POSTSCRIPT / March 23, 2006 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Who's afraid of TV coverage of Erap case?

CLEAR PATTERN: Even to a veteran like me grown inured to violence, the continuing extra-judicial execution of radical workers and those suspected of leftist leanings is, to say the least, disturbing.

There are just too many summary executions exploding in our midst.

The scenario has become so familiar that when we read one such report, we can almost hear the staccato shots, the pained cries of the victims, the roar of the getaway unmarked bike, the ensuing confusion, and the feeling of helplessness.

The modus operandi and the categorization of targets are so predictable, and the conclusion inevitable, that almost everybody I ask say they know who is/are behind the string of assassinations.

A closer look at the type of personalities felled by motorcycle-riding assassins gives hints that the murders are part of a systematic stifling of dissent.

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GMA QUIET: But while many of us feel revulsion for this arrogant display of power, it is amazing that the President of the Republic has not said one word or evinced even just a sign of anger over the inhumanity of it all.

I see no attempt on the part of President Gloria Arroyo to at least pretend to disapprove of the method being used or to reach out to the families of the victims.

It may be unfair to the President, but her silence and failure to show concern are mistaken for proof that her administration is tolerating, if not directing, the assassination spree.

For her own sake, cannot the President, who has at one time referred to herself as the mother of her people, say something? Or do something to stop the beastly executions?

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LET TV IN: How come the Sandiganbayan does not want TV to cover the testimony of former President Erap Estrada defending himself against plunder charges? Your honors, we just want to look into his eyes as he talked.

Is the administration afraid that the former actor might deliver his lines so well that most TV viewers would see him as speaking the truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God?

If he is telling the truth, what is wrong with that? But if he is not being truthful, let the people — via live TV ? watch him destroy himself with an overdose of lies.

We say this presuming that the people still want to watch Erap tell his story. But who are we to decide that? Let the people, armed with an omnipotent remote-control gadget, decide whether to watch or not to watch. Let us just open the options to them.

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DIRECT TESTIMONY: If the Arroyo administration is afraid that Erap Estrada is likely to score high in a televised testimony at the Sandiganbayan, there is basis for such fear.

First, Erap is a consummate actor gifted with talent and skills in the use of the audio-visual media.

Second, it has been a long time since people have heard directly from him and are generally curious enough to want to see and hear him again, live, even just on TV.

Third, his court appearance, which started yesterday, will consist initially of his direct testimony. That means that, this time, the audience will hear nothing but his version of the story as told by him — aided by his lawyers.

Do not be surprised then if the media reports today about yesterday’s hearing will be mostly favorable to him. Yesterday was the first day of his direct testimony. As I write this, I have no idea what happened, but I presume it was his day and he scored high.

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TV GUIDELINES: When I push for allowing live TV coverage of Erap’s plunder hearing, all in the spirit of full and free flow of information, I have in mind these guidelines:

  1. Only one carrying network, possibly a government TV outfit, will be allowed. The other stations will just hook up and share in the cost. This is to simplify the coverage.
  2. Only two cameras, both standing static, will be used. One will take a general establishing shot of the courtroom proceedings. The other one will be pre-set to do nothing but take a close-up shot of the witness. The close-up camera will show the demeanor of the witness, helping us evaluate his credibility.
  3. If the Sandiganbayan allows a third camera, it is to be pre-set also, trained on the judges and left alone. It is mainly to complete the picture.
  4. Once the hearing starts and the cameras are rolling, nobody will touch them. They will not be readjusted or manipulated, even by remote control. They will be cold, unfeeling eyes through which the outside world will watch proceedings and weigh the testimony of the witness.
  5. The witnesses, lawyers, judges and other participants in the court drama will not be allowed to wear makeup or fancy costume, except (but of course) the women.

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NEWS FILTERS: Why the TV cameras when there is already a horde of media people in the courtroom to report what took place? There are also court records to fall back on or make everything official.

Believe me, there is a lot lost in the process of coverage and reportage, and editing.

The alternative, if it is possible, is to allow the public to have their own view and appreciation of the proceedings. And that is via TV — but live, not delayed and edited like they do with championship boxing bouts.

If we wait for the media reports the morning after, many filters would have intervened to distort the view. Some of them, including the reporters, do not really mean to tamper with the image they project to their audience. It is just that there are inherent limitations to humans functioning as mirrors.

If we try completing the picture by listening to the lawyers and the press relations agents putting in their own version of the hearing, that may add more facets to the story but not necessarily give a complete or fair report.

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MEDIA LIMITATIONS: However skillful a reporter is, he will never be able to distill the full essence of a testimony or capture the context for his readers. He is handicapped by human and technical limitations.

The reporter gathers data in a hurry, chooses from the data gathered what to dwell on, then arranges his facts in descending or logical order. But never can he present a full report, not because of his own bias, but because of dictates of time and space as well as other constraints.

Do we then just reproduce the transcript of the proceedings? The transcript is not available until several days later, and news — which is the first draft of history being scribbled in a hurry — is perishable.

Besides, as court veterans will tell you, stenographic notes are not always accurate because, again, of the human and technical limitations of note-taking. Also, such notes are just too long and verbose for most newspaper readers.

There is something in a witness’s testimony that stenographic notes, or a reporters’ story or a lawyer’s brief will never be able to capture and communicate.

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DEMEANOR: One item that bears pointing out is the demeanor of the witness. Cold text read from a news story or the stenographic transcript misses some nuances of the spoken word and a witness’ body language.

Even the people inside the courtroom, including the judge himself, sometimes miss the full flavor and some subtle meanings in the demeanor of the witness.

But a TV camera positioned in front of the witness but unobtrusively at a distance, and quietly capturing a close-up view, will be of great help to the watching public.

What do we do then if the reporting system is wanting, as I am trying to point out?

My suggestion is to let the people themselves witness the proceedings and make their own conclusions. Since not everybody can be accommodated in the courtroom, nor should they be, let us avail ourselves of the magic of modern technology.

We did this during the aborted impeachment of then President Erap Estrada in 2000. You saw the public’s keen interest, involvement and instant reactions to developments.

The TV is not the top-of-the-line gadget for full and honest documenting or reporting of court proceedings, but it is one of the best we have at the moment. Let us use it.

* * *

POSSIBLE FIXING: We should not be afraid to allow the people themselves make their own judgments.

Suddenly it occurred to me to ask: Who are afraid, really, to let the people witnesses the trial like an extended jury?

Remember that a court trial, even one as closely watched as Erap’s case, could be fixed. I mean, what would prevent say the two opposing parties from arriving at some compromise and collaborating in making the hearing, and news reports, validate their secret pact?

I am not saying it will or is happening in this case. But it can happen. I have seen cases fixed.

But if the people themselves are watching, they will spot immediately any discrepancy — if the news reports or the lawyers’ statements, or the final verdict of the court does not jibe with what they had witnessed on TV, if such electronic coverage is allowed.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 23, 2006)

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