Seares: Appeal did not shut out ‘narco’ list, yet media can avoid trial by publicity

AS EXPECTED, the March 7 warning of seven media advocacy groups, that publication of the administration’s “narco” list risked violation of law and ethics, didn’t stop its release and circulation. But the message from media advocates, with the noise of critics in the opposition, may have helped reduce the damage.

Last Thursday, March 14, President Duterte read at a police-military command conference in Davao City the names of politicians who were linked to illegal drugs.

“Not so sure”

Regarding the list itself:

n The number of names was reduced from 82 to 46: 35 mayors, seven vice mayors, three congressmen, and one provincial board member. How about the rest? Duterte said, “I’m not so sure about the others...” The list was pruned to include only those who were charged administratively with the ombudsman for “gross misconduct, conduct prejudicial to the service, and conduct unbecoming of a public officer.”

n The assurance was given that an inter-agency committee that includes the police, military and the national intelligence group “validated” the list.

That means the furor over violations of privacy and other individual rights worked. Somehow, government leaders slowed down and took steps to minimize injury. If indeed they validated the list and filed administrative charges before the ombudsman, that would give the list the status of a complaint filed with the prosecutor’s office.

Restraint by media

How about the handling of the list by media? The appeal from the media advocacy groups for news media “to exercise prudence and fastidious judgment” has resulted in some restraint in the news reports.

A number of news outlets such as Inquirer, ABS-CBN News and Rappler did not publish the full list. The giant broadcast network said it had a copy but it was not releasing the names “pending verification.” Rappler, citing the warning and advice of the advocacy groups, didn’t print all the names. The digital news site published, as the Inquirer and some other news media also did, only the names that were previously announced in August 2016 and those of others who have come out to deny the charge and threaten to sue.

Cebu media was spared the agony of choice: the two politicians named–-retired police general and Daanbantayan Mayor Vic Loot and San Fernando Vice Mayor Fralz Sabalones--had been repeatedly called out in the past in other forums.

Available most everywhere

That raises though the seeming absurdity of withholding information when it is available most everywhere else. The current state of media platforms cannot enforce a total shutout of information from an official source, the highest official of the land no less.

It was a bit odd and awkward. While a few in the traditional media tiptoed around the list, playing “careful, careful,” all the names in it were already posted or tossed around on social media sites.

Avoiding trial by publicity

The “prudent and fastidious” thing to do if a news site publishes the list is to caution the audience on the nature of the information. What some news media have done so far-- reaching out to those listed and publishing their side of the story--heeds the call of the media advocates to reject a trial by publicity.

If news media can publish the names of respondents, particularly public officials, sued before the ombudsman or the prosecutor’s office, they need not be conscience-struck in publishing the names of public officials who are charged administratively with the anti-graft office and their names compiled in a list and read from the presidential pulpit.

Accusations in campaign

Those named in the list and want to survive the May elections just have to work harder to win or keep the voters’ trust. Politicians get a lot of flak during the election campaign: in Mandaue City, for one, each camp calls the rival group’s candidate “kawatan/kurakot” or “kurap/butakal.”

The huge pity is that media can do little to tell their public which among the accusations against aspirants for public office, including those related to illegal drugs, are true and which are concocted to suppress opposition.


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