Friday , April 27, 2018

Seares: Ban on release of police spot report: not new but suspicious

THE information to the local media about spot reports from the police was clear enough, as given Tuesday, Sept. 12 by local officials:

■ “No spot report will be released to the media,” a text message from Camp Crame and relayed to police beat reporters said tersely.

■ That means, Chief Supt. Jose Maria Espino, head of the regional police, said, “reporters are no longer allowed to get hold of documents such as spot reports and case folders.” Such documents shall be treated “with utmost care because it might affect or jeopardize the investigation.”

Clear as crystal. It was the PNP spokesman, Chief Supt. Dionardo Carlos, who set off the confusion when he denied Wednesday, Sept. 13, that there was any new directive from the PNP chief Ronald de la Rosa. “I asked but there was none,” he said.

Just stricter enforcement

There was no change of guideline, all right. Under the existing PNP Manual on Community Relations (2012, as revised), the police already limits the release of contents of spot reports. It may withhold any information of “investigative value,” which may impair or derail any ongoing police operation or investigation.

So the new order does not impose a new guideline, only in the enforcement of an already existing one. This can be gathered from the clarification of a PNP official who said, “we are not banning the release of information from spot reports, we are only banning the release of hard copy, the document.”

They will continue releasing contents of a spot report but it is the police chief or his publicist, the community relations officer, who will give them out. By that procedure, any part they deem as “not for circulation” is kept to themselves, at least for awhile.

That way, the National Union for Journalists of the Philippines noted, police could “sanitize” the report. But, of course. That is covered in the PNP manual, which most media have accepted as reasonable limit on right to information. Media leaders conceded when the manual was released five years ago that right to information is not absolute and information that may hurt a police investigation or operation may temporarily be withheld.

Restiveness, uproar

Not a new guideline. Just stricter enforcement of an existing guideline. Why the restiveness then from local beat reporters?

Arnold Bustamante, who leads the police and armed forces reporters group, asked police officials to reconsider and resolve the problem soon, saying reporters are professional in the handling of spot reports. The reporters, like any other group used to the easy access to information, must worry over the new restriction.

Elias Baquero, president of CFBJ, the federation of beat reporters in Cebu, talked of journalists’ duty to get the information, warning of public suspicion that police are hiding or covering up things they don’t want people to know about. Is there a reason for suddenly tightening control over the flow of information on the spate of killings?

The uproar elsewhere came mostly from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) that saw it as clampdown on information and from a few politicians who suspected sinister political motive, relating it to other developments such as stopping the release of police case files to the Commission on Human Rights.

Public document

In taking up the issue with the police, media may look again at (1) the PNP Manual of Operations, (2) the nature of spot reports as a public document, and (3) how much the strict measure would affect news-gathering and information-verifying.

Media has not questioned the PNP manual since its adoption. As to the nature of the spot report as public document, it’s not classified material, according to Sen. Ping Lacson who once was PNP chief. Not a something that affects national security, but what about information that may impede an ongoing police operation or investigation? Has media not accepted that police may validly put off the release of that kind of news material?

NUJP advised not to obey a “patently illegal order.” Too rash, not well-thought-out. Look at the guideline again and ask the beat reporters how their work has suffered from the new stance. To be sure, the illegality here is not “patent”; it has to be established.

The suspicion

What cannot be avoided, despite denials of state publicists, is that the ban on releasing spot reports was prompted by the publicity over the suspected extrajudicial killings plus the apparent ability of critics, notably the Human Rights Watch and other foreign organizations, to get information that contradicts government data. Also, in evidence-building, police spot reports, as internal documents, would be damaging proof in case any person or group would be summoned to account for the killings.

Fact-checkers, including media, just have to work harder.