The place of media in a democracy: the HK hostage crisis

After watching this afternoon’s senate hearing with the media on the hostage crisis, I felt that we need to be more clear on the role of media in a democratic society. I’m not saying that media practitioners had no fault in this incident; on the contrary, as they have found themselves, they need to establish a few more guidelines here and there. But I think it would do well to understand better why they’re there.

I’d like to address this matter with respect to the following areas:

Reporting to the world

Photo by Sakuradate
Much has been said about the country’s maimed reputation because of the broadcasting of the hostage incident. Yes, it’s true, we’re now economically worse off because of the whole thing. Yes, it’s true, our fellow Pinoys in Hong Kong experience much greater discomfort than ever before. But to say that the media are at fault shows a grave misunderstanding of their role. The media serves as a check and balance for the government. That’s why they’re called the “watchdog” of the government in a democratic state. If, in reporting the facts, they expose the mistakes of a government, then that’s all in a day’s work, and sometimes even a job well done. The negative economic repercussions arising from the government’s mistakes, therefore, are not the media’s fault.

But how about protecting the nation’s interest? Don’t journalists have a role in that? Yes, precisely, they do, and that is in doing their job well. The media will not push for our nation’s progress by “marketing” our nation to the world. That’s the role of marketing people. They will serve the nation by bringing forth the truth that the public ought to know. The moment we ask them to lose their objectivity for the sake of making our country look good, we would have done our country a great disservice. So, regarding Sen. Enrile’s question on where journalists draw the line between national interest and professional ethics, I’d have to say that there is no conflict between the two.

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is a basic element of a democratic society. It’s important because democracy, as a political ideology, assumes that persons bring themselves to fulfillment through freedom. To express oneself is one of those freedoms. This applies not only to media organizations as institutions, but to individual citizens as well. We must protect the freedom of expression because not doing so will endanger our democracy. Remember what happened back in 1972? Given this, I’m in agreement with Maria Ressa, Senior Vice President for News and Current Affairs of ABS-CBN, and other media professionals in saying that we don’t need more laws in this area. Adding legislation that places restrictions on the media could give a few ill-willed or ill-witted government authorities their precious windows of opportunity.

However, there are limits to the freedom of expression. I learned from media law class that there are two specific limits: national security and the right to privacy. I suppose it would be enough to discuss national security in this case. During the hostage situation, police intelligence was obviously compromised, since the Mendoza knew some of the actions of the police through the television on board. Maybe the media should have been further away. Maybe there shouldn’t have been any live coverage. Maybe they should have assumed that there could be a television on board.

I was filled with all these maybes until I heard the testimonies of the media executives during the hearing. Maria Ressa explained that, in the past, there had been worse crisis situations, but none of them ended like this one did. Why? Because the “crisis managers” (probably the police) used their right to set parameters on the media. But this time, the authorities did not use that right as extensively as they had done so in the past. On the other hand, the media set up and went on with their live coverage, trusting that the situation was being managed as well as they had always been in the past, thinking that the meager guidelines they were given were enough. They were wrong.


That’s where the “major major” mistake and resolution arise. Maria Ressa said that the media’s biggest mistake was to assume that the authorities were managing everything properly. She and Jessica Soho had discussed that the media ought to know what to do if the authorities weren’t doing their part, which I hope would give way to more concrete guidelines for operating during such circumstances.

Of course, we’re talking about the media’s role here. We’re not touching on the government’s role yet. But in a democratic society where people should care for each other, the media have now learned to not assume that the other party is doing well. After all, they are the watchdog of the government, so that’s one reality they have to factor into their professional practice.

Thankfully, the senators were very open and constructive in their inquiry, even if some of them didn’t seem to know much about the media. One senator admitted to simply fearing them. But, through this experience, I hope the Filipino people have gained a better understanding of their role in our country. We need to understand each other if we are to support one another in building a great nation.

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