PHILIPPINES: Media Take a Hit in Hostage Crisis

  • by Kara Santos — Asia Media Forum* (manila)
  • Saturday, August 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

The media’s blow-by-blow reportage of the 11-hour standoff on Aug. 2, included detailed descriptions that critics say revealed police movements and plans to dismissed policeman Rolando Mendoza, who had taken the hostages to try to get his job back.

In media organisations’ race for news, technology made reporting faster and closer to audiences — and more risky. It did not seem to dawn on many, until later, that live footage of Mendoza’s brother, also a policeman, being taken into custody had been seen by the hostage-taker from inside the bus, and may well have helped drive him to start shooting the hostages.

'Media may not be entirely to blame, but nevertheless, some of that blood is on their hands,' one enraged Filipino posted on Facebook.

'Have some common sense! Isn’t it utter stupidity to announce live on air what the police are doing,' another posted in the vernacular Filipino language on a news channel’s Twitter account.

By the time the hostage crisis ended on that rainy night, near the Quirino Grandstand not far from scenic Manila Bay, eight of the 15 hostages left inside the bus were dead after being shot by the M-16-armed Mendoza. He was shot dead by Manila police during their assault on the bus.

A chorus of anger, disbelief, embarrassment and diatribes followed, much of it toward the Special Weapons Action Team (SWAT) of the Manila police, which was shown struggling to get into the bus and retreating from bullets.

As anger rose from Hong Kong - the standoff was covered live by international news networks - so did Filipinos demand accountability by the police and the two-month-old government of President Benigno Aquino III. 'We hope we could have done better,' Aquino said. Earlier, the President himself dug into how media coverage of the arrest of Mendoza’s brother itself 'further agitated' the hostage taker.

Journalists and media organisations have since given a mix of post-mortems.

Major broadcast station ABS-CBN acknowledged having aired a report detailed the position of the police during the assault, but said it practised self-restraint. 'We refused to air the hostage taker's threats live about a 3 p.m. deadline to avoid fuelling public fear. After the assault began, we tried to limit our shots to avoid showing police movements,' ABS-CBN News said in a statement. It said that it would have complied with a news blackout — had one been called by the government.

Rival station GMA-7 said it would come up with revised guidelines for coverage.

But others argue that news organisations, especially TV and radio that covered the crisis for 12 hours straight, should have exercised more prudence.

Journalist teacher Luz Rimban, who used to work for television, calls for introspection into when live coverage is really needed.

Live coverage is a must in situations such as the disaster that Typhoon Ketsana caused in record floods in 2009, when media had to report the extent of damage and identify where help was needed. But 'a hostage-taking incident is a different thing altogether. After all this time, after all such similar incidents in the past, we in the media should realise there's really no public service value in going live on a hostage-taking,' Rimban said in an interview.

Most guidelines in covering crisis situations were forgotten during the Aug. 23 hostage drama, points out Red Batario, Asia-Pacific coordinator of the International News Safety Institute, which provides safety training for journalists worldwide.

'Everybody was so caught up in drama. They were trying to outdo each other to get the better shot and break the story first,' Batario said in an interview. 'They should have considered that by airing live they could have endangered lives, including their own.'

But then again, left to their own devices, media will cover what is out there, says Vergel Santos, a senior editor and board member of the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility. 'In the absence of any preventive police measures, the media naturally proceeded to position themselves as close to the action as they could: it's a professional frame of mind,' Santos said. 'The media are expected to operate on habit once on the ground: get the full story at all costs.'

Some top officials at the scene were 'scarcely heard from or seen taking command, effectively inviting the media to feed freely on the spectacle', he added.

Rimban points to problems with gatekeeping information after field reports reached editors’ desks. 'The people inside the newsroom who had the power to decide simply didn't make the right decisions. They were overcome by competition, the need to do what the other station was doing, just so they wouldn't be outscooped,' she said.

But in the aftermath of the crisis — China, Hong Kong and other countries have issued travel advisories to the Philippines — it is a sympathetic statement from journalists in Hong Kong, where the anger is at its highest level, that urges temperance in blaming the media for the botched rescue attempt. 'It is unrealistic to ask the media not to broadcast live in a matter of huge public interest not only to the Filipinos themselves, but also to people in Hong Kong and elsewhere,' the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association said.

It called instead for proper media arrangements in accordance with internationally accepted standards for such situations.

*The Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org) is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession, as well as stories and opinions on democracy, development and human rights in Asia. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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