Stock photo of cameramen (Michal Kryński/signuversum/Pixabay)

It’s been said before, but has never been taken seriously by the members of a community whose egos are as vast as cathedrals: those in the media criticize anyone and anything except themselves. In more times than can be counted, irresponsible and ethically clueless practitioners excuse their own behavior no matter their consequences to the public they’re supposed to serve. They argue that they’re merely doing their jobs in behalf of the people’s right to know and the exercise of their rights to press freedom and free expression.

One such instance demonstrative of many media organizations’ and practitioners’ refusal to recognize their shortcomings and to do something about them was the way they covered the August 23, 2010 hostage-taking incident at Manila’s Rizal Park that cost the lives of nine of the 18 hostages and the hostage-taker himself, and injured several others.

The coverage was irresponsible and costly enough for the Senate committees on information and mass media and on public services to summon the heads of the news departments of the major broadcast networks and to warn them  that despite the Constitutional protection of press freedom, unless they “restrain” themselves, the Senate would be forced to pass a law to regulate their coverage of hostage-taking and similar crisis situations.

To a congressman in the House of Representatives, what happened was already enough reason for him to file a bill that would punish any reporter and media organization for reporting police and troop movements during similar crises. That bill nearly passed into law because of the public outrage over the media coverage’s prolonging the hostage-taking crisis and even contributing to its bloody conclusion.

Restraint was precisely what was lacking in the media coverage of the 2010 hostaging of a busful of tourists from Hongkong, China and Taiwan by a former Manila police officer. Through its detailed, blow-by-blow accounts, one of the broadcast networks provided the hostage-taker, who was following through the tourist bus TV the media coverage of the crisis he had created, such real time information as the positions and deployment of police sniper and assault teams.

The two leading broadcast networks covered the entire crisis live. A radio station provided the hostage-taker the publicity he craved — which in fact had moved him to hijack the bus and to hold the tourists in it against their will — by interviewing him live. Although untrained in the often life or death arts of negotiating with hostage takers, one broadcaster also took on the non-media role of mediating between him and the police, and tied up the phone lines in the process, preventing police negotiators from doing their jobs. All the networks and their affiliates also covered the arrest of the hostage-taker‘s brother, which he saw on television and provoked him into shooting the hostages.

Confronted with these lethal blunders, all of the media organizations involved justified their actions, including their covering the crisis live. And yet all the above acts were in violation of long-standing journalism protocols on the coverage of hostage-taking, terrorism and similar threats to public safety. The prohibition against live coverage and interviewing hostage-takers has in fact been in place for years in the Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP — the Association of Broadcasters in the Philippines) Broadcast Code.

The reasons are fairly clear and should be evident to anyone with some understanding of the public impact of journalism practice. Covering such incidents live is likely to provide hostage-takers the information they need to prolong the crisis; specially in this digital age, one must assume that like everyone else, hostage takers too have access to television, radio and other media. Interviewing them live can also encourage copycats by demonstrating that they too can use the media to disseminate their views to a wide audience to gain public sympathy. 

The bloody consequences of the August 23, 2010 incident for which the media were at least partly to blame were understandably enough for government officials to once more raise the specter of State regulation. That threat should have driven home to the media that their own failings can be another excuse for abridging press freedom and, by extension, free expression. But nine years and three months later, as another hostage-taking incident once more endangered dozens of lives, it seemed that the lessons of that nearly decade-old episode had been forgotten — or had never been learned at all.

A disgruntled security guard held several persons hostage last March 3 in the San Juan City mall where he had been employed. During negotiations with the police he demanded as one of the conditions for his surrender that the media be present and that he be given the opportunity to present his case to the media audiences in a question and answer session with reporters. To calm him enough for them to overpower and arrest him, the police agreed to that condition, and, oddly enough, also allowed the hostage-taker to keep his firearm.

Some of the reporters from the TV networks whom the police called complained that they did not know that their interviewing the hostage taker was among the conditions for his surrender and that, in any case, the police had endangered their lives because they were within spitting distance of an armed crime suspect. So focused were they on getting a sensational story aired in furtherance of their stations’ commercial interests that it didn’t occur to anyone of them that they could very well have refused to attend what amounted to a press conference by someone who, armed with a grenade and a pistol, had threatened to kill several people unless his demands were met, and who had earlier already shot someone. 

The police could indeed be criticized for using the reporters for their purposes and without any regard for their safety, but so could the latter. They did not have to buy into the police determination to capture the hostage taker at all costs, among them by granting his demand for media coverage. As mature, presumably responsible practitioners, the reporters and their media organizations could have refused to interview the hostage-taker because of the risk of someone else’s holding people hostage so he can get media and public attention. That they did not was a violation of the fundamental ethical principle in journalism of not doing harm, or at least minimizing harm: others could be similarly hostaged, endangered, hurt or even killed by anyone with a grievance to publicize.

What happened last March 3 is better understood in the context of the current government focus on abridging press freedom and regulating the media. The Duterte regime could very well cite as a justification for reining in the media their in effect demonstrating to anyone with any grievance, whether real or imagined, that they can get the publicity they need by emulating the hostage-taker, or worse. In that sense, in the pursuit of their commercial interests the media were practically asking for State regulation.  What they need is a large dose of self-criticism and self- restraint if they are to be true to the ethical imperative of not doing harm — and for them to truly deserve the Constitutional protection of press freedom and free expression that the heralds of State regulation and censorship are so eagerly undermining daily.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo courtesy of Michal Kryński/signuversum on Pixabay.

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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