IF ARNOLD Clavio were a Facebook user in Cebu, he would’ve been taken by the police before Gov. Gwen Garcia or Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella and publicly reprimanded for publicizing unverified, possibly false, information.
But Clavio is a national journalist of 32 years, a radio-TV newscaster and host, tabloid columnist and multi-awarded trans-media practitioner.
The Department of Health (DOH) merely said they talked with Clavio and would investigate the issue further even as it flatly denied the charge of suppression of facts about coronavirus infections and deaths in a Manila hospital.
Here’s what Clavio did, which pictured him as either a violator of protocol during the emergency or a hero who braved sanctions to help the truth out.
April 13 post
Last April 13, Clavio posted on Facebook the information that an unnamed hospital in Manila had its hallway filled with corpses of coronavirus victims and was pressing its supplier for body bags, one of its wards was occupied with 15-20 positive cases of Covid-19, 10 people died in the hospital every day, and all that was concealed from the public.
The post, by itself, tends to stir controversy. Coming from a widely known media personality, it lit up code red signals in government bureaucracy. DOH Chief Francisco Duque quickly issued a formal denial, saying no ban on reporting of admissions and treatments has been imposed on hospitals and clinics and restating the department policy of full disclosure and transparency.
No reprimand, threat or any planned action against Clavio from the government.
Demand for ‘evidence’
But there was the expected demand and chiding from some netizens who said Clavio should’ve known better, being with mainstream media, schooled in journalism (University of Sto. Tomas) and trained on verification and fact-checking, and well-aware of the rules on fake news in the time of an extraordinary emergency. They asked Clavio to produce evidence of the publicized accusation.
Not really evidence, within its meaning in a court of law. Actually, just the basis for his report in Facebook.
He reproduced in his second post (after the first post was taken down a few hours from time of posting) some screen-grabs of the messages from the supposed front-liners who fed him the information.
What weren’t done
But he didn’t show if he had checked the tip, which was what it was, knew the tipsters, grilled them further to test truthfulness, probed other sources, and confronted DOH and the Inter-agency Task Force.
Which was what he would’ve done if he were writing a news story for his media outlet. Which was what his editors would’ve required him to do before they’d run his story.
Apparently, the safeguards were not taken because of the platform he was using, social media. There was no pressure of any kind, no filter he’d usually get in a newsroom.
The reporter and editors are duty-bound to know the sensitiveness of the material and the possible harm it could inflict in a time of crisis.
But then apparently Clavio had no editor looking over his shoulder when he posted the information on FB. Like many or most FB users, he just tapped away on phone keys to tell the world “what was on his mind” at the time.
Argument vs. backlash
A published spin on Clavio’s “bravery” in exposing what could be a serious anomaly in the fight against coronavirus was preceded by his argument in posting the hospital data.
The broadcaster prepared for a backlash by emphasizing in his posts that (1) it is a “serious and worrisome” issue that needs “quick response” from the government; (2) it is not intended “to frighten or panic” the public; and (3) the public has “the right to know” from the government the “true situation in the Philippines.”
No one disputes Clavio on the nature of the problem and the public’s right to know. As to his intent, the public can grant him the benefit of doubt that his intention is noble.
Yet he could’ve done better as an experienced journalist, especially in the peculiar setting of a calamity of such magnitude as this pandemic. He could’ve slowed down a little and verified a bit more.
That he took down his two posts not long after he put them up on his wall should tell us he could’ve waited until more facts were in. After all, social media is never known as the ideal platform for thoroughly-thought-out action.
But those who suggest that Clavio be prosecuted for his posts rest on weak ground. Neither Republic Act 1132, on surveillance and response to notifiable diseases and epidemics, or RA 11469, on the president’s special powers under the Bayanihan To Heal as One law, covers his case squarely. Maybe Art. 154 of the Revised Penal Code, which punishes unlawful utterances, but even that law requires that public order be clearly and presently endangered.
Clavio has pleaded good intentions. And the government, which may really have something to hide, may choose to pick on the coronavirus instead, not a popular whistleblower.