interviewing the columnist and reporting his side of the story, while also interviewing the actor and his wife for their version of it.

With court charges having been filed by both sides, who started it all and who threw the first punch (or kick) is now for the courts to decide. But certain facts have nevertheless come to light, thanks to the protagonists themselves.

Tulfo is on record as saying he didn’t know who he was taking video footage of, while both Santiago and Barretto have declared that they didn’t know the columnist.

If Tulfo did not know who he was taking footage of, that means that he could only have assumed that Barretto was no public figure but a private one. He describes her as a “matrona,” which literally means “matron,” but which in Philippine street language means a dowdy, middle- aged woman. The skeptical could question Tulfo’s honesty as far as his saying that he did not know Barretto is concerned. But that claim doesn’t favor Tulfo.

On the contrary. On the assumption that Barretto could have just been someone’s screechy wife, journalism ethics required that Tulfo at least obtain permission first before photographing or taking video footage of her—or, what’s even better, that he respect her privacy as a private person by not doing so. (Even public figures, however, have a right to their privacy, and a request on their part to respect it is usually granted, except by the most vicious paparazzi.)

But by no means was Mr. Santiago entitled to getting his hands on Tulfo’s cellphone, presumably so he could erase the offending videos and/or photos in it. If Santiago did not know who Tulfo was, and if he did reinforce his demand for his cellphone with violence, it was still no assault on press freedom — on a journalist’s right to cover a public event involving public figures.

By his own admission, Tulfo did not bother to introduce himself to the people he was taking videos and stills of. From Santiago’s viewpoint then, Tulfo was not a journalist whose press freedom he was suppressing, merely some busybody getting his kicks photographing and/or taking video footage of his wife.

One of the first provisions of the Philippine Journalists’ Code of Ethics is the need for the journalist to identify him/herself when doing his/her job. The Inquirer should have a copy of the Code posted somewhere in the premises, in addition to its own internal rules of conduct manual. Tulfo has presumably read—and understood — both.

There are at least two, perfectly sound reasons for the journalist’s introducing him/herself. The first is to forewarn the subjects he or she is covering (which includes photographing and taking video footage) that whatever they say or do could end up in the six o’clock news (or on the front pages, or in someone’s column). Armed with this warning, the subjects or interviewees can weigh their words carefully and moderate their on-camera actions.

The second is for the journalist’s own protection. Identifying him/herself puts him or her, in his or her subject’s eyes, under the protection of Article III Section 4 of the Constitution — or , what the heck, at least of the respect journalists are usually, though not always, entitled to. It’s entirely possible that had Santiago known that Tulfo was an Inquirer columnist, he would have (literally) pulled his punches. That’s by now pure speculation.

But the bottom line is that Tulfo didn’t know who he was taking video and still shots of, while Santiago didn’t know who he was protecting his wife from. Rather than the “assault on press freedom” the incident was supposed to be, it was therefore no more than a scuffle between someone who, unknown to Santiago, was a columnist (and apparently also a TV5 talent), and a group of actors, both of whom thought themselves clothed in certain entitlements: Tulfo’s apparent belief that he can photograph/video anyone he pleases, and Santiago’s own assumption that he can do anything to stop anyone from doing the same to his wife by virtue of his and her celebrity status.

Santiago and company could end up the villains in the NAIA 3 Sunday drama, and Tulfo the victim. But that would not make him and his group the enemies of press freedom some elements of the media and press community say they are, only individuals too quick with their fists– which is bad enough.

As far as that’s concerned, on the other hand, one could say the same thing about Mr. Tulfo, not to mention his brothers, who, would you believe it, actually used their TV5 program to threaten Santiago and Barretto with physical violence, and who later issued an apology closer to a non-apology than lips are to teeth.

The NAIA 3 encounter may not be of the same significance as the pump prices of gas, the Scarborough Shoals impasse, the dollar and peso accounts of Renato Corona, the criminal complaint eight of the Morong 43 have filed against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her military gang, and other woes in these isles of mayhem.

But it should tell us all that it’s not just in filmdom where machismo rules. The same pissing-contest mentality is also pretty much in evidence in the lower depths of the media where neither ethics nor professional standards matter, or are even known. It’s enough of a disincentive for going into journalism or anything media-related.

Meanwhile, although it’s been said before, it still bears repeating: some if not most press people dish out criticism with such enthusiasm you’d think they were perfect. But when the other shoe drops, they can’t take criticism, especially when it’s other members of the media and press community who’re doing it. In one more demonstration of the “tayo-tayo” culture, they demand that everyone should look out for everyone else in the community, and should hype what’s basically an encounter between people who’re simply too quick with their fists (and feet) into an issue of principle. And they use not only Twitter and Facebook, but also the pages of their newspapers and their networks’ airtime to do so — acts that, while ethically dubious, they apparently think they can commit with impunity.


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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  1. Yeah, not really an affront to freedom of the press by any means considering the circumstances. Also, both parties are liars. So, who is surprised? So, tell us something new.

  2. A well written article. Tulfo in my opinion has gravelly misused his “power” as a commentator post the incident. Nearly every piece he has written since on the incident, and there have been way too many, have undisguised hints of his former machismo, his indignation, his latent aggressiveness and perceived wrong. This isn’t journalism or social commentary! He is using his position to push his case! The fact that the Inquirer allows these to be published is equally concerning. Surely there is an industry watchdog that censures this sort of thing rather than the already cluttered courts.

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