Ampatuan massacre and journalists as newsmakers
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Ampatuan massacre and journalists as newsmakers

Some journalists reportedly went overboard when they mobbed the primary suspect in what is now known as the Ampatuan massacre which resulted in 57 deaths, including that of 30 journalists.

Escorted by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) after his preliminary investigation on the charge of multiple murder, Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr. was on his way out of the Department of Justice (DOJ) building in Manila last Friday (December 18) when he was mobbed by angry journalists. They allegedly “shouted invectives at Ampatuan” and shoved pictures of mutilated bodies of the November 23 massacre victims at his face. “Here are the people you killed,” they said. In another news report, a photographer reportedly “struck Ampatuan in the head with his camera.”

The Commission on Human Rights’ (CHR) Leila de Lima criticized the concerned journalists for their behavior. “Expression of outrage can be done without physically harming the object of outrage. Without rule of law and restraint, we will all descend to a society where atrocities and vigilantism become a way of life.”

While the CHR is expected to be concerned about the rights of everybody, including that of the accused like Ampatuan, a few questions must be raised at this point: Was there physical harm on Ampatuan because of the “mobbing”? Was his life threatened in any way?

The concerned journalists who shouted invectives and carried pictures of the carnage obviously did not cause physical injury to Ampatuan.

As regards the photographer who allegedly struck Ampatuan in the head, it is necessary to establish first if it were intentional or accidental. As any experienced journalist would attest, photographers and camera people sometimes accidentally and unintentionally hit or elbow each other as they jostle for the best position in taking pictures or footage of unfolding events. Yes, news sources like Ampatuan, and this could be one of those rare instances, are sometimes on the receiving end of such jostling.

But even assuming for the sake of argument that the concerned photographer hit Ampatuan on purpose, did this result in any serious head injuries? There were no reports of Ampatuan being rushed to the hospital because of the attack. His head was apparently not bleeding and, with the exception of his dignity, he survived the attack unscathed.

And now for the visceral: Did the journalists do anything unethical? The Philippine Journalist’s Code of Ethics clearly states that a journalist “shall conduct (himself or herself) in public or while performing (his or her) duties as a journalist in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of (the) profession. When in doubt, decency should be (his or her) watch word.”

Under normal circumstances, I would be the first to criticize the journalists for being “undignified.” They should, after all, objectively report events and maintain independence from their sources. In other words, being part of the news is simply unacceptable. That they staged a symbolic protest at the DOJ last December 18 makes them part of the news already.

But the situation in the Philippines and in some parts of the globe are far from being “normal.”

When Iraqi reporter Muntazar Al-Zaidi threw his shoes at President George W. Bush at a December 2008 press conference in Baghdad to protest the US-led war in Iraq, international press freedom organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said that they “did not agree with…Al-Zaidi’s method of protest but the journalist should be released for humanitarian reasons.”

The IFJ put in context Al-Zaidi’s action: It reflects “deep anger at the treatment of Iraqi civilians during US occupation over the past four years of which journalists have been major victims…It is no coincidence that the protest comes only days after the United States refused to release a detained journalist, despite an Iraqi court order that he should be set free. When the US appears to defy the rule of law in Iraq, it is no surprise that journalists will look to other ways to make their protest over injustice…This journalist was expressing his own deeply-felt views and we cannot condone his actions…but after years of intimidation, mistreatment and unsolved killings at the hands of US soldiers, it is no surprise that there is anger and resentment among journalists.”

In the case of the Philippines, the unabated killings of journalists since 1986 and attempts by the government to muzzle the press have unwittingly forced media organizations to become directly involved and to take the government to task for its perceived shortcomings.

Concerned journalists have taken it upon themselves in the past years to seek redress of grievances through legal means like the courts. When the country was put in a state of national emergency in February 2006, selected media organizations filed a suit against the police and other government officials. They had no choice but to become part of the news they cover. In an Eye on Ethics article I wrote in September 2008, I also mentioned that journalists filed two cases in January 2008 – one with the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) where I was a signatory, the other with the Supreme Court (SC) – “against the government for the arrest of more than 50 journalists who were covering the siege at the Manila Peninsula in November 2007.”

The Ampatuan massacre, not surprisingly, also prompted the “messengers of news” to also deliver the message themselves through various protest actions nationwide. The message is very clear: Journalists, just like other concerned sectors of society, want to end the culture of impunity that gives rise to the senseless killings.

These are therefore very tumultuous times in the Philippines where journalists are forced to go beyond their basic duty of delivering the news. They are, after all, already part of the statistics of human rights violations and, unless they want the atrocities to continue, silence can never be an option. As they try to shape public opinion, they should not only publish or air relevant news but to also fight those who remain hostile to press freedom.

The symbolic protest at the DOJ last December 18 should therefore be seen in this context. Journalists should not be faulted for sending a strong message that they will continue to seek justice for their slain colleagues.