Seares: Row on SEA Games coverage recalls Cebu media dilemma in 2007 summit

FOCAP, the foreign correspondents association in the Philippines, and NUJP, a “national union” of journalists in the country, in separate statements angrily reacted last week after media was blamed for the early “negative reports” about the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.

Phisgoc, or Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee, led by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, had blasted media for reporting the government’s “lack of preparedness” for the event, even before the Games could start its Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 run in Clark City and two other venues.

Worse, Cayetano suggested there were attempts to bribe media to join a “widespread and systematic propaganda campaign” to tarnish the hosting of the regional event.

Skipping, delaying bad news

Such events, which draw foreign visitors to the country and invite attention of people in the region to us, usually raise the issue of whether the Philippine media should avoid or put off the bad news until the activity is ended and the foreigners pack up and leave.

A similar dilemma confronted Cebu media in late 2006 when preparations for the 12th Asean Summit were going on and in January 2007 when the region’s leaders gathered in Cebu City. Local government leaders believed then, as Phisgoc and its supporters do now, that media shun or put off news reports that embarrass the host country. Phisgoc, for example, thinks that media should’ve skipped the news reports on logistical problems, insufficient or unfit food and the race to finish structures for the venues.

Cebu experience

In 2007, as Cebu organizers rushed the construction of buildings (e.g, the Cebu International Convention Center) and beautification of the parade route (e.g., the decorative street lamps and posts), inevitably there were criticisms that reached the media and were publicized. The organizers complained, citing the need, particularly for the Cebu media, to be “patriotic” and desist from publicly criticizing. That meant, “Don’t criticize now and during the conference. Wait till the summit is over.”

The Phisgoc fault-finding raises a similar issue, only that the current dispute is on a larger stage and with bigger splash and impact because of the nature of the activity and the much broader and wider media reach.

Tutorial on media work

Focap and NUJP gave Phisgoc and its supporters a tutorial on media’s job.

[1] The foreign correspondents group said media “report problems and issues imbued with public interest as they happen and become evident and do not wait to delay the time to press accountability.” Media report both the bad and the good: “defeats and victories, failures and triumphs.”

[2] NUJP said media base their reports on “verifiable facts” and don’t pander to anyone’s perception of what is or should be.” If anything, by “shining the light of truth” on the SEA Games now, the country and nation will be spared from humiliation in the future.

In sum, (a) media cannot delay their news reports, (b) the government cannot dictate media to hold or suppress the stories and (c) prompt publication about hitches and problems will spare the hosts of future embarrassment. That’s what Focap and NUJP were saying. As to the alleged bribery, it was a “sweeping accusation, accompanied with threats of libel, and with no shred of evidence,” Focap said.

Problem of media errors

The Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) grappled with the issue 12 to 13 years ago. And its resolution of Dec. 5, 2016 DID NOT call for suppressing or shelving negative reports about preparations and conduct of the summit, as a government news agency wrongly reported on the CCPC action.

The local press council strongly urged, however, (a) media practitioners to “show deeper sense of community in reporting and commenting on the news” during the summit and (b) public officials to show restraint and probity by being specific in their correction of media lapses and errors.

That was where CCPC slightly differed with the Focap and NUJP reactions. CCPC recognized that some news reports and commentaries could be false or distorted. That was a sensitive issue that Focap and NUJP didn’t touch in their reactions. (Phisgoc chairman Cayetano pointedly accused media of a number of cases of wrong reporting on the pre-Games incidents, even hinting of widespread bribery of media.)

Whom to address plea

At the same time, CCPC made it clear that while it urged responsibility in reporting, any action must not “restrict individual journalists’ freedom of the press” or “infringe on public officials’ “right of reply” to rectify any misinformation.

Here’s the thing then: Media cannot be dictated about negative reports, except when national security is involved, but public officials can appeal to their sense of responsibility, particularly on accuracy and fairness.

The huge problem though is whom to address the plea. A big part of media now covers the internet jungle where mostly there are no editors and publishers who can be held accountable for mistakes and even falsehoods.

Cayetano could be lashing at “negative nabobs” in the world of web, nameless and faceless, or with names but people who spew out mouthfuls of hate speech with not much thought. In contrast, those in traditional media are journalists whom the Phisgoc chief can publicly correct or even drag to court.


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