“Big mistake to correct a big wrong decision.” These were the words former cop-turned hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza posted on the window of the bus he hijacked last Aug. 23, turning what was supposed to be an excursion for 25 Chinese nationals into bloodshed 12 hours later. Mendoza was included among the dead.
The Aug. 23 Manila hostage-taking proved to be a bitter litmus test for many of the country’s institutions: the police, the military, the local government units, and the media. When it comes to mistakes committed, the mainstream media finds itself bearing responsibility for much of the events leading to the botched rescue operation that saw eight dead and seven injured.
The events of that evening validated the media’s powerful role in shaping events, most especially in crises. Information could be used both as a tool and as a weapon, so therefore the media had a crucial role to play in minimizing harm among the stakeholders, as well be accountable in its reportage.
The media’s most damning failure lay in its live telecast of the situation. From the get-go, the major television stations were broadcasting Mendoza’s capture of the bus—live. Reporters were on scene delivering blow-by-blow accounts of his moves, and worse, the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team’s. It is now assumed that Mendoza’s composure evaporated upon seeing the violent arrest of his brother Gregorio on the bus’s television monitor caused him to shoot his Chinese hostages.
Was live coverage absolutely necessary? Was there a dire, urgent need for the public to know every move of the SWAT team? While the right to be informed is well and good, we do not believe live coverage was needed. Firstly, this clearly violates the KBP’s guidelines on information disclosure in crises. A news blackout would have been already extreme but the media could have opted to delay coverage instead by half an hour or so. This was employed during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis in Tehran. That way coverage would have still been delivered without compromising the rescue operation.
The very quality of coverage was also mediocre. When you have ABS-CBN airing the panicked driver Alberto Lubang’s chilling yelp “Patay na silang lahat,” without any initial verification (to its credit, GMA 7 did not), one can clearly surmise the degree of professionalism the media possesses. The images of the dead were also simply broadcast to every living room in the country without any attempt to censor or to blur. Throw in panicking (i.e. GMA 7’s Mel Tiangco), cussing, and laughing reporters who lose all self-control the moment Mendoza starts shooting complete with wild gestures—quite unnecessary—and you have a lethal recipe for news sensationalism and fact distortion. Emotions replaced rational thinking and this clouded all judgment on the part of the reporters.
Most incredible and appalling of all was the utter absence of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) in all this. For 12 hours, Malacañang lay dormant; CNN had to interview Manila’s vice-mayor Isko Moreno for official comment. For all its vaunted purposes to deliver Pres. Benigno Aquino III’s “message” effectively and swiftly to the public, Aquino delivered his statement around 12 midnight, long after blood had been spilled on the Grandstand, and much to chagrin of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang. His statement was not exactly stellar either: aside from being seemingly a recap of the day’s events, it lacked the compassion and conviction that normally befits a leader in times of crisis. Aquino appeared frighteningly detached from reality as he sought to gain control of a situation he seemed to know little about.
What went wrong? From the looks of it, Philippine society is suffering from a surfeit of information in many ways—and a rather complacent media is not helping the situation at all. From undergoing severe prior restraint and suppression under the Martial Law era, demand for instant information has reached its shocking peak. Much of this distressing reality can be traced to how the media tolerates and even encourages a shallow perception of the news, in effect holding their audiences hostage to the media’s interests.
Who sets limits then, as referenced by Aquino in his midnight message? Definitely not the audience, and likewise the state can only do so much. The answer lies in the media’s strict enforcement of self-regulation among its ranks. It should not wait for any external forces such as the government before they can even act. Keeping in mind the highest standards of broadcasting and journalism, the media ought to step up and properly fulfill its function as society’s Fourth Estate and watchdog.
If station managements simply realized the direct repercussions of their actions that evening, perhaps we would be witnessing less bloodshed in the future and maybe this country would still have a face to present to the international community. Ratings and competition aside, this would have been the only prudent thing to do.
Rights and responsibilities–at the end of the day it all boils down to these. Police officers, reporters, tourists, and even hostage-takers have these. Looking back on that fateful evening, who fulfilled their rights and responsibilities, and who did not? You be the judge.