The Media’s Role in the Manila Hostage Crisis – Updated 25 Feb 2011

For many years in the Philippines there was no freedom of the press. In fact, even nowadays, there are a disproportionate number of killings of media-related people here. Needless to say, this has created a culture, especially among the media themselves, of protecting at all costs the freedom of the press. These freedoms are now being called into question.

If you have been anywhere near media lately you will be aware of a recent tragic event in the Philippines. A few days ago, a former police officer took a bus full of Chinese, Canadian, and British tourists hostage. The story does not have a happy ending: 10 people are now dead, including the hostage taker. Not only did the hostage taker lose his life but another 9 hostages lost their lives as well. (I won’t get into the fact that trying to prove your innocence in one criminal activity by engaging in another criminal activity just doesn’t work.)

One group that has been blamed is the police. And of course, watching the events unfold it is hard to see how they were really unable to deal adequately with the situation. Of course, my comments are of the typical armchair variety (meaning that it is far easier for an inexperienced, not practitioner like me to “know” how it could have been done better even if my knowledge has no basis in fact!) At the present time the police have taken responsibility for their share of the debacle and are taking steps to ensure they learn from their mistakes for next time. But this post is not about the police.

Another group that has been blamed for the tragedy is the media. The media was very eager to show the events as they unfolded. In fact, I didn’t know what was happening until I began to review my twitter and facebook feeds. I was able to read the play-by-play of the events. Finally I turned on the TV to see what was really going on (albeit after the fact) and was able to take my pick of any channel showing live footage of the event. In addition to that, members of the media were in direct cellphone contact with the hostage taker at different stages of the crisis.

The problem is this. There was a TV on the bus. Yes, it is true. The hostage taker was completely and totally aware of every move the police were making towards him! If he needed another angle, just change the channel and see what is happening there. It’s like he had his own personal security system watching from every angle, keeping him safe. Conceivably, the SWAT team’s assault would have gone better if the hostage taker was not so well informed about their actions.

When asked, President Aquino said that he didn’t order a news blackout for two reasons: 1. The people would complain that the government was trying to hide something. He promised transparency in all issues and this is one of the results. 2. The law prohibits him from declaring a news blackout.

So what do we do? An incredibly newsworthy event is unfolding in front of us. The media is tasked with giving us the news. We all watched the events unfold on TV, Facebook, and Twitter. The police need to do their job and save the hostages and hostage takers.

Living in a society is not an issue of rights. Does the press have the right to freedom? Yes. Do the hostages have the right to be saved? Of course. Does the hostage taker have the right to be heard? Yes. So rights are not the issue.

Living in society is an issue of responsibility. The media has a clear role in the building of any nation. This role sometimes means not availing of a right so that some other right can be used. For example, in a hostage situation, the media need to recognise that the hostages’ right to live supersedes the media’s right to immediately broadcast. The people of nation also need to recognise that the hostages’ right to live supersedes their right to be immediately informed.

The issue here is really the use of “Live” coverage and it this issue that needs to be addressed by the taskforce President Aquino has set up to discuss the parameters on the coverage of crisis situations. What are the options?

1. Allow the media to record all events as they unfold for playback later on. Periodic statements and updates could be broadcast on a timely basis, ensuring that the integrity of the negotiations is maintained.

2. Have a delay in the “Live” feed of several minutes or hours. This would allow on the scene events to unfold without the news getting out to the hostage taker.

3. Have one feed that all news outlets share, similar to what happens at the Olympic Games. That way camera angles and scenes broadcast could be live edited to prevent information from flowing too freely at times when they should be less free.

What are your thoughts on this issue? What suggestions would you have for the media in crisis situations?

UPDATE (25 Feb 2011):

The Hong Kong government is currently conducting its own inquiry into the event. Here is what was reported today by the bus driver:

In a statement read out during the inquest proceedings of the Hong Kong court, driver Antonio Lubang said the tour guide was shot when Mendoza became enraged after seeing on live television his brother’s arrest.

Earlier testimonies at the HK court inquest indicated Mendoza was initially friendly toward the hostages.

However, he became enraged when he saw on a television set inside the bus the arrest of his policeman brother.

What else can I say? The media cannot remain blameless in this tragedy.

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