POSTSCRIPT / May 22, 2005 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Wrong for journalists to fight fire with fire?

RAMBO-TYPE: I am for responsible and trained citizens being allowed to possess licensed weapons for self-defense and sports shooting.

But still, I was not comfortable with that front-page picture in a major paper of a journalist brandishing the Ingram submachine gun that he said he fired to fend off attackers last week.

Sabagay, kanya-kanyang style yan. (Each to his own style). While there are those who feel great being on the cover holding a gun in attack position Rambo-style, there are others who would rather tell their survival story without the props.

The paper’s editor, I think, should have weighed the photo’s impact more carefully because it subliminally projected a not so pleasant image of working newspapermen.

Journalists are being attacked with impunity — in fact we are being murdered lately at the rate of one victim a month. But is it wise to beat our breasts in defiance, brag that we shoot back, and dare the gunmen to come again and try getting us?

Oh yes, will the Philippine National Police please enlighten us also on the Ingram. How come a civilian has been licensed to possess a submachine gun? And is that gun covered by a permit to carry?

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SURVIVAL GUIDE: We went back to that Ingram photograph after we read “A Survival Guide for Journalists” written and produced by Peter McIntyre and published by the International Federation of Journalists based in Brussels.

The 141-page manual contains many sane and practical suggestions for journalists in tight situations. Shooting back is not one of the recommended responses.

In fact, journalists in areas of conflict are reminded to be careful not to take sides, or to seem to be taking sides. We are advised not to intrude and become the central figure in the story we are covering.

It seems more dramatic, at least to Rambo types, to get embroiled in the developing story. There is the eternal temptation to step into the limelight and be reported about instead of doing the reporting.

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BLURRED ROLES: In war, this point of not taking sides is more pronounced. (We can apply the same admonition for neutrality to journalists covering the home front.)

There were times, such as in the Vietnam War, when some correspondents donned US military togs and made like officers in Saigon and in the field. Some even carried guns “just in case.”

Wearing such costume and toting deadly weapons gave correspondents, rightly or wrongly, a combatant status. That made them potential targets of the other side in the conflict.

A similar blurring of roles happened during the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Many journalists rode military vehicles making a dash to Baghdad. They also ate chow, wore military-issued clothing and followed military orders.

In such a situation, the imbedded journalists could not claim to be neutral observers and claim protection under the Geneva Conventions. They could be shot by the enemy on sight.

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NOT NEUTRAL: A similar partisan role-playing being done by some Philippine journalists strips them of their traditional neutral status and identifies them as propagandists of one side of a dispute.

Without referring to any of the journalists killed in recent months, it has been noted that some of them were relentlessly “attacking” some targeted individuals before they were assassinated.

It seems to me that the incessant attacks may have convinced the targets that the commentator was working for the other side. In short, some of the commentator-victims were perceived as not neutral observers but paid partisans.

If such impression is allowed to spread, it will affect the standing of all media, especially commentators and opinion writers. It will eventually erode the credibility of all media and make them objects of retaliation.

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CHILLING EFFECT: In its survival manual, the IFJ says of violence being inflicted on journalists:

“Each death is a tragedy for friends and families and a waste of talent and opportunity. And these violent deaths (listed in the manual) do not tell the whole story, because the official figures focus on those who were killed in wars or civil conflict, or who were otherwise targeted.

“While they record the deaths of journalists in accidents while on a hazardous assignment, they do not record the deaths of journalists who die in traffic accidents because they are trying to reach a story too fast, or working past the point of exhaustion, or because they put their lives in the hands of drivers who do not know an unlit, dangerous road.

“They do not tell of those who survive but who are so physically and mentally scarred that they are unable to work effectively again. They do not record the impact of death and injury on other journalists who may be reluctant to probe areas that have proved fatal for their colleagues.

“Attacks on journalists have a widespread chilling effect. They sap the ability of journalists to investigate and report and they deprive the public of the right to know.

“Sometimes this is the objective. Violence against journalists is often a deliberate policy by people who cheat, rob and inflict violence on their communities, so that they can avoid exposure and stay in the shadows.”

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BALANCE & FAIRNESS: With some confusion over neutrality having crept in, we in media will have our hands full explaining what we are trying to do playing with the public mind.

We cannot roll over and go back to sleep, hoping to wake up with the rash of violence gone like a bad dream.

It takes one semester in journalism school to teach us what “news” is. I have not come across a satisfactory definition of news, but I take it as simply the report of a significant development.

News is the reportage, not the event itself (if it is an event, since it could be something else). Without the report, there is no news of the event.

I hold that there is no such thing as an “objective” news story since anything that passes through the prism of the human mind comes out colored. The mere fact of deciding to report an item, choosing and arranging the elements, leaving out some… all that involves value judgment on the part of the reporter and his editor.

When value judgment comes in, the product ceases to be objective. I cannot imagine a news item being objective.

But sometimes without realizing it, most readers are actually demanding from the news media not objectivity but balance and fairness, the truth. Sometimes they also demand the considered opinion of the writer, because they want the news explained.

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WASHING OF HANDS: I was going to say something about the scary electric bills we have been getting when here comes Mon Ramirez of dpmasia with an email expressing substantially what I wanted to say. So, here is Mon:

“It is difficult to follow the logic of the Palace – that it should not be blamed for the impending higher power rates that was caused by the imposition of VAT on power sales coming after the ERC-mandated power rates hike last month.

“Meralco’s computations show that as a result of the VAT law which Gloria pushed hard for Congress to approve and which removed the exemption of VAT from the power companies, the net impact will be an increase of about 81 centavos per kilowatt-hour:

(Quoting the news) — ‘Adding the 56.55-centavo VAT on Meralco and the P24.01 portion of the Napocor rate hike, the total impact of the 10-percent VAT on power end-users would come to P80.56 per kwh.”

“Using Meralco’s power sale of 24 billion kwh per year, the VAT gives the government an additional revenue of P19 billion. If you add the VAT imposed on the 119 electric cooperatives and 18 private distribution utilities like Visayan Electric and Davao Electric, you get a few billions more. That will make the total VAT take on power around P25-30 billion.

“Is it any wonder then that Gloria wanted this VAT law imposed on the power sales even if it would add to the woes of millions of electric consumers? Billions is billions, there is no arguing against it (I put myself in the mindset of Gloria here) — never mind if it would be a bigger burden to the millions of people as stated well in activists’ placards: ‘Pahirap sa masa.

“Now, my consumption last month was about 200 kwh. That means I will have to pay an additional P162 because of the VAT that is passed on to me. Since it is Gloria who wanted the VAT, why should I not blame her for my higher bill? Like the billions, P162 is P162, equivalent to about eight kilos of rice!

“Btw, when the VAT law was being peddled around, GMA and proponents said this would be good for the country because this will help solve our fiscal crisis, which she had said the Philippines was already out of three months immediately after she said we were in a fiscal crisis.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 22, 2005)

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