Rethinking ‘mug shot’ publication

THE PUBLICATION of the “mug shot” of any individual is ethically questionable, but has been  routine media practice in the Philippines. In some countries, for example in the United States, the publication of mug shots is usually accompanied by the warning that the person so photographed has not been found guilty and is presumed innocent, and in addition could be cleared of the crimes he or she is charged with.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) released to the media the mug shots of Senators Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, both of whom are accused of graft and plunder in connection with the diversion of Priority Development Assistance Fund to certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as those of Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel diversion conspiracy. Their photographs were published by nearly all the broadsheets and aired over the TV networks without any cautionary caption saying that they are presumed innocent. No one has taken exception to the practice.

However, the PNP has refused to release the mug shots of Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile on the request of the latter’s lawyers, on the argument that it “has no obligation to release the mug shots” to the press.

Practically echoing the argument of  Enrile’s law firm (Ponce Enrile, Reyes and Manalastas), Chief Supt. Reuben Theodore Sindac, PNP spokesperson, declared that “Enrile is still a senator. He has not been convicted of any crime but is just an accused (individual).” In any case, he continued, “the mug shot is just part of the arrest warrant. Technically, the mug shots of Senator Enrile are the property of the court.”

Sindac also took the opportunity to chastise the press when some reporters demanded that the PNP release the Enrile mug shots: “If only members of the media are doing their jobs diligently, they would ask for permission from the Sandiganbayan for copies of the mug shots.”

A mug shot—the phrase is straight out of US police practice, while “mug” is an old English word meaning “face”—is a frontal and profile photograph of a person the police have arrested. In addition to its use as a police record of the arrest, it is also meant to help in the future identification of that individual, and is often used in “wanted” posters.

In the Philippine setting the publication of the mug shots of crime suspects, especially the presumably high and mighty, is often received with glee, its subtext being the assumption that the photographed person is guilty of the offense of which he or she is accused, among other reasons because such photos are identified with police “wanted” posters.

It’s just as well if the individual concerned has been tried and found guilty, but the publication of the mug shot of a person who has merely been arrested and who has been photographed for record and identification purposes undermines the presumption of innocence to which everyone, no matter how unpopular, is entitled. Although the Philippines has no jury system, which in other jurisdictions such as the United States is regarded as susceptible to being influenced by the publication of mug shots, it can be presumed that some judges can also be influenced by public opinion adverse to  accused individuals.

Enrile’s lawyers—and the PNP—are quite correct in arguing that the publication of the former Marcos Defense Minister’s mug shots would convey to the public a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, in addition to its “humiliating” Enrile, presumably because, as the PNP spokesperson said, “he is still a senator.”

The argument reeks with the implication that such personalities as Enrile are entitled to what amounts to preferential or special treatment compared to “lesser” beings—citizens who are neither as wealthy nor as powerful as he is. In addition, the PNP’s providing the media the mug shots of Revilla, Estrada and Napoles—which it lamely claims were not “officially released”—suggests a decision based on whimsy rather than policy. If the PNP correctly believes that releasing and publishing the mug shots of Enrile would imply his guilt, for the same reason should it make it a principle no matter who the arrested person is.

On the other hand, rather than wait for the PNP to put its policy house in order by treating everyone with the same respect that it is according Enrile, the media need to review their own  practice of publishing the mug shots of individuals accused of criminal offenses, whether these individuals are in the same league as Enrile or not.

The PNP’s withholding the Enrile mug shots is incidentally one more justification for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act, under the terms of which the PNP would be compelled to release the mug shots of anyone it arrests. But I suggest that even if and when by some miracle an FOI bill does pass, the media should abandon the practice of publishing mug shots altogether as offensive to the rights of the accused, and hardly conducive to the media responsibility of helping protect everyone’s rights, including every citizen’s right to his dignity and to a fair trial.