Broadcast networks fined over hostage crisis coverage

Source: PCIJ

Ten months, nine lives, and a flurry of finger-pointing and paper work later, the controversy over the media coverage of the 2010 Luneta hostage-taking incident by the country’s biggest and most influential television and radio networks has come down to feeble fines of P30,000, and a virtual slap on the wrist.

The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the national association of owners and operators of radio and television stations in the country, has levied fines on two major television networks and one radio network for broadcasting information that it ruled could have compromised police efforts to rescue the hostages during the day-long hostage-taking incident at the Quirino Grandstand on Aug. 23, 2010.

The KBP Standards Authority ordered ABS-CBN Broadcasting Channel 2, Associated Broadcasting Company Channel 5 (now known as TV5), and radio station Radyo Mo Nationwide (RMN, which was earlier called Radio Mindanao Network) to each pay P30,000 in penalty for violations of the KBP broadcast code.

In addition to RMN’s fine, news anchors Michael Rogas and Erwin Tulfo were ordered to pay fines of P15,000 and P10,000, respectively, for getting in the way of negotiations between police and hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza.

In the 15 December 2010 ruling – a copy of which the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) obtained only recently – the KBP also ordered RMN to reprimand both Rogas and Tulfo for their role in the coverage.

But the KBP Standards Authority expressed frustration over its inability to regulate broadcasters who are no longer members of the association. The KBP singled out in particular GMA-7 Network, which was also the subject of several complaints because of its coverage of the incident.

GMA-7 withdrew its membership from the KBP in September 2003 after a tiff over commercial loading limits set by the association.

The PCIJ exerted all effort to get the side of the four media agencies. ABC-5 legal counsel Christina Ona and GMA-7 officer Butch Raquel separately said they would have to get clearance from their superiors to be able to respond. RMN News’ officer-in-charge Buddy Oberas said the station could not issue a statement as of press time. Ma. Regina ‘Ging’ Reyes, ABS CBN vice president for News referred PCIJ’s request to the network’s legal department, which did not respond at all.

Not press freedom
Seven years later, it would be among the major TV and radio networks that would come under fire for broadcasting a detailed blow-by-blow account of the police operation to rescue Hong Kong tourists taken hostage by Mendoza, a dismissed police captain.

On the morning of 23 August 2010, Mendoza had boarded the bus that had 25 Hong Kong tourists, among them women and children. He later made them into hostages in an attempt to demand reinstatement into the police force.

The Office of the Ombudsman had dismissed him from the service because of a 2008 complaint over alleged extortion.

The hostage-taking ended with a bungled rescue attempt by the police, resulting in the death of nine people, including eight of the hostages and Mendoza himself. The tragedy unfolded live on TV and on radio, with some networks airing live footage of policemen trying to gain entry through the front and the rear of the bus.

The live and detailed coverage by the broadcast networks was heavily criticized because the hostage-taker could monitor the media’s coverage of police operations through a TV set inside the bus.

All the networks investigated by the KBP said that they were merely covering a legitimate breaking news story and fulfilling their obligations to inform the public. But KBP Standards Authority chairperson Diana C. Gozum dismissed claims by the broadcast networks that they were merely exercising their duties as members of a free and democratic press.

“Press freedom is not absolute,” Gozum told the PCIJ. “It is not a matter of getting a scoop when lives are involved. We cannot say we did this to have a scoop or to have an advantage over competitors.”

Gozum said that a careful viewing of the tapes submitted by the networks to the KBP and a careful reading of the transcripts of the radio broadcasts would show that the networks went out of bounds in their eagerness to beat the competition.

“We cannot sacrifice life for press freedom,” she said. “In this situation the Standards Authority felt that our members went beyond their responsibilities as broadcasters and their responsibilities for getting a scoop for the network.”

“It pained us to make this decision because we are all broadcasters,” said Gozum, president and general manager of provincial radio broadcaster Filipinas Broadcasting Network. “They are our members, and we know them, we have worked with them, and some of them are the owners, or their official representatives to the KBP are in the Board.”

Hear no evil?
Curiously, the KBP Standards Authority had found ABS-CBN, ABC-5, and RMN liable for their coverage as early as 15 December 2010, or four months after the hostage-taking incident. Yet until now, neither the KBP nor any of the networks has announced the findings in any press release, statement, or in a news story in any of the many media outlets of the three networks.  In fact, the ruling may not have been brought up in public had PCIJ not asked KBP officials about the matter last week.

After pulling all stops in covering the Luneta hostage-taking incident and the government investigation that followed, the networks now appear uninterested in broadcasting the results of KBP’s own investigation into media’s culpability in the fiasco.

Instead, all three networks contested the findings by filing an appeal before the KBP Board of Trustees, which then convened a special appeals committee composed of four board members.

On 12 April 2011, the appeals committee rejected the appeals of ABS-CBN, ABC-5, and RMN, and ordered all three to pay the fines within 10 working days or pay an additional penalty of 1.5 percent of the fine for every month past the deadline for the implementation of the order.

Under protest
On 29 April 2011, ABC-5 sent a check for P30,000 from Banco de Oro to the KBP “as full payment and settlement of the fine imposed on respondents.”

ABS-CBN followed with a letter on May 2, 2011 from ABS-CBN legal counsel Cherrie Cruz stating that the network would abide by the order to pay the fine of P30,000. ABS-CBN insisted, though, that it was doing so under protest.

“The company wishes to make of record that it neither agrees with nor admits any liability in connection with the KBP Standards Authority’s decision dated 15 December (2010) finding the company to have violated Article 6 of the KBP broadcast code for its coverage of the 23 August 2010 Quirino Grandstand hostage-taking incident,” wrote Cruz. “The company also disagrees with the KBP Board of Trustees order dated 12 April 2011 denying its appeal from said decision.”

For its part, RMN legal counsel Jorge Sacdalan wrote the KBP on 28 April asking the association to reconsider its order to reprimand RMN anchors Rogas and Tulfo. Sacdalan pledged that the network and its anchors “have learned their lessons from the tragic incident and have avowed to be more vigilant in performing their duties and responsibilities under the broadcast code.”

“Paying the fines will be enough penalty for whatever acts or omissions respondents RMN and Rogas have committed,” Sacdalan said in his letter to the KBP.

In greater danger
The KBP Board of Directors had ordered the Standards Authority to conduct an investigation into the coverage of the hostage-taking incident on 31 August 2010, or a week after the incident.

By 24 September 2010, the Standards Authority had already farmed out notices of hearings to officials and legal representatives of ABS-CBN, ABC-5, and RMN.

The KBP ordered RMN and its anchors Erwin Tulfo and Michael Rogas to explain why administrative sanctions should not be imposed on them for violating Section 1, Article 6 of the Broadcast Code. Tulfo is also a reporter and anchor of ABC-5, which is now known as TV5.

Section 1 states: “The coverage of crimes in progress or crisis situations, such as hostage-taking or kidnapping, shall not put lives in greater danger than is already inherent in the situation. Such coverage should be restrained and care should be taken so as not to hinder or obstruct efforts of authorities to resolve the situation.”

The KBP was particularly concerned with the 40-minute phone interview conducted by Rogas with Mendoza just minutes before the latter started shooting. Rogas has been accused of tying up the phone line with Mendoza, preventing police negotiators from getting through to the hostage- taker.

But the radio network argued that it was its “sworn duty to bring and inform the public all sides and angles of the hostage-taking event as it unfolded.” Moreover, RMN officials insisted that Mendoza was using several other phone lines to contact other people.

RMN also seemed to blame the live TV coverage of the arrest of Mendoza’s brother Gregorio for the hostage-taker’s sudden angry outburst, which led to the shooting of hostages.

In a position paper RMN submitted to the Standards Authority on 19 October 2010, RMN officials said the network “was not in control of the coverage being shown on television inside the tourist bus where (the hostage taker) witnessed the MPD’s (Manila Police District) arrest of his brother, which caused Captain Mendoza to get infuriated.”

After reviewing audio tapes and transcripts of the interview, however, the KBP Standards Authority ruled that the RMN interview was “wanting of the high degree of caution and restraint demanded by the broadcast code.”

The interview, KBP said, “only created a situation which effectively deprived the police authorities of the opportunity to deal solely and continuously with the hostage-taker on a one-on-one basis.”

“Much time was, in fact, wasted by the live interview which could have otherwise been used by the police negotiators to convince Mendoza to surrender peacefully and seek redress of his grievances within the prescribed legal parameters,” the KBP decision stated.

KBP stressed that media broadcasters should refrain from trying to negotiate with hostage-takers, and leave matters like these to professionals. Media, it said, “must accept the fact that their only role in a hostage-taking incident is to cover and report on the event, and not to become principal or supporting actors in the resolution.”

Vital information
In the case of ABS-CBN and ABC-5, the KBP Standards Authority found the two networks guilty of also violating Section 4, Article 6 of the KBP Broadcast Code, which states: “The coverage of crimes or crisis situations shall not provide vital information or offer comfort or support to the perpetrators.”

The Standards Authority cited several instances where reporters of both ABS-CBN and ABC-5 gave details or showed video that telegraphed the intentions or activities of police officials.  In particular, the KBP Standards Authority cited several live reports as examples of violations of the broadcast code:

Julius Babao (ABS-CBN):
“…papalapit na ang assault team sa likod ng bus…armado ng matataas na kalibre ng baril. Nasa gilid na ng bus… binasag ang salamin sa harap at walang putok ng baril. Nakapwesto na ang mga alagad ng batas.” (The assault team is coming near the back of the bus… they are armed with high-caliber guns. They are at the side of the bus…they have smashed the glass in front, and there is no gunfire. The assault team is in place.)

Ron Gagalac (ABS-CBN):
“…may panibagong assault unit na pumapasok sa gilid ng bus… hindi ko   makita…dahan-dahan pumapasok ang mobile…”
“…hindi tinuloy ang pagpasok sa likod…hindi ko alam kung alam nila ang secret handle pero ngayon kinakalampag ng isang SWAT member ang harap ng            pintuan…” (A new assault team is coming to the side of the bus… I cannot see…the mobile patrol car is coming near… they did not insist on coming through the rear…I don’t know now if they  know about the secret handle there, but now a SWAT member is rattling the door in front.)

Erwin Tulfo (ABC-5):
“…nakikita na natin 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-…15 SWAT members…”
“…dalawang pulis ang nakaposisyon sa harap; dalawa ang nasa tabi at nakapaligid ang iba…”
“…may dalawang pulis nagtatago sa may bumper…”
“…dalawang mobile ang nasa tabi… 4 na mobile nakaantabay sa paligid ng bus…”   (…We can see 1-2-3-4-5-6-7…15 SWAT members…two policemen are positioned in  front of the bus…two are at the side, and the others are all around… there are two  policemen hiding by the bumper of the bus…there are two mobile patrol cars at the side…four more are waiting near the bus)

DJ Sta Ana (ABC-5):
“…naglagay ng mobile sa likod ng bus para pambara sa bus kung sakali… “
“…may isang pulis na may dalang parang tali… siguro para hatakin ang    pinto…”  (They’ve placed a mobile patrol car near the rear of the bus to block it…there is a policeman with a rope… maybe to pull the door open with.)

In its decision, the KBP Standards Authority ruled that these were just some examples of vital information that the media agencies should not have broadcast, as they would compromise police rescue operations.

Reasonable steps
ABS-CBN argued that its officers had taken every reasonable step to limit the coverage and not show police operations. The company also argued that the assault was unsuccessful because of the lack of training, equipment, and preparation of the rescue team, and not because of the coverage of the network. In addition, ABS-CBN said its news teams had complied with all police directives onsite.

One ABS-CBN executive who asked not to be identified told the PCIJ said they were disappointed with the KBP decision. The executive said that ABS-CBN’s news bosses had tried to be careful with what information or footage would be released to the public. But, the executive said, the situation was just too fast and fluid, and network bosses had no control over what their reporters would say during a live report.

“There were continuous discussions in the newsroom then,” the executive said. “We made sure that the cameras were just focused on the windshield so that we do not show the other positions.”

ABS-CBN lawyers also told the Standards Authority that it held back interviews that would compromise police positions, unlike “some media outfits” that aired footage “of the bus from the vantage point of the sniper which showed the rifle pointed towards the right side of the bus.” The network’s archrival GMA-7 had broadcast a story from a sniper’s point-of-view during the hostage crisis.

Kapuso or Kapamilya?
ABC-5 representatives meanwhile argued that its coverage did not provide any information that the hostage taker did not already know, since Mendoza was in an “elevated position” from where he could view the police operations against him. Channel 5 also said that it could not have provided vital information to Mendoza since Mendoza was watching a competitor’s channel on the television set inside the bus. (PCIJ was still waiting for ABC-5’s comment on the KBP ruling as of press time.)

In the case of both ABS-CBN and ABC-5, the KBP Standards Authority ruled that it was immaterial whose coverage Mendoza was monitoring inside the bus. “To constitute a violation of the code provision, it is not required for the hostage-taker to have actually received the information on the police operations aired by respondent,” the ruling stated.

It added, “We have viewed, studied, and reviewed a copy of the recorded coverage of the respondent, particularly the period covered by the rescue operations or police assault of the bus, and find that it was conducted in a manner which provided vital information, by being made available, to the hostage taker.”

“A general or broad approach in the coverage of the incident should have been adapted by respondent to remove itself from the proscription intended by the code provision,” the KBP said.

No jurisdiction
But the KBP Standards Authority rued its inability to investigate GMA-7, a non-member of the association, devoting a full page of its 23-page decision to discuss that problem.

The Standards Authority said KBP cannot do self-regulation of the broadcast industry if it has no power over some of the sector’s players. It noted: “We believe that the KBP was organized in April 1973 as a self-regulating private organization of the broadcast industry. It was meant to include all broadcast stations in the country, without exception. Anything less mocks the principle of self-regulation, as evidenced by our present inability to officially inquire into the coverage of the hostage-taking incident by GMA-7.”

“To this end,” said the Standards Authority, “it is suggested that the Office of the President, through the Office of the Executive Secretary, and with the assistance of the National Telecommunications Commission, support the KBP in establishing a system or mechanism by which the broadcast code is made to apply to all broadcast stations in the country, without exception.”

The unique case of GMA-7 appears to be a sore point among many KBP members. “What about GMA-7?” asked one media executive when informed of the sanctions imposed on the other networks. “Won’t it even be sanctioned?”

Gozum herself commented, “Our members are at a disadvantage because they must comply with the broadcast code regarding program and commercial loading and others.” It was for this reason, she said, that the KBP has asked Malacañang to find a way to end what she called “unfair competition.”

“Government must address the issue of GMA-7 and the other non-KBP members,” Gozum said.

But in an earlier interview with “The Manila Bulletin” in July 2006, GMA-7 chairman and president Felipe L. Gozon said the network bolted from the KBP precisely because it thought KBP’s self-regulatory functions were already obsolete.

“I did not believe in the regulatory function that KBP was imposing on members,” the newspaper quoted Gozon as saying. “That was obsolete already. The KBP was Marcos’s idea to regulate the broadcast industry. I did not agree in what KBP wanted to impose. I do not believe in censorship. I did not agree on load limitation. Even the US National Association of Broadcasters couldn’t impose load limitation now after they were hauled to court and the court ruled in favor of the complainant.”

Revising the code
Regardless of who was covered by the broadcast code, the KBP has taken the first if belated step in updating its rules on coverage. KBP Standards Authority Performance Officer Virginia Velasco said the KBP has amended Article 6 of the KBP broadcast code to take into account lessons learned from the Quirino hostage-taking incident.

Article 6 deals with coverage of crime and crisis situations. Velasco said that prior to the Quirino fiasco, Article 6 had only six sections. Now it has 15, giving less room for members to claim that the rules were too vague or incomplete.

The amendments were approved during the general membership meeting of the KBP in October 2010. These include:

A section stating that the right to life takes precedence over the right to information.
Stations are encouraged to consider delayed airing of its live footage.
Broadcasters should assume that the perpetrator has access to all broadcasts.
Broadcasters may not communicate with perpetrators or victims without coordination with police.
Members must be mindful to preserve evidence in a crime scene.
Broadcasters must be careful not to provoke the perpetrator or interfere with negotiations.

Learning experience
While the media networks have protested the KBP’s findings, some network executives admitted that the 2010 Quirino Grandstand hostage crisis was an eye-opener for the country’s free-wheeling press.

ABS-CBN News executive Ging Reyes says the Philippine media now need to be more conscious of both their power and responsibilities.

“Hostage situations are very sensitive,” Reyes said. “As a news organization, we should now be thinking ten times whether we go live with it.”

“It is not to say that we should not go live,” she said. “There are no hard and fast rules for this. We are just saying we should not go to town with it. In the end, prudence is key.”

Apart from Gozum, who signed as chairperson, the KBP Standards Authority decision was also affirmed by the following members: Rafael V. Barreiro, Audiovisual Communications Inc.; Rosa Maria T. Feliciano, Radio Station DZUP; Noel C. Galvez, Vanguard Radio Network; Brenda B. Locsin, PBN Broadcasting Network; Orly L. Pangcog, People’s Broadcasting System;

George M. Salabao, St. Jude Thaddeus Institute of Technology; Atty Virginia Jose, ZOE Broadcasting Network; Roberto D. Del Rosario, IBC-13; Ephraim V. Guerrero, Intermedia Philippines; and Eric C. Maliwat, Far East Broadcasting Company.

Members Jean Paul M. Varela of Good News Broadcasting and Christine C. Ona of ABC-5 did not participate in all the hearings. They also did not sign the Standards Authority’s decision.

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The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) is a founding member of SEAPA.

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