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The media in conflict situations

By Amando Doronila
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:59:00 10/29/2008

Filed Under: Media, Television, Mindanao peace process, Justice & Rights

The broadcast by ABS-CBN of its interview with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel leader Commander Bravo has sparked a fresh confrontation between the media and government over the matter of press coverage of conflict situations, involving press freedom and security of the state. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez was quick to denounce ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. for allowing itself to be used to ?disparage the government,? saying that in the process it ?abetted subversion.?

Another state institution, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), has filed a complaint with the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP ? Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines) against ABS-CBN for violation of the 2007 Broadcast Code of the Philippines. Article 21 of the Code states: ?Broadcast facilities shall not be used to or allowed to be used for advocating the overthrow of government by force or violence?; and ?The broadcast of materials which tend to incite treason, rebellion, sedition, or create civil disorder disturbance is prohibited.? On the other hand, the section on ?news sources? under Article 1 states: ?Suspects or fugitives from the law may be interviewed as news sources. However, they should not be aided, abetted or encouraged when in the act of planning or committing a crime, or to be accompanied on their way to committing a crime.?

ABS-CBN and other media organizations, which have closed ranks with the network, have fallen back on the above-mentioned provisions to insist that the Bravo interview did not incite people against the state and was covered by the freedom of information guaranteed by the Constitution.

If the KBP finds ABS-CBN in breach of the code, it could sanction the network, including suspension of its membership. The government can go further than that. The NTC can use a KBP sanction (if it does so) as an excuse for a harsher penalty. Gonzalez has said the network could face suspension of its franchise. Most likely, the justice department would interpret the provisions in its restrictive sense, giving the history of the antagonistic relations between the Arroyo administration and ABS-CBN.

The Bravo interview did not contain anything more inflammatory than the statements he had given to both the print and broadcast media in the wake of the collapse of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Aug. 5, following issuance of a temporary restraining order by the Supreme Court on the eve of its scheduled signing in Kuala Lumpur. The Court has since declared the MOA, which sought to establish an autonomous Bangsamoro state in Mindanao, as a violation of the Constitution that virtually paved the way for the dismemberment of the republic.

Whether or not the Bravo interview constituted incitement against the state depends upon who hears it. In any case, a ban on broadcasting such interview in effect already restricts the scope of the freedom of media on the ground that such broadcasts constitute a threat to the security of the state. The KBP Code allows a certain degree of self-regulation by the networks in determining whether to broadcast interviews that might be inimical to the security of the state. Trouble is, the government has the final word on whether the interview went into the realm of incitement.

During the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny, the government clamped down on the press against reporting or airing interviews with mutiny leaders on the grounds that their statements were inflammatory and incited people against the government. The fact was that while the rebel statements were indeed inflammatory in reciting grievances against the government, the statements did not cause the mutiny to spread or cause people to rush to the streets in defense of the rebels.

Whether or not the Bravo interview has led to the widening of the conflict in Mindanao or has incited the Islamic community to rise up in arms against the government to justify censorship of interviews is arguable. There is no evidence, however, that the interview has abetted violence. Media people covering conflict are confronted with the question of what incidents would weaken the government and make it vulnerable to overthrow. This dilemma has confronted media members covering all the coup attempts since 1986. The line between prudence and restraint is thin. If there is no coverage, freedom of information is severely restricted.

The military itself has said that the interview Bravo had to ABS-CBN was not all that negative to the government in its results. The interview, according to Armed Forces of the Philippine spokesperson Ernesto Torres Jr., gave government troops a good idea of where Bravo was hiding. Torres said: ?It merely displayed his arrogance and indifference to authority, which makes it now easier to comprehend why it is necessary for him and his men to be controlled and made to answer for their criminal acts before the peace process resumes. His propaganda will boomerang on his group? [T]he interview has put us in a better position in going after these criminals.?

In the interview, Bravo admitted that it was his forces who were responsible for the violence in Lanao del Norte after the MOA was abrogated. He also blamed the government for the continued violence in Mindanao. Torres said Bravo?s admission would encourage the public to help the military in their campaign against the MILF.

In conflict situations, media representatives cannot remain paralyzed on the ground. They have to talk to protagonists on both sides, whenever possible and at the risk to their own safety. The outcome of combat does not depend on reports of media people.

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