THE AUG. 23 HOSTAGE-TAKING: Media lapses invited government intervention
MEDIA COVERAGE of the Aug. 23 hostage taking at Manila’s Quirino Grandstand provoked attempts at state intervention within days of the event, making it one of the most significant developments in the media in 2010.
(Please also see sidebars “Self-Regulation vs. Government Intervention: CMFR holds RTD on crisis coverage guidelines” and “Warning to Media“)
A congressman introduced in the House of Representatives a bill that would penalize the media for revealing police and troop movements, and there was talk in government circles of imposing news blackouts during crisis situations. A few weeks later, President Benigno Aquino III, describing the behavior of some reporters on the scene as “irresponsible bordering on the criminal,” threatened to have Congress pass a law penalizing such behavior.
As the details of how the media covered the incident later showed, Aquino wasn’t exaggerating. Media behavior underscored the imperative of continuing attention, by the media themselves, to ethical compliance and adherence to professional standards.
At about 9:30 a.m. of Aug. 23, dismissed police officer Rolando Mendoza took hostage 25 tourists from Hong Kong and some Filipino staff who were in a bus about to leave Fort Santiago for Manila’s Rizal Park. The ensuing hostage drama lasted 11 hours and ended with nine individuals, including Mendoza, dead.
As early as 11 a.m., local media had started reporting on the situation in the form of breaking news and flash reports. Mendoza had already released two hostages by then. The ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) began covering the hostage crisis live at about the same time.
Towards the evening, many of the television networks were also covering the hostage crisis live. Among none of them did it seem to have occurred that irresponsible coverage of the event could cost lives.
The two major primetime news programs offered different approaches to their reportage: GMA-7’s 24 Oras presented the news as if were an action movie, while ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol gave the audience the melodramatic side, or what’s known as “weeping mother” stories: it interviewed Mendoza’s parents, other relatives and neighbors.
Were it not for reporter Erwin Tulfo and his insistence on playing negotiator, TV5 could have actually done better than either network. TV5’s special coverage, “Hostage sa Manila (Hostage in Manila)” and later on, its news program Aksyon, were actually more restrained and presented a comprehensive background on Mendoza and the reasons for his dismissal from the service.
Government station NBN-4, and the government-sequestered stations IBC-13 and RPN-9 were equally restrained. But their reporting was incredibly inadequate, despite their easy access to government sources of information, including the police. NBN-4 could not get right the number of the hostages, the fatalities, and even the name of the hostage-taker, both during the event itself and even later. All three networks’ reports were without background, except for the claim by NBN-4 and IBC-13 that Mendoza had been accused of extortion.
“Tumabi kayo (Get out of the way)”
At about 7:15 p.m., a policeman explicitly asked TV reporters not to cover live the arrest of Mendoza’s brother, Gregorio. Gregorio, who was also a policeman, was accused of being an accessory to the crime his brother was committing.
Despite the policeman’s pleas and his colleagues’ attempts to prevent the media from covering the arrest, all the television stations continued covering it live. ABS-CBN 2 reporter Ron Gagalac even said: “Pangamba nilang magwawala itong hostage-taker kapag nakita niya itong pangyayaring ito ([The police] fear that the hostage-taker might turn violent if he sees this).”
Minutes after Gregorio’s arrest was broadcast live all over the Philippines, the hostage incident turned bloody.
In the afternoon, ANC aired reports that were supposed to provide the public with more information. The network aired a report on the “injustice” Mendoza had supposedly suffered when he was dismissed from office two years before his mandatory retirement. The report also aired interviews with Mendoza’s relatives, all of whom told the world how wonderful a person he was.
A similar report was later aired on TV Patrol, which used the same weepy tone. In Alex Santos’ report, Mendoza’s awards while in the service were also featured, in addition to painting him as an ideal public servant. “Napakaliit ng sweldo ni Mendoza pero minahal pa rin niya ang kaniyang trabaho at isinugal ang sarili para sa serbisyo (Mendoza received a low salary, but still loved his work and sacrificed himself in the service),” said Santos.
Both ANC and ABS-CBN 2 also aired an interview with Armando Ducat Jr., owner of a day-care center in Tondo, Manila who held hostage 26 of his students and four teachers in a bus on March 28, 2007. While the report was initially a review of prior hostage dramas, Ducat was given the chance to comment on Mendoza’s acts. “Naniniwala rin si Ducat na tama ang ginawa ni Mendoza dahil hindi naman daw maaaring kimkimin na lang nito ang kaniyang sama ng loob (Ducat also believes that Mendoza did the right thing because he should not let his frustrations bottle up inside).” In short: the public was being told that in addition to being an ideal son, neighbor, and policeman, Mendoza was also a victim of injustice and had every right to react the way he did.
Both Saksi (GMA-7) and Aksyon (TV5) aired similar reports on Mendoza and Ducat. But these were not as partial to Mendoza as TV Patrol’s report.
And yet what was at issue was not the validity of Mendoza’s claim that he had been wrongly accused and convicted of a crime, but his resorting to hostage-taking to force the government to reinstate him. When the supposed background stories focused on the hostage-taker’s humanity and the supposed injustice he had suffered, they were in effect saying that the end—resolving Mendoza’s woes—justified the means—his taking hostage 25 people who had nothing to do with his problems.
Covering Gregorio Mendoza
At around 7 p.m. last Aug. 23, said the report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC), Manila mayor Alfredo Lim ordered the arrest of Gregorio. Gregorio ran to the media, claiming that the police were going to kill him or were at least preparing to charge him with being an accessory to his brother’s crime. Lim’s alleged instruction to “take (Gregorio Mendoza) to Tondo,” said IIRC, was police shorthand for torture; this was the basis of the IIRC recommendation to file criminal charges against Lim.
Quite noticeable in the coverage by TV Patrol was the voice of one of its staff seemingly forcing Gregorio to accept a headphone so anchor Ted Failon could interview him. What made Failon’s interview problematic was his attempt to negotiate with Gregorio by asking him to cooperate with his fellow policemen. “Sa pagkakataong ito, hindi po ba kayo pwedeng mahinahong sumama sa mga pulis at sasamahan po kayo ng mga tauhan ng midya (At this point, is it not possible that you calmly come with the police and people from the media will escort you)?,” Failon repeatedly asked Gregorio.
Instead, Gregorio resisted the policemen who were trying to drag him to a waiting police car, while his relatives tried to help him. Reporter Susan Enriquez of 24 Oras rushed toward the man and tried to get Gregorio to answer her questions even while he was fighting off the police.
The media followed Gregorio as he continued to resist arrest and being “taken to Tondo,” although the policemen trying to arrest him said they were taking him to the Western Police District UN Avenue headquarters. Other police officers tried to block the media, some of them shouting that Mendoza may have access to the news and further coverage could provoke him. True enough, a few minutes after Gregorio was shown on television being taken away by the police, Mendoza began firing.
Interviewing the hostage-taker
Even before Mendoza had posted his written request for “Media now” on the windshield of the bus he had taken control of, the IIRC report said he had requested for a reporter and a cameraman. TV5’s Tulfo arrived a few hours after and offered his services. But as the IIRC report noted, Mendoza asked for a female reporter instead.
But Tulfo was able to talk to Mendoza for Radio Mindanao Network (RMN) anyway. Together with anchor Michael Rogas, he began negotiating with Mendoza.
At around 6 p.m., Rogas started interviewing Mendoza. A few minutes into the interview, Police Supt. Orlando Yebra handed Mendoza the Ombudsman’s letter informing him that the office would review his case. The IIRC report noted that “while…Mendoza was talking to Yebra, Rogas kept on calling his attention to continue their live interview in the middle of the hostage negotiations,” thus hampering the negotiations at a very critical time.
Mendoza was in fact watching on the bus television his brother’s arrest aired over 24 Oras, and was threatening through Rogas and Tulfo to shoot the hostages if the police did not stop. “‘Yung kapatid ko nakikita ko, bakit nila ginaganiyan? Akong may kasalanan dito, walang kasalanan ‘yan! Ipakita ninyo na pinakawalan ninyo kapatid ko! Pagka hindi, titirahin ko ang mga nandirito sa loob (I can see my brother [on TV], what are they doing to him? I’m the one at fault here, not him! Show me that he is being freed, or I will shoot the people inside the bus)!”
Tulfo proudly described his role in the “action” during his report: “At ang request niya sa akin dahil ako raw ang pinakamalapit dito sa NCRPO (National Capital Region Police Office) van na hingiin na pakawalan ‘yung kapatid niya. So what I did was, lumapit ako rito sa NCR mobile van, at sinabihan ko ‘yung ground commander na pakawalan ‘yung kapatid (Since I was nearest the NCRPO van, [Mendoza] requested that I ask the police to release his brother. So I went over to the NCR mobile van and told the ground commander to release his brother).”
Aside from Tulfo and Rogas, Jorge Cariño of ABS-CBN 2 and Enriquez of GMA-7 were also able to talk to Mendoza. Cariño’s interview was aired during the TV Patrol Special Report and over Bandila late in the evening. Enriquez’s interview was never aired by GMA-7.
The problem with interviewing a hostage-taker is that it gives him or her a platform from which he or she can say anything. A simple question or comment from a reporter untrained for such a situation can also prolong the situation by giving the hostage-taker the sense that he’s gaining public sympathy.
At the same time, the interviews with Mendoza choked police communication lines with the hostage-taker. The IIRC report noted that Yebra was still trying to contact Mendoza, but that the latter was not answering the police phone, and his mobile phone was busy. Assistant negotiator Police Chief Inspector Romeo Salvador told the IIRC that Tulfo was talking on the police phone while describing the bus.
The media were also providing blow-by-blow reports on Mendoza’s shooting of the hostages as well as on police operations.
When Mendoza started firing, ABS-CBN 2 reporter Gagalac ran to where the bus was parked, and joined the police raiding team, despite police requests for him not to go with them. The ABS-CBN 2 camera panned to all directions, thereby disclosing to Mendoza the positions of the police. While ABS-CBN 2 was giving the audience a long shot of the bus, Gagalac continued to report his and the police team’s position. “Gumagapang kami rito sa may damuhan sa Grandstand, kasama ang mga pulis upang makalapit (We are crawling here at the grassy area of the Grandstand with the police to approach [the bus])” and “May limang pulis akong kasama rito at nakaporma na sila rito sa may puno (I have five policemen with me and we are positioned in one of the trees)” were some of the statements he made while reporting, thus providing Mendoza information on police movements.
Meanwhile, Emil Sumangil of 24 Oras was reporting that he was positioned close to the snipers who were at that point already firing at the bus. Raffy Tima, also of 24 Oras, also disclosed on air that the NCRPO’s command vehicle was 25 to 30 meters from the bus, and worse, that the police were preparing to use “longer” firearms in case Mendoza tried to escape. Michael Fajatin confirmed that a sniper had shot one of the tires of the bus to keep it from moving.
Tulfo, on the other hand, reported that, “May nakita tayong isang miyembro ng Special Action Force ngayon. Nakaluhod ito ngayon, naka-ready ‘yung kaniyang baril, nakatutok doon sa may salamin. At this point, ‘yung ibang mga SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics team) naman, ay nakikita natin na gumagapang doon sa may likurang bahagi ng bus (We can see from here a member of the Special Action Forces. He is on his knees, his gun ready, aiming at the bus window. At this point, other SWAT members may be seen crawling from behind the bus).”
When bus driver Alberto Lubang managed to escape, he shouted “Patay na silang lahat (All [hostages] are dead)!” an unconfirmed claim the media aired. GMA-7’s Tima did not immediately echo the driver’s statement on TV. While 24 Oras anchor Mel Tiangco pressed Tima for further details on Lubang’s escape, he avoided using the same words as Lubang’s. Tima stood by the fact that none of the information had been confirmed yet. Mike Enriquez and Tiangco later said that the information from the driver was being withheld because it was unconfirmed.
While Tulfo did report Lubang’s claims, he repeatedly said that the authorities had yet to confirm if these were true. Gagalac, on the other hand, reported Lubang’s claims as if they had been confirmed.
The media are usually and logically expected to report events calmly to prevent panic among viewers, listeners or readers. But some of the news anchors themselves were panicking.
While another GMA-7 reporter was on the air, Mike Enriquez butted in, shouting that shots were being fired. Tiangco kept asking where the bullets were coming from. Mike Enriquez answered that they were coming from the bus (“Sa may bus [From the bus]!”).
Tiangco frantically followed up. “Sa may bus? Sa side, sa harap? Sa pagkarinig mo, saan nanggaling ang putok? (From the bus? At the side? In front? From what you’ve heard, where did the shots come from?)” “Sa bus, kumpirmado, sa bus, Mel (In the bus, it’s confirmed, Mel),” Mike Enriquez answered.
Not content, Tiangco followed up with, “Oo nga, pero saang bahagi sa bus (Yes but at which part of the bus)?” Sounding like a panicky neighbor, she asked again, “Sa labas ng bintana, sa loob ba? Pinaputukan ba ‘yung bubong? Saan nanggaling? Sa bintana? Sa pinto? ([Were the shots fired from] outside the window, inside the bus? Were shots fired on the roof? On the window? On the door?)”
The hostage crisis ended with the death of eight hostages and hostage-taker Mendoza. TV news media then focused their stories on the condition of the survivors. It was only then that GMA-7 (Saksi) and TV5 (Aksyon) aired full background reports.
TV Patrol Special Report, the continuation of ABS-CBN 2’s coverage of the hostage taking, aired a report on the condition of the bus just as the Scene of the Crime Operatives were entering and probing for evidence. It was once again an unwarranted intervention into police procedures; entering a crime scene before it had been examined could compromise whatever evidence there was in the crime scene.
To assess how the police handled the situation, Aksyon, Saksi and Bandila all interviewed former SWAT chief and now Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 12 Judge Jaime Santiago who said that there were indeed problems with the police handling of the situation.
In Teledyaryo’s 9 p.m. newscast, on the other hand, newscaster Aljo Bendijo raised questions that initially criticized police handling of the hostage incident, but left other important questions unasked, among them how badly the media had behaved and contributed to the outcomes of the hostage-taking, which, in addition to nine dead, also made a mess of the country’s relations with Hong Kong and China.