Commentaries: Professional standards during crisis coverage

by | Jul 1, 2010 | Commentary

by Karl Wilson


The Philippine media has a well-earned reputation for fearless reporting, much of it gained during the dark days of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos when the media was either closed or heavily censored. This gave rise to a thriving underground press known as the “Mosquito Press.” It never stayed in one place, was constantly on the move but its reports often stung. The end of Marcos saw the dawning of what was supposed to have been a new age for the Philippines and its people. The 1987 Philippine Constitution (Article III Bill of rights) says:

Section 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press …

Section 7. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized.

Journalists in the Philippines, particularly the broadcast media, enlist the Constitution and the freedom of the press to vindicate their professional conduct or misconduct but this does not give the media the right to ignore ethical, moral and legal considerations.


Last Friday (August 27) the Philippine Daily Inquirer in an article on page A12 quoted chief superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, the ground commander during Monday’s bloody tourist bus siege, as saying: “You cannot control the media.”


Magtibay went on to say he did not seek to regulate the media coverage in the absence of a “protocol or memorandum of understanding” between law enforcers and the media. “I still did not stop the media.”


He admitted the police lost their “preemptive advantage because the hostage taker was seeing what was happening outside.”


“On hindsight, I think there should have been a balance between the public’s right to know and, at the same time, the safety of hostages,” he was quoted as saying.


Magtibay is wrong because you can, and sometimes have to, control the media. As a foreign correspondent in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s I covered similar stories and the police were specific in what the media could or could not do. The media had to “stay behind the line.”


The Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980 and the riots that erupted in various cities around the country the following year were dramatic and the coverage extensive but there was a line that the media knew they could not cross in case they jeopardized their own and others’ safety and the success of the police operation.


So why should it be any different in the Philippines? The fatal hostage drama last Monday was a circus, in usual Philippine style. The problem is that the police want to be press, television or radio celebrities, politicians want their 30 seconds of fame, and the broadcasters and photographers want their stories and pictures even if it means breaking police lines and trampling over the crime scene or what’s left of it. There is no real order of command.


Why were journalists covering this story allowed to broadcast positions of snipers knowing that the hostage taker was watching it all unfold on television on the bus where he was holding the tourists hostage? Or interview the bus driver before the police could interview him? And the list goes on.


Journalists, no matter where they work, need to be professional and know how to work in a crisis situation. They need to be aware of the uncertainty and, more than anything else, be aware of the need for sensitive reporting.


In this country one gets the feeling that many journalists want to become part of the story and not just cover the story.


During the “Wow-wow-wee” stampede back in 2006 some 70 bodies (mainly old women) were laid out on the street like animals from a slaughter house. Grieving relatives hugged loved ones as photographers fell over themselves taking more and more pictures. I asked a cameraman why he continued to trip over bodies taking more pictures than his newspaper was ever going to run. “Don’t you have any compassion for the dead and their relatives…?” His reply was so Filipino: “Why? They are dead …”


The comedy that was the Peninsula siege a few years back saw the media march from the court house to the five star hotel with Antonio Trillanes and his band. Trillanes, whose trial is still going on for his part in the Oakwood mutiny, is now a Philippine senator, another bizarre story in itself. As the siege unfolded Trillanes and his band had maximum media coverage. There was even some suggestion at the time (although never proven) that some sections of the broadcast media were privy to what was going to happen. When the police and military arrived, the media was asked to leave. Some went but others (mainly locals) stayed and then questioned why they were bundled into buses by police at the end of the siege and accused of obstructing efforts to end it.


It is probably easy for someone who has reported sieges in other countries to be critical of the local media but the local media, despite its enthusiasm, lacks basic education, ethics and legal knowledge. Many are poorly trained and most receive low salaries despite many of their companies making huge profits.


So the quest for the best story, shot or film footage is primarily driven by reward which should not be the way the media works. At the same time, because of the utter contempt felt by most people in this country for law enforcement and local politicians, the media circus last Monday is understandable. However it demeans the profession and is not excusable on legal and ethical grounds.



Karl Wilson iKarl Wilson is a faculty member of the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University. He teaches Media Law and International Reporting. Karl was formerly the Manila bureau chief for Agence France-Presse.


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