Bad, Mediocre or Brilliant

by Juan L. Mercado

“Bad  journalism is not and should  never  be criminal in a democracy” That’s the Center for International Law’s reaction to an Investigation & Review Committee (IIRC) recommendation: indict two broadcast journalists and three stations in coverage of the botched Luneta hostage assault.  We agree.

People Power rebuilt, from the Marcos dictatorship’s  gags, press freedom from prior restraint. “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…”, the Constitution provides.  The Universal  Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

That covers bad, mediocre or outstanding, journalism. That where the mess begins. Bad journalism can destroy reputations, incite public unrest, etc. In kidnap or hostage incidents, it can spill blood.  Eight died in the Luneta stand off.

“It is better to appear in hell than in your newspapers,”snorts an old Spanish axiom.  Some legislators proposed laws to enforce standards the  press forgot. In  Luneta, “media  may have failed to observe the highest degree of professionalism and self-restraint in their coverage,,” the Center admits.

Broadcast executives  concede as much. They’ve regretted. pinpointing of tactical deployments, etc. Internal reviews concur: no scoop is worth a human life.”

“Press freedom comes with accountability”, Cebu Citizens Press Council said.  “We  “appreciate the demonstrated willingness of  broadcast media to improve guidelines…Equally important, is broadcast’s “duty to inform citizens fully of internal reforms adopted.”

This won’t be the last hostage incident. Today’s internal examination of conscience can “ensure that more effective rules come into play in future emergencies”, the Council added.  

“Crisis situations should be reported without (journalists) becoming a part of the event being covered…“When a journalist becomes part of the events, he loses his objectivity….Engaging  the hostage taker in an interview” can derail negotiations. Did we need the IIRC  remind us of this rule?

“Erwin Tulfo (TV5) tried to get the police to respond to threats of the hostage taker…Michael Rogas (dzXL anchorman) inserted his interview into communication lines with negotiators….

“They found themselves a part of the events…Their involvement other than a detached and objective coverage is a breach of the ethics of journalism.”

Are we back to  the Center’s point?  “Bad journalism is not and should never be criminal in a democracy”? Have we created the institutions and values that nurture  instead  a journalism of integrity?

“Ethics must accompany journalism always, just as the buzz comes with the horsefly,” editor and Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia  Marquez writes. “All journalism must be investigative by nature.” True.”Ethics is not only a conditional condition of the trade” —- to be  shucked off at whim.

A “labyrinth of technology  (meanwhile ) rushes journalists into the future without control, “ Marquez told an Inter-American Press Association conference. “(Technoolgy ) diminishes the importance of  news content — which is the ultimate journalistic standard…Never before has this profession become more dangerous.

Restored press freedoms can be threatened by media, with deadened sense of values. We operate with brittle institutions in a recently restored democracy.”  By happenstance, we marked  this week  the 38th  anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos imposing martial law. A  “bad press” was one of his justifications for dictatorship.

Reread his Public Information Order No. 1, issued on Sept  22, 1972. It directed Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and  Press Secretary Francisco Tatad to seize the media. The press had become “a tool of subversives and oligarchs”, he claimed.

Letter of Implementation No. 12 spelt out domestic and foreign censorship…Presidential Decree No. 36 claimed the “Old Society  was “beyond reform. To usher  in a new society,. Marcos issued permits for media that he or his relatives owned or controlled.

Marcos soon discovered what all tyrants find:  a critical free press becomes a lapdog. “They have virtually nothing but praise for Marcos, family and their close associates”, wrote Sydney Schanberg of New York Times. “The credibility of the press is so low…that it has become an embarrassing liability of government.”

The press is  “too syncophantic and obsequious,” the dictator admitted to editor Derek Davies.  Marcos associates echoed that assessment. 

It may be helpful to recall this checkered history, given today’s unease over the piece-meal release of the IIRC report by President Benigno Aquino.  No one begrudges the President time to review the document.

Secretary Lila de Lima and colleagues produced a credible thorough report. That’s clear from their performance and  Malacanang’s  partial releases. Credit P-Noy for  that.  But further delay in release of the full report will only complicate reforms, even for bad, mediocre or brilliant journalists.

“Ours is rough, raw, sometimes brutal craft”, Peter Preston of the Guardian wrote. We write or broadcast “to make sure the world knows what would otherwise be dark recesses of people behaving at their worst,”

Some do this task brilliantly. Many just get by. Some are incompetent. And others sell out. But you have to stand on the side of freedom. There is no other side to be on. “We are prisoners of a necessary cause.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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