Media soul-searching after hostage crisis

by Ayee Macaraig, ANC

Posted at Aug 27 2010 05:08 PM | Updated as of Aug 31 2010 09:59 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Broadcast networks assess their coverage of the hostage crisis in Manila amid criticism that the live airing of the hostage-taking contributed to its bloody end.

Television stations ABS-CBN and GMA-7 released separate statements saying they are reviewing the way they reported on the hostage situation. Beyond individual assessments, ABS-CBN said an industry review is needed and called on its fellow networks to join the effort.

The bus hijacking at the Quirino Grandstand on Monday claimed the lives of eight tourists and the hostage-taker, former Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza.

Viewers commenting in social networking sites, some policemen and lawmakers, and even President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III said media was partly to blame for the tragedy.

They believe the live coverage of the arrest of Mendoza’s brother could have agitated him and led him to shoot hostages. Aquino also said media gave Mendoza a “bird’s eye view” of police operations through blow-by-blow reports.

“We are taking the public’s views to heart. Monday’s tragic events triggered intense soul-searching for us,” said ABS-CBN.

Who was in control?

In an interview on ANC’s ‘Media in Focus’ Tuesday, ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs Head Maria Ressa said the network would have complied with a news blackout had government ordered one.

“The rights of the media in a hostage situation are really pushed back. Government is in control here. We all agree that lives are the most important thing and media will and did follow every directive that was given by those in control.”

Ressa said ABS-CBN only got a request from police to shut down its lights, and it did.

“The reality was journalists were observers, we were not actors ... Some control needed to have happened. It’s not about placing blame but restoring order during a fragile situation.”

In the statement released Thursday, ABS-CBN said it practiced restraint but admitted airing a report that detailed the position of the police during the assault.

GMA-7 meanwhile said it is reviewing its policies. “We will come up with a revised set of rules and guidelines to be implemented during situations that pose risks to our personnel and to the public.”

Culture of competition

Vergel Santos of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility pointed out that competition was a factor in the way media covered the hostage crisis.

“There is an operating culture in media, a culture driven by competition, by how much volume of detail you can put out there, by how shrill your reporting might be. Language alone and the tone of reporting can aggravate this situation.”

Santos said journalists need more training and education on how to cover hostage situations.

“Public interest may be served without having to go and put out all those controversial and gory details in the air.”

“We’ve had hostage situations before. We seemed not have learned any lesson from these, not the media, the government or police, because lives were lost [this time].”

Collective decision, not legislation

Cebu Rep. Gabriel Quisumbing filed a bill seeking to ban live coverage of police and military movements during crisis situations like hostage incidents, kidnappings and coup d’etats.

“In this case, the hostage-taker had access to television, radio. We feel this [bill] could help in making sure that a situation like this will not endanger the lives of our men and women in uniform and the civilians in the bus,” Quisumbing said.

For Ressa, the bill is not necessary because a request from government is enough. She cited the 2007 Peninsula Manila siege where the Department of Interior and Local Government asked networks not to air live footage of troop operations.

“Madali naman ho kaming kausapin dito. Really, we want the same things to happen.”

Santos and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) also oppose the bill. The NUJP said legislated restrictions on media could pave the way for abuses and excesses by authorities.

Instead of legislation, ABS-CBN said journalists should take the initiative to set the ground rules.

“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.”