If a stranger accosts you and demands that you surrender a personal possession, would you do it? Would it matter if the stranger is a well-known personality whose celebrity wattage is doubled by being married to an equally well-known personality?
Unless you are the type who is easily star-struck, chances are that your answer to both questions would be a firm “No.”
Hard-hitting newspaper columnist Mon Tulfo had to decide quickly when the actor Raymart Santiago buttonholed him at the NAIA3 terminal last Sunday while he was taking pictures using his cell phone, of Santiago’s wife Claudine Barretto blowing her top in public. When Tulfo refused, he was set upon by Santiago and other unidentified men, with Barretto getting a few licks in.
While Tulfo and Santiago have filed charges and counter-charges against each other, both before the fiscal and the court of public opinion, set aside for now the issue of who first punched who, because the wrangling has managed to obscure a genuine media issue with unsettling implications.
To put the issue in perspective, let us go to the other side of the continent to see how a simple gadget such as a cell phone can change lives and history.
What the media have taken to calling as the “Arab spring” is one of the watershed events in the Middle East. Dictatorships toppled one after the other when the region was swept by a tidal wave of democracy. In Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali went into exile in Saudi Arabia after 23 years of power.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign following massive protests that ended his 30-year presidency. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh negotiated immunity from prosecution before handing over the reins of power to his successor. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi 40-year-long autocracy drew its last breath, as did he, after a bloody revolution.
None of these dictatorships went down without a fight. All repressive governments seek to control streams of information, and in the waning days of their rule, Gaddafi and company cracked down on their countries’ newspapers, radios, television and access to the Internet.
Notwithstanding, the Arab spring succeeded, largely due to social media and their ability to bring local and international attention to unfolding events, to coordinate and communicate vital information in the vacuum left by traditional news outlets.
The possession of cell phones and portable computers allowed ordinary people to become, not merely witnesses, but also crusading citizen-journalists.
It seems quite a stretch to equate the Arab spring with a scuffle involving media personalities in a Third World airport. But the incident revolves around a bona fide journalist who used his cell phone to take pictures of a newsworthy incident.
Santiago and Barretto are public figures in every sense of the law, personalities in whom the Filipino public retain a general interest, and when a celebrity throws a tantrum in a public place as Barretto did, a journalist—not even one assigned to the entertainment beat—who happened to be on the scene forfeits his stripes should he fail to report what he saw.
In that sense, a journalist is always on call. Tulfo’s cell phone was his data-gathering tool AND his private property.
Whether or not one is a journalist, taking photographs or footage of an incident occurring in a public place is not classified as a crime.
No debate will ensue if, for example, the image/s being recorded involve the commission of a crime, or a dramatic rescue from a natural disaster, or the antics of an animal or child, or a breath-taking slice of nature.
None of that apply here where Santiago’s sole purpose is to confiscate the evidence of his wife’s making a spectacle of herself in public, images which could cause them personal embarrassment and possibly entail commercial repercussions.
Any sane journalist, though, will not willingly hand over his proof upon demand of an irate stranger, however famous.
Why is Santiago objecting to Tulfo’s taking pictures and not to the person who took footage of him beating up a reporter?
That recording, too, was unauthorized, yet Santiago and company did not gang up on the person who digitally recorded the brawl now receiving a million hits on Youtube. Without realizing it, that person became a citizen-journalist invested in showing the public what transpired.
To support the stand that Tulfo had no right to record Barretto’s outburst—among the many permutations of Santiago’s argument, he says that he was only protecting his wife—is to miss the point being made here. That is a defense he can interpose in the criminal trial.
The bigger picture is the right of anyone to sequester private property to prevent the gathering and dissemination of information.
It seems to be the nadir of our society that the hissy fit of a second-magnitude star should hog the headlines, but mass media, “with its experience or instinct as to what its readers will want, [have] succeeded in making its own definition of news,” which include not only crimes, deaths, marriages and divorces, but also “undoubtedly many other similar matters of genuine, if more or less deplorable, popular appeal.”
Yet imagine if the peoples of Yemen, Libya, Egypt and the other Arab spring countries had their communication devices taken. Would the Arab spring have been possible?
Which lesson should be easier for Santiago to learn: (a) to control his temper or (b) to control a reporter? The answer is (c): control your wife.
(Marie Yuvienco is a public interest lawyer. -- Eds.)