Breaking the code of silence | Inquirer Opinion

Breaking the code of silence

THE STORY hasn’t made evening newscasts until now. And it took newspapers almost half a year to report that three major networks were fined for reckless coverage of the Luneta hostage-taking. The ensuing crossfire left nine dead and the country nursing an international black eye.

Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas slammed a P30,000-fine each on ABS-CBN Broadcasting Channel 2, Radyo Mo Nationwide (RMN), and TV5. They aired “information that could have compromised police efforts to rescue the hostages,” KBP’s Standards Authority ruled.


RMN’s Michael Rogas and Erwin Tulfo were fined P15,000 and P10,000 each. They butted into negotiations between police and hostage-taker. In the process, they fractured the industry’s own code of conduct. They should be reprimanded.

Broadcasters “shall not put lives in greater danger than is inherent in (hostage-taking or kidnapping),” Sec. 6 of the code provides. “Care should be taken, so as not to hinder or obstruct efforts of authorities to resolve the situation.”


On Aug. 23 last year, cashiered Philippine National Police officer Rolando Mendoza flagged down a tour bus in Rizal Park. He took hostage all those on board: 20 Hong Kong tourists, plus five tour personnel. Why? He wanted his job back.

Droves of police, reporters and istambays scampered into the crime scene. After a 10-hour standoff, police mounted an assault—tracked on nationwide TV. When the smoke cleared, eight of the hostages and Mendoza were stiffs.

The victims were unlawfully killed, Philippine and Hong Kong probers concluded. A Philippine panel skewered officials who “botched (the) handling” of the crisis. KBP launched an internal probe, following criticism of media conduct.

“The drive for ratings and viewership has replaced public welfare as the media’s priority,” 170 faculty, staff and students declared at a UP College of Mass Communication forum. “It was appalling that the live coverage was done not to help the public make sense of the situation, but to milk it for all it is worth.”

Maria Ressa, then ABS-CBN senior vice president for news and current affairs, offered the UP forum a different perspective from the beat: The Luneta standoff highlighted the “struggle between journalists, whose goal is to tell the story, and authorities who must resolve the situation.”

Authorities failed to control onlookers, she added. Nor did they lay guidelines for media. “When there are no rules, we push for what we can get. And the dynamics of having hundreds of journalists doing that can push it too far.”

“ABS-CBN would have heeded a news blackout if it was called,” she recalled. It was a “second by second, minute per minute permutation of about 200 people trying to work together to try to put limitations in a situation where there was none.”


The networks lost their appeals before the KBP’s 13-member Standards Authority last April. Since then, an omerta-like silence blanketed this effort to put spine in the rhetoric about self-regulation—until the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism spoke up.

PCIJ reported the fines. It circulated all eight documents underpinning the KBP decision. “Ten months, nine lives, and a flurry of finger-pointing and paperwork later, the controversy over the media coverage of the 2010 Luneta hostage-taking incident has come down to feeble fines of P30,000,” PCIJ noted. “(This is) a virtual slap on the wrist.”

CMFR called on KBP to review its mindset as far as non-members are concerned. That referred to criticism lodged over the equally reckless coverage of the hostage-taking by GMA Network Inc. Channel 7. In 2003, GMA-7 stalked out of KBP in a dispute over KBP’s commercial loading limits.

Tighten up the Broadcast Code provision on “crime and crisis situations,” CMFR urged. “The public interest requires it.” The future of self-regulation in the Philippine media is affected.

“Know the past to understand the present,” astronomer Carl Sagan once said. Look at how far KBP has moved since 2008. The Supreme Court then castigated KBP, in the National Telecommunications Commission case, as a rubber stamp for Malacañang’s squeeze on press freedom.

The Court struck down NTC memos that threatened to suspend or scrub franchises of stations airing the “Garci tapes.” These were the wiretapped tapes of talks between then President Gloria Arroyo and election officials on her Mindanao votes.

NTC memos constituted unconstitutional prior restraint on the exercise of freedom of speech and the press, the tribunal concluded. It nullified them forthwith.

“Given the crucial issues involved, the Court found it peculiar that the broadcasters, most affected by the NTC letter,” didn’t even whimper. Nor did they intervene.

Instead, KBP inexplicably joined NTC in issuing an ambivalent joint statement. It didn’t complain about the restraints on press freedom. Instead, KBP whitewashed NTC saying: the memorandum did not constitute restraint of press freedom—totally at variance with the Court’s findings.

“Petitioner (Francisco Chavez) was left alone,” the decision notes. “This silence on the sidelines of some media practitioners is too deafening to be the subject of misinterpretation.”

There are no freedoms so dangerous as those which are not exercised, Viewpoint noted then. “The broadcast watchdog here didn’t bark.”

Now, is KBP starting to bite? OK. So, a P30,000-fine is peanuts. But a KBP that refuses to be patted as an obsequious lapdog by politicians is welcome. There are other brawls around the corner for us who work in this complex craft. That rightly bugs PCIJ and CMFR.

(Email: [email protected])

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