OUTSTANDING in its incompetence was the police response to the hostage-taking by a former police officer of the busload of Hong Kong tourists last Monday. Despite the cocky assurances of police spokespersons that they had “everything under control,” exactly how in control they were was evident in the aftermath of the crisis.

Nine people are dead including the hostage- taker, eight of the dead mostly tourists from Hong Kong, which was the most grievous consequence of the colossal stupidity that apparently afflicts an institution whose demonstrated expertise is limited to torture. Incidental to this loss of lives, for which every human being must mourn, is the confirmation, in the past usually denied by government officials pretending outrage, of the near universal belief that the Philippines is a dangerous place whether for tourists, foreign investors, or, lest we forget, Filipinos themselves.

There’s an outstanding reason for it. If in some countries the police are part of the solution to lawlessness and criminal enterprise — to mayhem, murder, theft, drug- running, and most specially human rights violations — in this country they’re part of the problem, as the Rizal Park hostage- taker, an “outstanding policeman” awardee, was .

Although only the most recent example of how the police manage to “solve” crimes such as petty theft, the case of the Manila police officer caught in a cellphone video torturing a suspected thief is not an isolated one. Despite an anti-torture law, and the Philippines’ being a signatory to international covenants that protect human rights, torture is as common a police practice as having multiple wives. Other torture victims have come forward to add to the record of police lawlessness and brutality their own experience of being beaten and subjected to electric shocks and water torture, and/or their wives and children threatened with execution or worse in their presence.

As for murder, the police record in the killing of journalists alone is enough to validate former Manila police chief and now Mayor Alfredo Lim’s observation, made many years ago, that the only solution to our problems with the police is to disband the entire organization and start all over again from zero.

Incompetence kills, but is only the other side of police lawlessness. Policemen constitute the majority of the suspected killers and/or masterminds in the killing of journalists in the Philippines, which currently stands at the world record of 114 since 1986. One of the first killers of journalists to be convicted was a policeman, whom his superiors earlier hid when ordered arrested by the courts for the murder of Pagadian City broadcaster Edgar Damalerio in 2003. In the record-breaking Ampatuan-town massacre of November 23, 2009, 20 policemen are among those accused of conspiring to kill, and actually shooting, 57 men and women, including 32 journalists and media workers.

Saving lives may not be the Philippine police’s strong suit. But apparently, neither is it that of the leading broadcast networks’, whose actions last August 23 have provided the enemies of press freedom one more argument for government regulation.

It’s not as if there were no ethical protocols, developed over the last 200 years of journalism practice as well as more recent experience, to guide reportage during kidnappings, hostage- taking and the like.

In last Monday’s incident, the three leading, privately-owned broadcast networks abandoned, completely forgot, or perhaps never really knew, that the first principle in covering hostage, terrorist and conflict situations is to assume — much like the need to assume that a gun is always loaded — that the culprit has access to television and/or radio broadcasts.

These networks were reporting in painful, frantic, and in one case, panic-stricken, detail what the police planned to do and were doing, including where their snipers were positioned, etc., in addition to broadcasting live the arrest of the hostage-taker’s brother as well as interviews with his relatives and neighbors. As anyone with at least a single digit IQ knows, broadcasting the details of police operations, especially when they’re as amateurish as those of the Philippine police, provides usually media-savvy hostage-takers information that could enable them to anticipate police actions and therefore prolong the crisis. In last Monday’s incident, the live broadcast of the arrest of his brother very likely also pushed the hostage-taker to start shooting the hostages.

Avoiding live coverage including interviews, and refusing involvement in police-hostage-taker negotiations even if the police demand it, are part of the ethical and professional protocols of media coverage during hostage situations. One broadcaster’s negotiating with the hostage-taker last Monday — and his station’s airing it — was thus in the same category of mindlessness as broadcasting the details of police operations.

There are sound reasons for the prohibition against live interviews and negotiations with hostage-takers. One is that they could use the interview or the negotiations, as these are aired live, to convey messages to their accomplices. Another is the journalist’s and his organization’s loss of control over the utterances of the hostage-taker. The third is that such interviews air only the hostage-taker’s views to the exclusion of those against whom he has grievances. Finally, journalists are not trained negotiators. If policemen should not be doing journalism, neither should journalists do police work.

The death of nine people is the worst consequence of police incompetence and media insensitivity last Monday. But it also encourages the already rampant view among the country’s legislators and citizens that the media need government regulation to prevent their making bad situations worse.

One congressman has already introduced a bill requiring TV and radio networks to delay broadcasts rather than air them live — which is already part of the ethical protocols in covering hostage situations. Another has suggested the government’s imposition of a news blackout during similar incidents. Such “solutions” are illusory, government regulation being the sure guarantee of media irrelevance rather than responsibility. But it’s a proposal that thanks to what happened last Monday will meet the approval of a citizenry appalled by the disgraceful performance not only of the police, but also by the outstanding irresponsibility of the leading representatives of the broadcast media.


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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