Thursday, June 12, 2008

Inquirer Editorial: Judgment call

The tragedy of the kidnapping of television journalist Ces Oreña Drilon and her intrepid crew has been compounded by the length of time it took the story to emerge. It happened on Sunday; most of the news media knew about it, at the latest, early Monday; but it didn’t reach public knowledge, at the earliest, until Monday night.

It was the government propaganda machine that made an embargo moot and academic—in direct contrast to the usual official line that the media are reckless in their quest for a scoop. When state-owned television channel NBN-4 broke the story in its Monday evening news broadcast, the authorities quite consciously got the ball rolling, which made Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye’s subsequent appeal (“Likewise, we appeal for caution and restraint in media reportage as not to unduly hamper efforts to rescue them”) the height of official hypocrisy.

Although a radio station aired a flash report on the kidnapping, it didn’t repeat the story. Many other news outfits were prepared to run it, but ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. news and current affairs head Maria Ressa appealed to rival news organizations to embargo, or withhold, the story until 6 a.m. on Tuesday. Her argument was that things on the grounds were so confused at that point, and that ABS-CBN had to be quite fearful for the lives of its people. We believe that the concern about the situation turning more volatile—possibly fatally—because of premature reporting was valid.

The peace and order situation has been brittle in Mindanao for some time. Any initial reports on the kidnapping of Drilon and her companions would have immediately escalated the situation.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, through its president, Jose Torres of, said, “If that story came out, it might have angered the abductors and the captors could have been harmed.” He knows whereof he speaks, having published a book on the Abu Sayyaf’s kidnappings. Media outfits are aware of the peculiarities of the Abu Sayyaf; and how it has a fetish for journalists and doesn’t treat them with kid gloves, as Arlyn de la Cruz recounted in Wednesday’s issue. It is this familiarity with the dynamics of a kidnapping that ultimately informed the decision of organizations to consider ABS-CBN’s appeal for a temporary embargo on the news. This was not a case of professional solidarity trumping public interest, but precisely, public interest demanding a thorough vetting of the story before its release to a society already jittery about renewed prospects for conflict in Mindanao.

Which is not to say the media haven’t been taken to task for what one respected voice in Philippine journalism bluntly called an attempt by ABS-CBN to “manage the news.” Vergel Santos said “People there [in Sulu] can be lulled into a false sense of security,” and for that reason, “the complete story had to be given to cover all possibilities and lessen speculation.” But people in the area most certainly knew what had transpired, as the fairly regular updates coming from concerned members of the Mindanao People’s Caucus will attest.

With tensions in Muslim Mindanao running high, and the military, among other institutions, primed to shoot first and ask questions later because of having been caught flatfooted by the bombings in recent weeks, reporting a suspect could have led to either a wild goose chase or a crescendo of noise from all sorts of groups claiming responsibility merely to hog the headlines.

A case in point showing how confusing things were was the spectacle of authorities publicly mulling over whether one of the kidnap victims, Professor Octavio Dinampo of the Mindanao State University might have been in cahoots with the kidnappers. And yet Dinampo is well known in NGO circles as president of the Mindanao People’s Caucus, which has been active in the promotion of the peace process. This suggests to us the mistrust with which the authorities view Muslims in general, and anyone not subscribing hook, line and sinker to the government’s “message of the day” concerning Mindanao.

We are, however, duty-bound to do unto others as we would do unto ourselves. Torres says the consideration given ABS-CBN should now be extended to the families of all kidnap victims. In this sense, the decision among rival media outfits to respect ABS-CBN’s request for an embargo means that a policy shift has taken place. An embargo should now be standard operating procedure for all the media in the initial hours of a kidnapping.

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