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    The media’s responsibility

    Guest editorial by Jon Joaquin

As a journalist, I feel I rather strongly about freedom of the press. In many ways I am an absolutist about it: I resist any argument put forward by well- meaning friends who say media ought to be regulated in one way or another, just like other professions. My reply is that journalists are not using a special privilege in exercising their profession but are merely exercising their freedom of expression. We fight for this freedom because if we are not free to speak, then no one else is. As someone once said, the duty of free media in a free society is to be free.

But while I do not believe in government regulating media, I do believe in the media industry regulating itself. I feel it is the responsibility of media practitioners to check each other so that no abuses are committed and that lapses are dealt with. To a certain extent, the Philippine media have been successful in this, but in light of the recent deadly hostage-taking incident in Manila, we now realize that much still needs to be done. The carnage is partly being blamed on broadcasters who literally gave the hostage taker, former police officer Rolando Mendoza, a blow-by-blow account of what the authorities were doing and planning outside the bus that he had hijacked; it is now generally accepted that the shooting rampage was triggered by live footage of Mendoza’s brother being arrested.

It is interesting that while the Philippine National Police (PNP) has already admitted to some lapses, the media – particularly the broadcasters who aired the footage – have kept their stand that they had done nothing wrong and that they were merely doing their job of reporting the news. The PNP has already done some internal assessment of the operation to rescue the hostages and neutralize Mendoza, and it is to its credit that it has come out clean and is owning up to some mistakes in handling the crisis. The same, however, cannot be said about the media.

It had become apparent early on that Mendoza had access to broadcast news through a television set installed inside the tourist bus. Someone had also given him a cell phone with which he could communicate with anyone sympathetic to his cause. Truth to tell, in this age of pervasive electronic communication, it would actually have been hard for Mendoza not to be aware of what was going on around him. Through the bus TV set, the radio, and even the cell phone, he was able to track the movement, strategies, and the very actions of the police.

The broadcast media, therefore, had the responsibility to pull back and refrain from airing a running account of all that was happening. In some ways they did follow this common sense procedure, but ultimately they succumbed to the call of ratings. Simply put, they had to show the unfolding drama in all its detail because it is what sells.

Media could always invoke freedom of the press, but in a situation in which lives are at stake, even censorship is justifiable. That government did not impose a news blackout is probably one of its biggest mistakes, for that would have deprived Mendoza of the advantage of knowing what the police were planning. But even without a news blackout, the authorities could still have taken other steps to prevent Mendoza from literally observing what they were doing. A more secure cordon, for example, could have been established to prevent cameras from pushing their lenses into every detail, and police officials could have simply said no to live interviews.

The media that covered the incident have a lot of explaining to do, and their deliberate dodging of the issue is cause for serious concern. Without an acknowledgment that they at least contributed to the chaos that ended the crisis, there is no guarantee that such carnage would never be repeated.

Jon Joaquin is the managing editor of the largest circulation newspaper in Mindanao, the Mindanao Daily Mirror in Davao City.

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