Position Paper on Role of Media During Conflict Situations

by Maria Ressa, ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs Division head

Posted at Sep 14 2010 04:05 PM | Updated as of Sep 15 2010 12:05 AM

September 14, 2010

Thank you for asking us to submit a position paper on the role of the media in conflict situations. We have three parts:
1. Media’s Role in our Society
2. The Results of our Preliminary Investigation on Aug. 23
3. ABS-CBN’s Standards & Ethics Manual: Ten Sections on Conflict Reporting

Media’s Role in our Society

In any democracy, there is a symbiotic relationship between the government and media, particularly during times of crisis. Government officials must resolve the crisis, managing information for that end goal. Journalists report events for the public, which holds them accountable for their actions.

Each of us has a distinct role to play. The government, which has the monopoly of power, controls the situation and sets the ground rules. That has always been the way it’s done, and the way it is expected to be done.

Media cannot do government’s job, just as you cannot expect government to do media’s job.

In more than two decades of reporting from conflict situations, I can tell you from experience that the rules always change depending on the situation, depending on the judgment calls made by the crisis leader. I’d like to give you three examples of instances where authorities made requests and we followed.

Let’s go to March 2007 to a similar hostage-taking but with a very different outcome. Then, it wasn’t a former policeman but a former marine. Like Mendoza, this hostage taker was upset by perceived injustice. Armed and holding a grenade, he took the Taguig Hall of Justice and four people hostage. It lasted nearly 24 hours - and ended with the death of the hostage taker and the safe release of all four hostages.

During that incident, we had reporters and camera teams inside the Hall of Justice, but when the authorities requested we move out and go further away, we followed. We reported that incident live.

Two years earlier in March 2005, we had the Bicutan siege – another crisis that lasted a little more than 24 hours. Prisoners took the weapons of their guards, took control of their quarters and barricaded themselves in.

Although we were able to get inside, when authorities asked us to pull back and move to a site far from the prison, we did. The police then cordoned off the area. Vantage points, even at a distance, were not allowed. One photographer climbed a water tank to try to get exclusive pictures. The police immediately asked him to come down.

The third example was in November 2007 when military rebels effectively captured the Peninsula hotel. Authorities called us before they began their assault and asked us not to show live pictures of the troops and the tank which burst through the doors of the Peninsula. We followed and when the assault began, we trained our cameras on the façade of a nearby building.

Which brings me to an important point. Not all conflicts are the same. For example, our Standards & Ethics Manual makes a distinction between reporting crime – like the August 23 hostage taking – and political conflicts – like coup attempts and insurgencies. These are only some of the different types of conflicts covered in our Standards & Ethics Manual.

ABS-CBN also learns from each incident, trying to balance the State’s vested interests and our watchdog role. In 2005, we followed authorities’ requests closely during the Bicutan siege. However, at the end of the police assault, 26 people were dead in an operation the Commission on Human Rights condemned as “excessive.”

An International Criminal Justice Review document stated: “the evidence suggest that the Bicutan siege was a premeditated and concerted effort of the national government to eliminate identified enemies of the State (the members of the Abu Sayyaf Group or ASG) notwithstanding that they were already under government custody and were on or awaiting trial for their criminal acts.”

Media has an important role to play in our country because our institutions are weak, law & order is weak, corruption is endemic, and power is often abused. A week before the hostage-taking, the Manila Police District faced charges of torture based on a cellphone video obtained by ABS-CBN.

When you put the facts together, the journalists’ watchdog role is necessary and dangerous. Just barely four months ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the Philippines third globally in terms of our culture of impunity, behind only conflict-ridden Somalia and Iraq.

There is no better example of the role journalists play – and the risks we take – than the Ampatuan massacre last November. Then, the Mangudadatus, like many Filipinos who feel vulnerable, thought that the mere presence of journalists would give some measure of safety.

I’d like, your Honors, to state for the record that it is an insult to journalists to say that we only do what we do because of ratings. Ask Maan Macapagal and Ces Drilon who spent years reporting on the Abu Sayyaf, Jorge Carino, who covered the post-Maguindanao massacre skirmishes, Pia Hontiveros, Jay Ruiz, Dindo Amparo, and Tony Velasquez, who covered the MILF and MNLF conflicts. All of us have been in conflict situations, and ratings are the furthest thing from our minds. The reason we risk our lives is to tell the story. That is how journalists save lives. Because often, the presence of a camera, of one reporter, makes it just a little safer for those caught in the conflict. People are more civilized when a camera is on.

I am proud of the men and women of ABS-CBN News. Many of us were torn by the events on Aug 23 and were affected for days. I have analyzed every moment of that day, and I can tell you we did our best with the situation handed to us because we were not in control.

None of us knew where it all was headed, but these decisions don’t wait. You have to make them when you have to make them. So we did what we could and pinpointed where we could have done better.

We immediately assessed and released our preliminary findings three days later on Aug. 26.

ABS-CBN Statement on Aug. 23 Hostage Tragedy

Media’s job is to tell the story, but no story is worth even one life.

We will always cooperate with authorities in trying to resolve complex situations like the Aug. 23 hostage crisis.

If the government had called for a news blackout that day, ABS-CBN would have supported it.

We are done with an initial assessment of our coverage and continue to review our policies.

We exercised self-restraint on Monday:

1. We refused to air the hostage taker’s threats live about a 3 pm deadline to avoid fuelling public fear.
2. We refused to air the hostage taker’s interview until after negotiations were finished.
3. We refused to be part of hostage negotiations.
4. All throughout the day and until the first shots were aired, we kept our cameras 400 meters away from the bus, giving us shaky video that viewers complained about. Our teams never crossed the police line.
5. Although we had access to members of the police reaction team, we held back interviews which could compromise their plans and/or location.
6. After the police tried to arrest the hostage taker’s brother, our team physically stepped back to comply with police request.
7. After the assault began, we tried to limit our shots to avoid showing police movements. We stayed with extreme close-ups or wide shots.
8. We immediately complied when police asked us to turn off our lights explaining the grainy shots viewers complained about.
9. We avoided tampering with evidence at crime scene. Instead, we asked Soco to shoot the video instead of entering the bus ourselves.

This wasn’t enough.

We acknowledge airing a report that detailed the position of the police during the assault.

During the arrest of Gregorio Mendoza, we considered pulling away from the coverage but a man was crying for help.

In other countries around the world, governments set the ground rules for situations like this. One network cannot unilaterally declare a news blackout. Press freedom issues take a back seat during situations like this – where the government already has the power to define the terms to media.

We are taking the public’s views to heart. Monday’s tragic events triggered intense soul-searching for us. Such is the irony of a profession that wields so much power but relies entirely on self-doubt to gain – and keep – its credibility.

We ask our broadcast colleagues to join us in an industry review. Let us unite and work together to put in place measures to collectively decide when we stop live coverage in the absence of government presence of mind.

Standards & Ethics Manual

We are submitting ten relevant sections on crisis reporting in ABS-CBN’s Standards & Ethics Manual:

5-16 Covering Crime
5-17 Threats and Claims of Responsibility
5-18 Covering Hostage/Barricade Situations
5-19 Covering Terrorism/Riots
5-20 Covering Contagious Diseases
5-21 Covering Religion
5-22 Stereotyping
5-23 Hostile Situations
5-24 Covering War
5-25 Information from Other Sources

These sections show our “policy is to report news, not suppress it,” that we “avoid becoming part of the incident,” and that we generally “obey instructions given by police or other authorities.”

However, all these guidelines are based on independent news judgment, determined by the reporting team in consultation with senior news management.

We take seriously media’s watchdog role in our society and are often hardest on ourselves. All these guidelines reflect our news organization’s commitment to preserve life and dignity while performing our role in our democracy - to give the public the information it needs.

Thank you.