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Truth and Consequence

Congressional hearings are held "in aid of legislation," and the leading members of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, and the committee on public services, made it clear last Tuesday that they did not call the heads of the news sections of TV networks ABS-CBN, GMA7 and TV5 just to pass the time. Senator Joker Arroyo, who used to defend journalists from government harassment during the martial law period, warned that the Senate could pass a law to regulate the networks' coverage of hostage-taking and similar crises if they did not restrain themselves.

The operative word was "restraint." Despite the lame excuses and the evasions worthy of contortionists, the truth is that television news displayed the exact opposite of it - i.e., the frenzy of predators - when covering the hostage-taking crisis at Manila's Rizal Park last August 23.

With reckless disregard for the lives of the hostages, most of the TV and radio reporters onsite violated not only some of the conditions of their stations' franchises as well as the existing guidelines of the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP - the broadcasters' association), but also and more appallingly, the most basic rules of common human decency.

One network provided the hostage-taker such information as the positions of the police snipers and the deployment of the police assault teams. RMN radio interviewed the hostage- taker, in the process enabling him to plead his case to a wider public and gain public sympathy, and ended up mediating between him and the police. All the networks and their affiliate radio stations also broadcast the arrest of the hostage-taker's brother, and thus contributed to his being provoked into shooting the hostages.

They earlier claimed that the frenzy of their coverage did not contribute to the bloody outcome of the August 23 crisis. But the networks aren't saying that now. Instead they've taken refuge in the argument that they had no choice because the police had not set the limits of media coverage. As for RMN, it is unrepentant and insists that it was "just doing (our) job." Apparently, doing the human thing as the ethics of journalism demands - preventing further harm, and not risking the lives of people other than themselves - is beyond them, if the race for the ratings and advertising revenues are involved. By abandoning their supposed preference for self-regulation, on the other hand, that excuse also invites government regulation.