POSTSCRIPT / March 16, 1999 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Morato must protect source of casino tape

ONE problem of former Sweepstakes chairman Manuel Morato is that he sometimes talks too much.

Morato should not have identified former casino worker Edgar Bentain as the source of that controversial tape showing then presidential candidate Joseph Estrada and his friend Charlie “Atong” Ang playing high-stakes baccarat (Lucky Nine to the uninitiated) at the casino.

The film clip was shown by Morato on his lotto television program during the last presidential poll campaign to expose a facet of Mr. Estrada’s personality.

It is possible that Bentain, missing the last two months, is still alive. Morato’s announcing that he was the source of the tape may have added to the risk that the former Pagcor camera operator might be killed if he is still alive.

Morato says he has a feeling the man may have been killed already, but Bentain’s mother said her maternal instincts tell her he is still alive. We hope the mother has the better sense of things.

As for PAGCOR chairman Alice Reyes being linked to the disappearance, that’s a ridiculous thought considering her kind, soft-spoken nature. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly,” as people who know her would say.

* * *

WE have an unwritten rule in journalism that we do not identify sources whose valuable information had been given to us in confidence. Many journalists had gone to jail on contempt charges rather than identify their sources.

Decades ago, there was a group of reporters who used confidential information in their stories on the murder of a Pasay City judge. When they refused to heed a court order for them to identify their sources, they were thrown into jail.

(I remember the names of some of those courageous reporters, but rather than miss out on the others, I will not identify them here.)

Theirs became a celebrated case. I remember being a grade-schooler seeing on the front page their pictures behind bars. Transformed into celebrities, they would receive well wishers, including VIPs, in their crowded cell.

* * *

ONE landmark consequence of that incident was the enactment of a law saying that newspapermen may not be forced to divulge the identify of their sources unless so ordered by a competent court on a matter involving national security.

It used to be that a newspaperman might be forced to name his source on matters of public interest. The term “public interest” was deemed too broad for a country steeped in the libertarian traditions of the press.

Congress, where the jailed reporters had friends and sympathizers, amended the law, changing the term “public interest” to the narrower “national security.”

(We’re piecing together the incidents related to the case entirely from foggy memory, and there may be legal details that are not that precise.)

* * *

THAT amendment gave the press more leeway in handling confidential and delicate information.

If we freely identify our confidential sources with the least nudging, nobody would talk to us anymore to share confidential information. That would be a big blow to the free flow of information so vital in a democracy.

Free and fearless discussion of public issues is essential to the evolving of an informed public opinion. The people are the eventual losers if information is withheld just because the press is afraid to report on “delicate” matters.

* * *

Such leeway, we have to admit, can be abused in this imperfect world.

It could happen that false information might be woven maliciously into a legitimate story with the reporter quoting spurious sources. When confronted, a crooked reporter can invoke the law saying that he may not be forced to identity his source.

In the American press, it has also happened that an extremely imaginative reporter manufactured a very engaging series based on alleged sources, some of whom turned out to be non-existent. Some of these writers have even won awards for their, huh, fiction.

By some uncanny seventh sense, wizened editors usually spot most attempts to smuggle falsehoods, but on some occasions, a few expertly crafted paragraphs manage to sneak through.

Such breach of the rules can drag the newspaper into an embarrassing, sometimes legally costly, lawsuit.

Readers are assured, however, that when such unscrupulous staffers are caught, they are removed.

* * *

SOME officials sometimes try to gag the press by telling them a mouthful and then admonishing them that what they had just said was off the record. What should a reporter do in such a situation?

He should not agree to the off-the-record injunction, because it was foisted on him after he had heard everything. If anyone wants any statement of his made off-the-record, he should say so in advance.

Just to show you how tricky the business is, it also happens at times that a supposedly knowledgeable person unloads some hot items but says it is off-the-record — hoping that the reporters will write it anyway. This could be a ruse for leaking out false information.

That’s why another rule is to check facts, double check them, and keep on checking even after the story has come out.

* * *

THOSE who dish out information to the press should know the distinction among off-the-record, sources-basis-only, for-background only, and related restrictions.

Some officials say “Off the record ito!” when what they mean is that the reporter may write the story but not name him as the source.

When a disclosure is off the record, nothing is to be written. But this must be told the reporter before the intended disclosure so he has the option to agree or disagree.

It could happen that the reporter already has the information or has started digging on it — and the official just wants to gag him by luring him into an off-the-record proposition. Obviously, he should not agree to keep the story under wraps.

Reporters are expected to consult their editors when caught in such a situation.

* * *

EVEN when the reporters (assuming they were in the same briefing or interview) had agreed to treat the disclosure as off-the-record, as soon as one of them breaks the agreement, everybody else is deemed free to write about it.

A reporter who gets off-the-record information should dig deeper into it. The basic reason is, of course, to check the information.

Another reason is that the injunction might just be breached of lifted. The moment the dam breaks open, the reporter should be able to spring into action and write intelligently and with more details than what was given during the briefing or interview. He can do this only if he does his homework.

A trick of some reporters to go around the off-the-record injunction holding back a big story is to give the facts to a colleague who is not bound by the agreement. But this raises some ethical questions and is rarely done.

* * *

FOR this newspaperman who logged years of writing with a trusty Underwood typewriter (now replaced by a Pentium PC), it comes as a surprise that the bulk of our feedback mail deals with our columns on computers.

A survey might show that technology and electronics, specifically computers, are a growing interest among readers. They are not confined to a small elite with purchasing power, but also include students and young professionals.

The widespread talk about the Y2K or Millennium Bug is also helping stoke interest in computers. To the alert businessman, there is a market implication to the subject of computers.

Jokes have been generated by the bug. One of them, which you probably have heard, tells of a Y2K solution that involves changing Y to K in such things as the months. January thus becomes Januark, February is Februark, etc. You can concoct your own joke by the ingenious changing of Y to K in some catchy words.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT reader Pong P. Pineda of pcland@pworld.net.ph says in his email: “I notice that concrete stairs are being built on the stations of MRT at Quezon Blvd., North Edsa, Boni Ave., etc. There are stairs along the sidewalks on both lanes and on the center island. If these stairs are the access to and from the MRT, it would be a sacrifice for commuters to climb them.

“Take the stairs on Quezon Blvd., which are 3- to 4-storey high. They expect commuters to climb these stairs every time they ride the MRT? It will not take long before commuters start avoiding the MRT and preferring the buses again.

“Look at the LRT. When it started operation, Taft Ave. became deserted. When the LRT service deteriorated, public utilities came back with a vengeance.

“One objective of the MRT is to move commuters as fast as possible. Why not use escalators to bring the commuters up the stations? I noticed that Mitsubishi is one of the subcontractors, because I see their logo at the project site. They make excellent escalators, don’t they?

“I cannot believe that this idea did not enter their minds, considering that they have foreign consultants. The MTR in Hong Kong and the New York subway, to name a few, have these facilities. Commuters are in a hurry to reach their destinations as conveniently as possible and arrive fresh and still full of energy. Climbing those stairs will really sap their energy.

“How about the disabled? Is the MRT exempted from following the building code regarding the disabled? I wonder what Mr. Art Borjal would say about this.”

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 16, 1999)

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