, Philippines—A fact-finding committee has recommended criminal charges against Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim for the bungled hostage rescue, according to the Associated Press (AP), which said it had seen a copy of a part of the panel’s report to President Benigno Aquino III that had not been officially released.
The AP said that Lim was singled out for immediate administrative and criminal complaints among eight government and police officials blamed for the Aug. 23 fiasco.
The five-member commission headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said that the seven other officials should not face charges unless a future investigation substantiates them, according to AP.
“As far as Mayor Lim is concerned, he did nothing wrong, and he did only what was right at that time,” his spokesperson, Ric de Guzman, told the Inquirer.
Mr. Aquino told reporters in New York, where he is on an official visit, that he did not want criminal complaints filed without certainty the cases were merited. “You do not unnecessarily prosecute people, if it’s not warranted,” he said.
“I’m not 100 percent sold,” the President said of the committee’s recommendations and that’s why he asked the Palace legal panel to conduct a review before he acts on them.
Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno, the highest official blamed for the botched rescue, offered to resign Wednesday.
Puno, who helped oversee the blunder-ridden rescue, said he would submit his resignation letter when Mr. Aquino returns from a US trip next week.
“If I’ll be a burden to the President, I’m willing to resign,” Puno told a news conference.
The bungled rescue left eight Hong Kong tourists and the lone hostage-taker, dismissed police officer Rolando Mendoza, dead on a bus parked at a historic Manila park in a standoff watched by millions on live TV.
The bloodbath damaged ties with China and Hong Kong, which warned against travel to the Philippines, prompting thousands of tourists to cancel bookings.
It sparked Aquino’s first major crisis, less than two months into his presidency.
Aquino on Monday ordered the committee’s report to be released to China and the public, but withheld release of a crucial section, which AP said it read Wednesday, that placed much of the blame on Lim and Manila Police Chief Rodolfo Magtibay.
The report said that Lim and Magtibay had failed to perform their roles in overseeing the crisis.
Among other lapses, Lim and Magtibay left the scene for a restaurant before the hostage-taker started shooting the hostages. Magtibay allegedly defied Aquino’s order to deploy an elite police commando team but instead used a local SWAT team, the report said.
It was not immediately clear why charges were not recommended against Magtibay. He was replaced by another officer during the standoff and subsequently lost his job as police chief.
The report lamented a plethora of errors that “conspired to produce the tipping point.”
Lim, himself a former Manila police chief, has angrily denied the allegations. On the verge of tears, he defended himself and the police in front of TV cameras, reminding the public of the risk that law enforcement officers face while in the line of duty.
Two broadcast journalists—Michael Rogas and Erwin Tulfo—accused of tying up the hostage-taker’s telephone line by interviewing him during the standoff may face complaints for not adhering to ethical rules in covering the crisis, the report said.
The radio station’s manager and staff may also face complaints, as could the country’s three major TV networks, which aired the crisis live.
All eight hostages were killed by Mendoza, the report said, noting that more tests were needed to verify if police gunfire hit some of the victims. Another seven Hong Kong tourists were wounded.
The committee report recommended that Rogas and Tulfo be sanctioned by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) for violating its Code of Ethics for broadcast journalist “and possibly the Revised Penal Code.”
As for the country’s leading television networks—ABS-CBN, GMA 7, and TV5—the panel endorsed its investigation results to the KBP or “appropriate media ‘watchdog’ organization(s), for the possible violation of their code of ethics in the coverage of a crisis incident.”
Slap on the wrist
The Inquirer Wednesday obtained a copy of the recommendations made by a committee on the media’s accountability from a well-placed source, who noted that these appear to be a mere “slap on the wrist.”
Aside from Rogas and Tulfo, also recommended for sanction by the KBP were the radio station manager of dzXL/Radyo Mo Nationwide (RMN) and others in the radio network who directed the live interview with Mendoza, “endangering the lives of persons involved in the hostage-taking.”
The panel further recommended that an initial investigation be conducted by the justice department against Rogas, Tulfo, and the unnamed dzXL manager and staff to determine “any other culpability” as a result of their coverage of the tragedy.
“This is without prejudice to the findings to be arrived at in future proceedings as to the culpability of other officials and individuals,” the report said.
“There is clearly a need to establish better media relations and coordination between the PNP [Philippine National Police] and a higher level of media outlet/network officials for the effective implementation of ‘terms of engagement’ during crisis situations,” the report said.
It said that station management personnel in both television and radio stations should also be held accountable, as they were the ones in-charge of “directing the program and/or who had authority to stop or prevent the airing of material that was in violation of the broadcast journalist’s code of ethics and which was endangering lives.”
“The pressure of ‘ratings’ and ‘scoops’ vis-à-vis competitor media outlets bearing upon reporters, producers, directors and all other persons involved in the coverage is not an excuse, or defense, for committing an act that could potentially cause harm to, or loss of, lives—which was the paramount concern in the incident under review,” the committee stressed.
Nikko Dizon, Norman Bordadora & DJ Yap, Inquirer