MANILA, Philippines—Broadcast media found itself under fire for delivering a blow-by-blow account of Monday’s hostage-taking inside a tourist bus and a bungled police assault that led to its bloody end at Quirino Grandstand in Manila.
Academicians and a journalists’ group Tuesday agreed that the airing of sensitive incidents during the crisis had provoked former Senior Insp. Rolando Mendoza into shooting his mostly Chinese hostages. Mendoza and eight of the hostages were killed.
“I don’t know if the media were aware that whatever they were reporting was getting to the hostage-taker and, therefore, was likely to provoke a reaction. I don’t know if they were aware of that. If they were, they should have known better,” University of the Philippines journalism professor Luis Teodoro said in an interview.
Police had supposedly requested television networks not to air sensitive portions of the negotiations and police operations because Mendoza was monitoring the live coverage on the TV monitor inside the bus.
“For the gallery, it looks good. It’s like you are in your living room watching a movie. But from the point of view of operating troops?” Senior Supt. Agrimero Cruz, spokesperson of the Philippine National Police told reporters at Camp Crame on Tuesday.
Cruz noted that some members of media, “just to get a good shot, exposed themselves to danger. We hope to correct this. It’s good for media, but at the end of the day, the authorities take the blame [if something happens to media].”
Reached by the Philippine Daily Inquirer for a comment Tuesday night, a GMA-7 top executive said network officials were still “discussing” their coverage and talking to their news reporters.
“We are still discussing what happened, our coverage, and how it went,” said Jessica Soho, vice president-news programs for GMA-7 news and public affairs.
Maria Ressa, head of ABS-CBN News and Public Affairs, did not respond to the Inquirer’s calls and text messages as of press time.
Malacañang Tuesday indicated the need for media to evaluate what it could have done to improve the chances for a peaceful resolution to the hostage situation.
“I don’t know if we can say [that President Aquino is] blaming the media. But there were many factors that went wrong. And I think maybe the media should ask itself whether they could have been more helpful,” said Secretary Ricky Carandang of the Palace Communications Development Office.
Teodoro described the airing of the arrest of Mendoza’s brother as “careless because they didn’t know what it can trigger to the hostage-taker. Terrible.”
He was referring to a footage of the arrest of Gregorio Mendoza, who helped in the negotiations but was taken into police custody for violation of procedures, which apparently prompted his brother to start firing.
Nestor Burgos, president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said “it was a case of showing it too much, not too little.” He acknowledged that the media violated rules and procedures in the coverage of a crisis situation.
But two senators said the public should go easy on criticisms against media’s coverage.
“Media could not be blamed because there was nobody regulating media Tuesday,” Sen. Loren Legarda, a TV news personality before becoming a senator, told reporters in Filipino.
Legarda said the story would have been different if media defied an instruction and insisted on covering sensitive parts of the hostage situation live.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan, chair of the Senate committee on public order and illegal drugs, noted that “the management of violence is not an exact science.”
“Prematurely passing judgment of the negotiations and the subsequent tactical operations is not in order pending a final report from the concerned agencies,” Honasan said in a statement.
Teodoro, who teaches at the UP College of Mass Communication and edits the Philippine Journalism Review, observed that the blow-by-blow coverage was unnecessary.
Worse, he said, the airing of interviews with Mendoza’s relatives, colleagues and neighbors to fill “dead air” during the stand-off might have fed into his stress.
“It’s doubtful if such interviews served any purpose in terms of assuring the safety of hostages. That’s the main thing,” he added.
“In this particular case, the fact that the seven hostages were killed, that’s really horrible for the Philippines. We’re being blackballed by Hong Kong, and I’m sure other countries will follow. They will tell their citizens not to come to the Philippines. That’s one of the impact of what happened. And it’s possible to argue that the media contributed to that,” Teodoro said.
Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations, said the hostage drama would affect the Philippines’ image in the international community and, ultimately, its tourism industry.
“How can you market a country that has received free publicity in a negative sense?” she asked. “It is bound to affect our tourism because we live on perception.”
Teodoro said the media broke standard protocol when it aired sensitive footage of the standoff in the negotiations, forgetting that these would reach Mendoza who, he added, was not in his right frame of mind.
“You assume that anything can trigger violence on the part of the hostage-taker. So I think the media forgot about that protocol. The main thing there is not to make things worse,” he said.
Getting a scoop
The media might have focused on “getting the information and beating the competition,” but forgot about the safety of the hostages and the impact of their killings on the country’s image, Teodoro added.
Burgos said the detailed coverage not only “telegraphed” the actions of the Special Weapons and Tactics assault team, but triggered the “rampage” of the hostage-taker.
“The footage of his brother being restrained and handcuffed, that really triggered the rampage. There were calls not to cover this. But the TV and radio networks were trying to outdo each other to get a scoop,” he said by phone.
“It’s lamentable that in a life-and-death situation, many of our colleagues were going for a scoop to be on top of the ratings game.”
Cruz agreed that “the moves of our troops were telegraphed to the hostage-taker.”
Former President Joseph Estrada also blamed media for its “scoop mentality” and some television networks for showing the footage of Mendoza’s brother being arrested.
“The media here in our country is spoiled, without discipline. It was not necessary to show the footage,” Estrada said in Filipino.
Legarda said “media would not take it against authorities if the latter would prevent them from doing a live coverage on radio or television when human life is at stake.”
Even without a request from the police not to air sensitive portions of the standoff and police operation, Burgos said it was prudent for the media to have acted with self-restraint.
“When in doubt, use self-restraint,” he said. “Of course, the situation was very fluid. But let’s not forget that innocent lives were at stake here.”
If the reporters crossed the line in their reportage, Teodoro said their news managers should have quickly called their attention with the warning: “Back off.”
He said the handling called for a review of the protocols in the coverage of hostage-taking, terrorism and conflict. “And these protocols are meant to prevent the worsening of the situation,” he said.
Burgos said media owners and industry leaders should meet and review how to improve coverage of crisis situations, like hostage-taking, and improve closer coordination between the media and the police.
But Legarda said “now is not the time of finger-pointing. Now is the time for expressing condolences and for making quick and transparent investigation.”
Cruz, the PNP spokesperson, stressed that he was not blaming media for the bloodbath. “We just need to work together on this. We need to review (procedures) to prevent the broadcast from being monitored.”
TJ Burgonio, Alcuin Papa, Christian V. Esguerra, Phil. Daily Inquirer