11:09 AM

Practicing self-restraint and good judgment

Posted by Prosy Delacruz

“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.” - SPJ’s Preamble, 1909

My prescient publisher, Cora Oriel, asked me to write a piece about ethics in May 2010.

Writing about ethics proved to be more difficult compared to just observing folks practice it in their everyday lives -- the priest at my church, my mentors and some friends.

There were a lot of topics to choose from, but the August 23 hostage drama tragedy in the Philippines surfaced and I wasn't even expecting to write about it.

That fateful day, nine lives were lost from the pre-meditated actions of PS Inspector Rolando Mendoza.

A seemingly harmless hitchhike started it all -- but Mendoza had the intention to take the passengers of the tourist bus as hostages. At first, it seemed that amicable negotiations with regards to Mendoza's demands would suffice to pacify him.

But after 13 hours of unsuccessful negotiation, things became ugly -- eight critical incidents of lapses in judgment; omissions, lack of command presence by the police and the mayor of Manila; lack of training and capacity by law enforcement to handle the hostage-taking situation; and irresponsible coverage by the media were some of the culprits behind the worsening.

After the tragic incident, investigations were immediately conducted. Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima chaired the Incident and Investigation Review Committee, composed of Jesse M. Robredo, Roan Libarios, Teresita Ang-See and Merman Basbano. They released their findings in a 60-page report on Sept. 17, 2010.

The second rule in SPJ's Code of Ethics states, "Minimize harm. Show compassion and special sensitivity for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Here are some excerpts from the 60-page report:

“At 6:12pm, Mendoza announced live on air over RMN the approach of the negotiators and Gregorio and handed over the phone to Lubang. Rogas talked to Lubang and listened in on the conversation at the other end of the line as his broadcast continued.

At 6:14pm, Yebra handed the Ombudsman letter to Mendoza and the latter started to read its contents over live radio at the request of Rogas. After reading the letter, Mendoza said that the letter was garbage and that what he needed was a decision reversing or sustaining the decision, and that he would have even preferred a decision dismissing his reconsideration rather than a letter promising another delay in the resolution of his case.

Rogas kept on calling his attention to continue their live interview in the middle of the hostage negotiations. Mendoza then threatened to make an example out of one of the hostages and told people to step aside. Rogas continued his live interview asking Mendoza questions for five minutes as the negotiators waited outside for him to finish.

Yebra then asked if it is alright with Mendoza if his dismissal is recalled and Mendoza is reinstated, pending the resolution of his motion for reconsideration with the Ombudsman. Mendoza said “Alright, alright”. Yebra asked if the hostage taking will then end, Mendoza said they will talk again. At 6:20, Mendoza fired a shot.” (IIRC Report, page 24).

Media provided a venue for the hostage-taker to air his grievances -- sensationalizing and morphing his image from a dangerous hostage –taker to an aggrieved police inspector.

While his grievances may seem legitimate, the media seemed to have forgotten that he was still the hostage –taker and such an act just put 15 lives at risk. The microphone to a live radio carries a base of subscribers, and with that base, attaches a responsibility to relay truthful information that should be verified. Media did not verify with the Ombudsman nor the police authorities if he had legitimate grievances. While the hostage crisis was going on, Mendoza got angry when it was broadcasted on radio that he forced a chef to swallow metamphethamine ( Shabu), which became the basis for his dismissal.

In the middle of police negotiations with the hostage-taker, a hyper zealous member of the insisted that live coverage continue, oblivious to the mental state of the hostage-taker.

If media paused to question their actions – is this story so important enough for me to risk my life, orphan my family members, and risk the lives of others in the bus, on balance, they would have acted prudently.

Did Michael Rogas view himself as an advocate for justice?

"At 6:30pm, Rogas continues his live interview with Mendoza. Mendoza said he no longer wants to deal with Yebra because he is a liar and he lied about returning his brother’s gun. He demanded a change of negotiators. He also said the shot he fired was a warning shot at Yebra. He then threatened to kill TSE Ting-chunn who was handcuffed near the door if the negotiations do not progress.

At 7:07 p.m., Rogas’ live interview resumed and Mendoza threatened that he will end everything if no negotiator shows up. At this point, Mendoza said his disposition and his thinking are already changing. He was then interviewed by Atty. Ed Araullo who affirmed Mendoza’s opinion on the Ombudsman letter. Mendoza expressed frustration that there is no justice anymore. It was also at this point that Erwin Tulfo of RMN who was at the scene told Mendoza that he was going to the bus after being cleared to interview him with a camera. Mendoza then let him interview YEUNG Yee-wa whose 15-year-old daughter was still in the bus."

Should Rogas and Erwin Tulfo have stopped when they heard Mendoza fire the first shot at 6:20pm? While Michael Rogas was understandably in ‘hot pursuit’ of a story, they could have decided between themselves that there are lives on the line.

“Gregorio was escorted through the side exit of the PCP by Col. Po and handed over to Major Navales but he immediately ran towards the front of the PCP where the media were camped out, sat on the pavement and started shouting. This drew the attention of the media who converged around him. Salvador heard Gregorio shout “Papatayin nila ako! Papatayin nila ako! Hindi ako accessory!” (They will kill me! They will kill me! I am not an accessory!). He was lying on the floor while his police escorts just looked on and told him to stand up because it was embarrassing. After a while Col. Po, together with some policemen, tried to pacify Gregorio and stand him up. However, his brother, son and daughter were clinging to him. Col. Po then explained to the media why he was being brought to the MPD. He then asked the media to stop covering the scene being made by Gregorio but the media kept on covering the scene until Gregorio was carried to a police car.

The GMA News 7’s live coverage showed Susan Enriquez interviewing Gregorio as he sat on the pavement crying out that he is not an accessory, as he was being shielded by relatives, and as he was bodily carried by policemen to the police car. The coverage did not stop until the firing of several shots in intervals was heard from the bus more than a hundred meters away.” (IIRC Report, page 27).

If you were part of GMA News 7 and Radio Mo Network, would you have drawn the line and practiced self-restraint? When we, the media, act like superman, we forego our role to inform, to report the news. Our responsibility as media people and as journalists is to deliver the news -- not be part of it.


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