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Media will be media

THERE SEEMS to be no doubt that media contributed to the tragedy of the Luneta hostage crisis. They gave ex-policeman Rolando Mendoza the venue and the “loudspeaker” to extort the government, the main goal after all of any hostage-taker.

They gave him the monitoring system to keep tabs on what was going on around him. They even probably puffed his ego, as he was on television, in his well-ironed uniform. That televised scene of his brother being hauled off by the police probably blew his top to a murderous rage.

It would be utterly naïve though to expect that media will comply with certain “guidelines” so that the next time around, they’d behave properly, in the manner the State wants them to.

Media have their own job to do. Ordered to cover a major news event, a journalist’s worry is not over the possible adverse impact of his reportage on people, but whether he’d be scooped by his rivals in some way. Welcome to the real world.

Imagine a reporter with his or her cameraman at Luneta that afternoon. Foremost in his mind is how to cover the story as close as he can, even—if he is a journalist worth his salt—to interview Mendoza and the hostages. Can you imagine how his superior will respond if he first calls in to say: “Sir (or Ma’m), we have a responsibility to resolve this crisis, so I suggest we not take shots of the SWAT team moving in.” If media people have to evaluate the impact of their reportage, they’d be paralyzed, and we’d have no news.

I myself had been put in a very roughly similar ethical spot. Sometime in 1983, a ranking official of the Central Bank appealed to me not to report on certain confidential data I got that alerted the world that the Philippines was about to default on its foreign debt, which it did in November 1983. “You’ll push the country to the brink, and that will be on your conscience,” the official said. I ignored his pleas and, when the events towards and on February 1986 occurred, I felt good I just did my job.

Media as a whole is a social institution along with others such as the State, the Judiciary, the Church, and each has its own design, its own programming, as it were, to undertake a specific task.

It would be, and has been counterproductive to a society, if an institution tries to assume the tasks of another, as in the case of the Church dictating state policy on contraceptives, or the media pretending to be an anti-graft court or, worse, as a people-power force.

Cruel as it may sound, but concern about the safety of hostages cannot be media’s concern, even if we certainly applaud media people whose priority is such. (I would doubt if such a journalist would keep his job for long.) It is certainly not the role of the State to make sure the public in such a crisis situation gets the information it wants—or enjoys. The State’s overarching job is to save the victims, by whatever means.

Especially since it is the only institution with the monopoly of power, it is the State which has to undertake measures to restrict media, if it deems that their behavior risks the lives of citizens. As the FBI did in the Waco Texas assault, the “police line” was so many kilometers away that media could only get very grainy, indistinct features of how the raid was being conducted. In the United States and Europe, many city blocks from a crime or crisis scene are routinely cordoned off from the public and the media. Technology can restrict cell phone usage by a hostage-taker. If the issue of press freedom is raised—as it was in the Manila Peninsula Magdalo crisis—then media should go to the court, while government goes about its job in the meantime.

But the media institution isn’t a machine, it is a human institution. The State doesn’t always have to use force to restrict media’s activities. It had been one of my main jobs to engage individually in rational but often intense discussions such very wilful news bosses such as ABS-CBN’s Maria Ressa; or very level-headed media owners such as RMN’s Canoy brothers in such issues as blocking the Abu Sayyaf’s efforts to get media coverage. One broadcast network acceded to our plea not to disclose during the Dos Palmas crisis the identity of our negotiator—a crucial element in any hostage situation. We are grateful to a Filipino staffer in an international news network who alerted us that her network would be airing an exclusive interview with an Abu Sayyaf spokesman. We managed to convince her to convince her bosses that this is exactly what the terrorists wanted, and would have endangered the resolution of the crisis.

Media organizations are not abstract institutions, but businesses with their own hierarchy, and owned by real people—in our country by single individuals or families. You cannot lecture the media owners and editors what to do, or demand that they follow your moralistic standards. You can only appeal to, or better debate with them, but only on very specific issues. Sometimes they help out; sometimes they’d give that worn-out “I-don’t-interfere-with-editorial-decisions” retort. This process, this continuous intellectual engagement with them, is critical, the chief work of that now extinct official called the “Press Secretary.”

Democratic societies in fact have been marked by this continuous contest among the state, the media and private citizens over the limits of press freedom. The Press sometimes gets the upper hand, as in the enactment of the US Freedom of Information Act, only to lose some ground in other arenas, as in court rulings in Canada and in certain US states requiring the disclosure of a confidential source’s identity. This dialectic must continue in a democratic society.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer