Tuesday, August 24, 2010
PITFALLS OF BEING THE "FORWARD OBSERVER"
The tragic hostage drama at the Luneta has triggered plenty of finger-pointing on who should be blamed for its deadly consequences.
From what we’ve read, the search for scapegoats appears to be focusing on the police and media.
University of the Philippines journalism professor Luis Teodoro called the blow-by-blow account of the deadly drama “careless”. There appears to be a growing consensus that media protocols were violated.
Media access – restricted only by the journalist’s own fear of being hit by stray bullets – allowed the broadcasting of sensitive events, especially the arrest of the hostage-taker’s brother, that is now believed to have pushed former police captain Rolando Mendoza to start executing his hostages.
Those media protocols were culled from many years of trial and error in live reporting of breaking news events.
The struggle to strike a balance between what media can report and the real-time concerns of people tasked to manage certain tumultuous events has been ongoing since media developed the capability to report live from the scene.
It appears that equilibrium has been broken again, and now another debate is raging to define the parameters of responsible journalism.
During the December 1989 coup attempt, a dear friend and colleague, Bing Formento of radio station dzRH, earned the ire of military officials who accused him of being a “forward observer” for rebel soldiers.
We were inside Camp Aguinaldo, reporting for the Philippine Star, as it came into range of rebel artillery.
A small group of us decided to take a break in what we thought was the quietest corner of the camp – near the 9th hole of Camp Aguinaldo greens – when a loud explosion and the sight of flying roof materials from just outside the camp wall forced us to retreat to the safety of the Press dug-out at the grandstand.
Bing immediately reported the explosion on air, and then a second explosion.
We didn’t know any better at the time, despite years of covering the military, that we were inadvertently helping the rebels “bracket” their target. They were trying to “zero” their mortars to the General Headquarters building and were using their initial rounds to locate the farthest and nearest points of an ever shrinking circle where they would concentrate their fire.
We were driven at the time by the impulse to tell events as they happen, to warn the public – especially those living near the military headquarters – so they can make correct decisions for their safety and wellbeing. But in retrospect we also couldn’t deny the fact that if rebels troops were indeed listening to Bing’s reports, they were getting the information they needed on a silver platter.
We are reminded of that incident because of the apparently unresolved conflict between the right of media to inform the public and its duty “not to make things worse”.
Bing was hounded out of the defense beat by a military deeply suspicious of his coverage of that coup attempt. He eventually found his way to San Francisco, California where he applied for asylum. He has since gone home and resumed his duties with dzRH.
Most of this is driven by the competitive pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. There are few opportunities for introspection when events are spinning out of control like what appears to have occurred in the last 90 minutes or so of the hostage crisis.
This is certainly not unique or peculiar to Philippine media.
But the fact that government, particularly the Manila local government and police, managed the situation so poorly appears to only aggravate that basic limitation of media.
Lord Reith, the first chairman of British Broadcasting (BBC), said that “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the people want is creating a fictitious demand for lower standards, which he will then satisfy”.
The Philippine National Police has admitted to serious lapses in the botched police rescue. Watching the ABS-CBN News Channel from the comfort of our living room in Virginia, we’re heartened to see the media has begun its own self-examination. These two pillars of public service are certainly in search of a lot of questions and answers.