LAST Nov. 15 in Tagum City, Davao del Norte, 17 former rebels received cash aid for a livelihood program in the presence of three governors and top military and police officials in the region. News reporters who were taking photos were “suddenly reprimanded” by a DILG official who said photographing the former rebels or showing their photos was prohibited.
A Nov. 17 story of the government’s Philippine News Agency (PNA) said media groups denounced the official for the “scolding,” calling it an “act of arrogance of an abusive and insensitive public servant.”
What media protested
The story indicated that the attack on the official, an assistant provincial director of DILG, was because of her behavior (“disrespect,” “conceit”), not because of the prohibition. The reporters were also offended when the DILG official “seemed to threaten the media practitioners” by saying “if we will see a photo showing their faces, we will look for you, (won’t we), sir.” Referring to her chief, who was present.
It was not mentioned if the reporters were advised in advance about not recording and showing the faces of former rebels. It must have been the “scolding” and not the prohibition on photo-taking and photo publication that got the ire of officials of the Mindanao Independent Press Council and the AFP-PNP Press Corps.
The comments of media dwelt on the DILG official’s behavior: “uncalled for and very unprofessional” and her treatment of the reporters (“like kids”), which deeply embarrassed them. Nothing about the ban itself.
News source sets rules
The media groups’ leaders said they know standards of behavior. They must acknowledge that the public official calling the press-con or inviting press coverage can set the rules on photo-taking, particularly when there is a valid reason for it: in the Tagum case, to protect the identity of the former rebels who face the risk of reprisal from former colleagues or backlash from members of the community.
A similar rationale props up the Supreme Court (SC) ban on live radio and TV coverage of court proceedings: “to avoid miscarriage of justice.” Cameras can affect the behavior of trial participants and unduly expose the defendant to oppressive publicity.
The SC en banc resolution of Oct 22, 1991 laid down the ban forbidding cameras in criminal trials, which individual judges have expanded to include all trials and all kinds of photo equipment, limiting photo-taking to shots of the courtroom, judicial officers and parties to the case before the start of judicial proceedings. The rule was lifted during the trial of the multiple murder case of Maguindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan Jr. and others, but several conditions were imposed and applicable “pro hac vice” (this time only).
The point being that the person, public official or private person calling the press-con or media coverage can set conditions for the coverage. In the same manner that the news source can choose the information he gives or withholds, he can prohibit the taking of photos.
Whether the news source can enforce the photo ban, given the devices and technology available, is another matter. Courts wield the power of contempt but other government offices don’t have the equivalent power.
The ordinary news source, like the DILG in the Tagum incident, may find it legally untenable to stop publication of the story. It may only impose post-publication sanctions such as suspending the reporter’s access to the beat. If DILG people think they can look for the reporter and sue him, that may be an implausible move.
Taking insults in stride
As to the “scolding,” one may point to the cases in the US when President Trump would insult reporters in their faces and humiliate them in public. President Duterte did that too to Filipino journalists but with less intensity and very infrequently. Perhaps community journalists should learn to take insults in stride even if it comes from a minor bureaucrat. They can complain about suppression or distortion of facts but accept the scolding as part of the job. Or lash back, the other option.
One of the few things the reporter must brace for and get used to these days is the increasing abrasiveness, if not open hostility, of some public officials who regard media as “the enemy” who may be lumped with rival politicians.
GIANT FART ON TV. Tuesday night (Nov. 19 in the Philippines), comedian Trevor Noah on “Daily Show” showed a clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthew’s “Hardball” Monday interview with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Cal.) being interrupted by “what sounded an awful lot like very loud flatulence.”
It was not one of those canned sounds that local radio broadcasters love to use, usually laughter to punctuate their comment. Canned fart? “That was a fart on live TV, and it was a loud fart too,” Noah said as he played it again.
MSNBC said it was a mug scraping across the desk, in effect exonerating the congressman and hinting, through the lame explanation, that it was their commentator Matthews who farted.
Which is more embarrassing to a broadcast journalist: a foot in the mouth due to a major error of fact or an involuntary explosion of gas heard round the world?