GMA News Online

How the media covered the Grandstand carnage

August 27, 2010 9:58am
Despite the criticisms hurled at the media for the way they covered last Monday’s hostage crisis, most of them observed journalism manuals and safety guidelines on dangerous assignments, and only a few seemed unaware of such guidelines.

But one thing was clear: They all took their cues mainly from the police on the ground.

The problem: Many of the cops themselves knew no more than the media about the unfolding events and, seasoned journalists observed, police appeared to lack standard procedures in handling crises like the Monday carnage.

The media arrived early at the Quirino Grandstand, where dismissed policeman Chief Inspector Rolando Mendoza had seized a bus bearing tourists from Hong Kong. Media reinforcements followed as everyone expected the coverage to drag on for hours. They knew this from experience, having covered the assault on the detention facility at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig in March 2005, the hijacking of a bus carrying school children in Manila in 2007, and the standoff at the Manila Peninsula Hotel also in 2007.

From these three incidents, journalists learned valuable lessons in crisis reporting, especially the risks involved. While taking cover when random shots were heard, one reporter remarked to another that it seems they were fated to cover hostilities.

They have also learned that police procedures vary from crisis to crisis. In 2007, authorities arrested not only the military officers who laid siege at the Manila Peninsula but even journalists covering the incident.

A number of reporters arrived at the grandstand before or almost at the same time as the police augmentation force. When a policeman was asked what time the hostage taking started, he replied, “We don’t know that because like you, we just got here."

A makeshift police command center was set up under a shady tree on the south side of the grandstand. A piece of brown paper posted at the center bore this initial information: The hostages were “25-26 Koreans"; the suspect, PSI Rolando Mendoza; and the name of ground commander.

It was not until noon that the media found out from news datelined Hong Kong, and not from the Philippine National Police, that the hostages were Hong Kong nationals and not Korean. By then several of them had been released. But the police did not correct their information right away.

The journalists were also confused as to the name of the suspect: Was it Ronaldo, Rolando or Reynaldo? The official PNP statement posted on Malacanang’s Official Gazette identified him as Reynaldo.

The Chinese Embassy’s Sun Yi (Ethan Sun) said they got their initial information from the media, both local and their own. He said police could not tell a consular officer sent to the site how many of their nationals were actually on the bus even when six hostages had been freed.

Cameramen and photographers had taken up their positions and even transmitted videos and photos to news desks before the police laid out the yellow line. But no one breached the limits set by Supt. Cresencio Viray even before the perimeter line was demarcated.

Having led anti-riot police in street rallies, Viray appeared to have established rapport with the media. He told the journalists in Filipino, “For a change, there will be no dispersal. I am in charge to keep you reporters, and not protesters, at bay."

Viray later armed himself with a megaphone, barking notices to media and keeping them in check.

It was through the aid of the powerful lenses of the media’s still and video cameras that the police learned of the demands Mendoza had posted on the windshield of the bus. Shortly after that, their negotiator approached the bus and police established contact with the hostage taker.

When the negotiator, Chief Inspector Romeo Salvador, returned to the command post, the media swarmed around him. But he kept mum despite prodding from reporters. The press did not persist and just watched the police’s next move. The policemen began to roll out a telephone cord attached to a portable communication board. The handset was passed on to Mendoza to facilitate negotiation.

Reporters sought shade when the sun was at its fiercest. Cameras remained aimed at the hijacked bus and any sign of movement in the vicinity of the bus caused a stir among the media. The standoff dragged on for hours. It afforded local TV stations time to set up their platforms for their live broadcast and the police to consolidate their forces and plan their strategy.

How ready were journalists covering the event?

Even as Mendoza was releasing hostages in trickles, the journalists remained prepared for the worst.

Filipino journalists working for the foreign press had taken heed of the guidelines prepared by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) for “news organizations to consider safety first before competitive advantage for journalists in hostile environments" and to wear protective clothing. They had bulletproof vests with huge “PRESS" markings and Kevlar helmets.

Bullit Marquez of the Associated Press said he had used the same protective gear in Afghanistan. The international news agency’s crew cannot cover dangerous assignments without it. Dennis Sabangan, chief of the European Press Photo Agency’s Southeast Asia bureau, said the gear is standard issue of his office.

The INSI enjoins news organizations to “provide efficient safety equipment and medical and health safeguards appropriate to the threat to all staff and freelancers assigned to hazardous locations" and “to make mandatory appropriate hostile environment and risk awareness training for all journalists and media staff before being assigned to a danger zone."

But this was not the case for the majority of the local media: They had neither protective vests nor helmets. GMA-7 news anchor Mike Enriquez wore a protective vest, but not his reporters and cameramen. Some local photographers donned bicycle helmets, a poor substitute for Kevlar helmets.

The INSI also suggests what journalists should do “when there’s firing": Take cover from view, do not peek from that cover, lessen light reflection from equipment and immediately assess the situation and plan a route of escape.

“Even if you are behind a wall, lie flat on the ground… Leave equipment behind if this is hindering escape. When withdrawing, keep low," it said.

When Mendoza fired what seemed to be a warning shot after he was handed the letter from the Ombudsman, the media were roused from the ennui the long wait had caused. Bursts of gunfire followed as the hostage taker threatened, in a live interview over a local radio station, that he would kill his hostages unless his brother was released by police.
Photo by Tessa Jamandre

Camera tripods and ladders were abandoned as the camera crews hid behind trees. Some lay flat on the ground. Reporters left their laptop computers on picnic tables. Others began forcing their way through the throng of kibitzers. When the rains poured, the food stalls and picnic sheds sheltered both media and kibitzers. Umbrella vendors enjoyed brisk sales.
Photo by Tessa Jamandre

Some photographers still had their flashes on and were ordered by colleagues to shut these off lest their positions be compromised. They quickly obeyed. But the bright halogen spotlights of local TV stations directed at the bus, which provided visuals for cameras rolling from a distance, stayed lit.

Local radio reporter Francisco Calado, a longtime police and military beat reporter, was among those who kept low and distant. He knew that the range of the suspect’s weapon, an automatic rifle, could reach up to 500 meters. The INSI reminds journalists to be familiar with weapons used in the area of conflict.

At the sound of gunfire, reporters at the scene became concerned for each other, rather than for the story. They shouted at each other, “Dapa (Get down)!" Marquez even reminded a fellow photographer that no story or picture was worth any journalist’s life. And even when they got stepped on during the scramble, no one minded the pain, constantly asking each other if everyone was alright.

But the danger didn’t just come from the hostage taker. The crowd of curious onlookers was swelling and even included drunkards who appeared from nowhere. Christine Ong of Channel News Asia lost her handbag, presumably to a snatcher.

The International Federation of Journalists’s manual, Danger: Journalists at Work, also advises reporters not to cross the battle zone. None of the media at the Quirino Grandstand dared.

When the shooting was over and the police assault team had completed their work, police signaled ceasefire for police patrol vehicles and ambulances to proceed closer to the crime scene. It was then that the media moved in as well, but kibitzers and vendors outpaced them.

The police tape was laid around the bus, and the media stayed behind the yellow line. But it was hard to tell then the media from other civilians. Crowd control was superseded by Scene of the Crime Operatives securing the area. However, a local TV station was allowed in the bus to take footage even before SOCO completed its work.

The INSI noted that the world has become an even more dangerous and complicated place for journalists and urged them to prepare themselves to take on hazardous assignments to reduce the risks they face.

“As modern warfare, terrorism and crime follow different patterns, journalists reporting these conflicts and events are ever more at risk of being caught in a crossfire or taken hostage. The free flow of information, on which enlightened governments and peoples depend, suffers," said the INSI.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.")
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