Flag-burning spectacle-A A +A
Saturday, March 9, 2013
A SPECTACLE unfolded before the National Press Club building in Manila last week when a retired police officer burned a Malaysian flag to protest the killing of Filipinos in Sabah.
Photos of the flag-burning immediately went viral on social media and comments were generally unforgiving to the person who burned the Malaysian flag and to the media who disseminated the photo. The burning of a flag is desecration of the national symbol of a country.
Abner Afuang, a retired Manila police officer, burned a Malaysian flag in front of the press club building and as part of a protest action by groups who questioned the handling of the Sabah standoff by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Afuang was the same person who threw water at Hayden Kho at the height of a Senate investigation into the uploading of sex videos to the Internet years ago.
The violence in Sabah stemmed from the takeover of followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the Lahad Datu district in Sabah as part of their claim of ownership. The Malaysian government opposed the occupation of the district. The standoff led to an exchange of gunfire that resulted after four days in the death of at least 60 people, mostly Filipinos.
The burning of the Malaysian flag by Afuang was a mere speck to the conflict but the incident pointed to the need for sobriety and circumspect in reporting the news.
Sun.Star, at its network account on Facebook (Sun.Star-Philippine News), was among the first to post the photo of the flag-burning taken by a Manila correspondent of the Sun.Star Network Exchange (Sunnex), new media department of Sun.Star Publishing Inc. The reaction was immediate, mostly calling for the photo's removal.
Readers said the act of Afuang was disrespectful and could threaten the safety of Filipinos in Malaysia who might become targets of reprisals. Others called on the removal of the post before it became viral.
Sunnex editors met within minutes and discussed journalism ethics and the complications brought about by social media features, like fast spread of information and instant judgment of readers, were threshed out. The decision: Remove the photo. In its place was an explanation of the decision.
This time, comments were mostly affirmation of the “good" decision and congratulations for taking the “right” stand.
The decision was based on the sensitivity of the issue between Malaysia and the Philippines. One reader said it was more like between Malaysia and Kiram’s group. Others considered were the role of Afuang, the potential of the photo to turn viral without giving readers the complete picture, and the threat of collateral damage.
After all those were considered, editors still were not sure of their decision but the situation provided an opportunity to go through the exercise of analyzing circumstances, identifying impact and consequence, and listening to the audience.
Online accounts on the Sabah controversy are turning into a learning experience on ethics and conflict reporting for digital journalists.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 10, 2013.