Philippine Senate Aims at the Messenger

Stung by the Aug. 23 bus hijacking and hostage debacle that ended with eight Hong Kong tourists dead and the country’s reputation for violence and mayhem exposed internationally, Philippine politicians are turning up the heat on the media in a search for scapegoats.

On Tuesday, senators, led by one-time human rights campaigner Joker Arroyo, grilled executives from the three largest TV networks about their coverage of the hostage crisis, threatening them with punitive legislation and accusing them of disloyalty to the nation for broadcasting disturbing images during the messy standoff.

“Don’t tempt us to use our powers here, to now issue a general broadcast policy — that will be a law,” Arroyo warned the executives.

While there is little doubt that the freewheeling Philippine media often stretches standards of journalistic ethics and professionalism, the spectacle of the Senate trying to transfer blame for police ineptitude onto some of the country’s most respected media executives was disturbing.

Arroyo seemed to be aiming directly at well-known journalist Maria Ressa, a former CNN correspondent who is now in charge of news and public affairs for ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV network.

He played the nationalist card, accusing Ressa of having “conflicting loyalties,” apparently because of her background with CNN. “As far as I’m concerned, what was beamed overseas from what was taken during the hostage crisis, has damaged the Philippines immensely and we have not recovered from it,” Arroyo said.

Ressa, in responding to the Senate grilling, noted the “failure of authorities to actually create a functioning chain of command, to regulate, to set the parameters where media should be.”

She rejected the idea that legislative controls were needed, saying that existing legal means were sufficient to control emergency situations. “I would caution against additional legislation. If we put in additional legislation, they could be used by local and national officials in ways to curtail freedom of the press. It's not by decree, it is by the powers granted to the ground commander," she told senators.

In its own report on the hostage incident. ABS-CBN said it would have honored a news blackout or other controls during the day-long crisis if the government had acted, which it didn’t. “In other countries around the world, governments set the ground rules for situations like this,” the network noted.

In the end, it is unlikely that the Senate will try to legislate controls on the powerful media, but the hearings are certainly a sign of the deep frustration many Filipinos feel over not just the hostage crisis but the sense that the country just can’t catch a break. But lawmakers make enemies of the media at their peril.

When the media finally turned against former strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, it helped seal his fate and lead to his ouster. A series of investigative articles on his wealth and his mistresses also helped pave the way for former President Joseph Estrada’s forcible removal from office in 2001. It would not be wise to bet on any gang of disgruntled politicians to win a battle against the country’s journalists.

On the same day as the hearing, Ressa’s ABS-CBN aired a lengthy interview with Mary Kissell, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, in which she denounced what she called a “witch hunt” by authorities looking to deflect blame for the hostage massacre.

"If one thing was evident in this August 23rd hostage taking, it's that the authorities so thoroughly mishandled the situation that people paid for it with their lives. If anything, rather than exacting a witch hunt over the media, I think the policy makers should serve the country better by addressing the wrongs in Philippine law enforcement," Kissel said on the network.

“The media doesn't force events to happen; the media simply reports what happens,” Kissel said. “If there was a life in danger, the government should have gone to the media and explained the situation and asked them to turn off the cameras. That didn't happen."

Critics have accused Philippine TV and radio stations of making the hostage situation worse with constant up-close coverage of the events as they unfolded, but most observers have confirmed that police did little to control the media or the hostage taker, a cashiered former police officer. In one particularly telling photograph, Rolando Mendoza, 55, armed with an M16 rifle, stood openly in the doorway of the bus seemingly greeting the crowd of reporters and onlookers gathered outside. No shot was fired.

Mendoza was later killed when police stormed the bus full of Hong Kong tourists he had commandeered as a way to air his grievance over being dismissed from the police force for corruption and abuse of authority.

Ressa herself, however, may have drawn the anger of the Senate with a piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 6 in which she said the hostage issue had tarnished the image of the country’s new president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino.

She pointedly blamed political factions in Aquino’s new cabinet for mishandling the crisis due to poor coordination and unclear lines of authority. The president’s indecisiveness helped create a situation in which no one from the central government was able to take charge on Aug. 23, thus turning the hostage crisis into an international debacle.

“For many Filipinos, this bungling is wearingly familiar,” Ressa wrote. “Mr. Aquino ran for office promising to clean up this culture of corruption. That's why the hostage crisis was so disturbing: It was a disastrous example of incompetence, political factionalism and lack of national leadership.”