Only regained DSL last night, hence the hiatus (further delayed by the downpour and intermittent brownouts this afternoon!).
As you can imagine, I’m one of those quite worried over the fate of Ces Drilon, who I personally like very much indeed. She’s a gutsy lady.
But the story of her kidnapping has become hopelessly intertwined with that of the news embargo, upon ABS-CBN’s request, that took place for much of Monday.
The self-censorship among media outfits actually stretched from Sunday to nearly all of Monday. According to Ding G. Gagelonia (blogging on June 10),
This running story first broke on the news wires of the Associated Press and is being carried both by the International Herald Tribune, with at least two local broadsheets bannering the report despite a news blackout clamped by police authorities and, in journalistic parlance, a story embargo requested by ABS-CBN, a practice normally honored by all journalists.
The embargo no longer being tenable, he briskly provided the details as they initially emerged:
However, with the AP having broken the embargo first and both Tribune and SunStar Daily Cebu running it, along with IHT, this writer is sharing these details, apart from having confirmed the same from my own sources in the mainstream working press in Manila:
Ces Drilon and her two-member news crew went missing Saturday, June 7 but our sources confirmed they had actually been “abducted” after ABS-CBN network receIved the ransom demand. The story was also broken to media by the ARMM police chief Joel Goltiao. A text message is making the rounds quoting a ransom price considerably higher than that being reported by the Daily Tribune.
It remains unclear but it is reported that a certain Mindanao State University Professor Octavio Dinampo was in touch or was travelling with the ABS-CBN team of Ces. My sources tell me Ces herself decuded last Saturday to go on the coverage based on the tip that an unnamed ASG personality was “going to surrender.”
From the media reports now emerging, on Sunday morning Dinampo picked them up from the Mindanao State University hostel, and armed men identified as being under a certain ASG commander Albader Parad intercepted them as their vehicle passed through Kulasi village, ARMM police chief Joel Goltiao said.
My own understanding is that is that it was the government station, NBN-4, and not the wire services that broke the story. It was the government that forced an end to the embargo by reporting the kidnapping of Ces Drilon and Co. on its Monday evening news program. Since news on a government station has an official nature to it, it’s logical to assume that it was then that the wire services, which I understand had been unable to obtain a statement from ABS-CBN up to that point, could run with the story.
So let me say first of all that government appeals for “restraint” are pure, unadulterated bullshit. You have a rare instance where media exercised prudence (not altogether altruistically, as I’ll explore in a bit) but government, always eager to appeal for “restraint,” jumped the gun… The reasons for this could range from malicious glee (no love lost either for the network or Drilon on the part of officialdom) to a general interest in beating the war drums in Mindanao to provide a distraction for economic issues and expand the President’s political and military (one and the same) options.
Still, for a time, an embargo was asked for, and respected, while ABS-CBN tried to downplay the story. This explains the befuddlement experienced by bloggers like AlternNation101 whose hackles were immediately raised by the network’s (uncharacteristic) discretion:
So is this true? If it is, then why is it not on the headlines? If it is not, then why is abs-cbnnews.com not denying it?
I may be wrong but if asked to bet, I will bet on this NOT being true. I suspect that ABS-CBN is doing some story on the Abu-sayyaf and would like to use some opportunity to sensationalize it. Perhaps even the Abu-sayyaf is in on it to have some publicity too..
Well, wrong. There was a kidnapping, but I don’t know if I entirely agree with Gagelonia (in a subsequent, and thorough, roundup on emerging details on the kidnapping) who says it’s this sort of speculation that discredits citizen journalism. I’m not so sure. It only points to media having to once again confront the insistence in some quarters that media not get any brownie points for the hazards that accompany the job for those in the field. That, and and the general confusion surrounding kidnappings. This inevitably fosters speculation which will be rife when news embargoes are in place. And it’s also true that confusion was fostered by the embargo.
I’ve been looking at various blogger’s reaction to the kidnapping of Ces Drilon, and considering how antagonistic non-media bloggers tend to be, I’m surprised they haven’t seized on the embargo issue more ferociously.
Splice and Dice raises three issues raised by the kidnapping: personal culpability; the fragility of the peace process; and media’s handling of the kidnapping of one of its own:
For one, Drilon resisted the security offered by the military before entering the den of the terrorists. There’s a reason there that, perhaps, only Drilon knows and can explain better, although it’s tempting to say that it may have something to do with lack of trust, or with the very reason why she had to trouble herself of venturing into hostile land. She perfectly knew the harm that could most probably come their way, and I suspect she could easily see that with half an eye, but she continued physically unprotected. Which is ironic because she’s been with the military and the Abu Sayyaf in separate occasions for a number of times already, which is enough to compel her to call upon the hand of God or of man to stand by her side half of the way.
But some say the circumstance that the “missing” folks now have is a win-win plot: they get to have an insider scoop into the heart of the renegades while the renegades get free publicity. There’s even a theory linking the government with the abduction. But I leave the reader’s imagination to go into those depths.
Two is that Octavio Dinampo, a professor and MNLF senior Shura member who convenes the Bantay Ceasefire, was also kidnapped, which is ironic in the sense that he’s been entangled in the mesh and mess he’s been trying to mediate. It may not be a sufficient premise to say that even the messenger gets to be shoved into dire circumstances at some point, but Dinampo would have expected the day that he will soon be skimmed and fried in his own fat long before somebody else could tell him. That is so especially in a country where mitigation through mediation has rarely succeeded entirely.
And three, the media which has sworn to protect the public by informing us in many ways is now the same media, or a portion of it, which has sought to withhold information about Ces Drilon and others while the rest of us grope in the darkness. It’s the same issue that has stirred a mild storm among the members of the media themselves, which is patent enough in a democracy divided in both flesh and substance. Some say it’s a matter of balancing public interest with private interest – public interest being the public as it is, and private interest being the family, corporate and genetic, of Drilon and her crew – in cases where the delicate balance between life and death or harm is as thin as impoverished limbs.
But of these, it’s the last that concerns us, here. As smoke noticed,
I was also struck by this unintended but no less blatant exercise of power to control what the public knows.
Both echo, ironically, what journalist Vergel Santos said was objectionable about the embargo: it was an effort by ABS-CBN to “manage” the news. It could only do so, by means of a fraternal appeal to rival news organizations.
Here’s the network’s party line: ABS-CBN explains news blackout on Ces Drilon. And here’s Why Inquirer didn’t run big story:
Ressa phoned the Inquirer on Monday to appeal for a news blackout until 6 a.m. Tuesday while negotiations for the release of the ABS-CBN team were ongoing.
She told Magsanoc that reporting the abduction would pose a danger to the lives of Drilon, Jimmy Encarnacion and Angelo Valderama.
Ressa said the news blackout was important because the network was afraid that other extremist groups in the area might take advantage of the situation.
In response to Magsanoc’s reservations about the news blackout, Ressa said she had also appealed to other newspapers, ABS-CBN’s rival network GMA 7, the wire service agencies and the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines to observe a news blackout.
The Inquirer editor in chief initially suggested that the blackout last only until midnight of Monday, but Ressa appealed for up to 6 a.m. of the next day. She said one of the network’s news executives would be flying to Sulu to help in the negotiations.
So is the issue the actual embargo? To me, the issues are:
1. Why did government intervene to break it?
2. Whether the partially successful embargo provides a precedent for future embargoes.
3. Why were media outfits, none of whom have any love for each other, willing to accede to ABS-CBN’s appeal?
Regarding the first: having been in some crisis situations myself, I can appreciate how difficult it is to balance the public interest with the need to safeguard your own, and this is particularly so when you’re trying to figure out how to keep the Abu Sayyaf from going berserk, while at the same time not adding fuel to the fire: an AFP and PNP humiliated by the recent bombings in Mindanao might be tempted to substitute blundering about for real sleuthing, and cause more harm than good.
After all, from the point of view of the military and the Abu, journalists are expendable.
Still, a reflection on when a personal tragedy involves a public crime: the embargo is ultimately only justifiable, in this instance, if it sets a precedent for all media to impose a news blackout in the first, say, 24-48 hours of a kidnapping –any kidnapping. That is, unless the family of a victim or the institution the victim is associated with (preferably, both) specifically authorizes the media to report on the case. There may be a justification for an abduction being reported from the get-go: to prevent the kidnap victim from being liquidated (for example, Lozada) but in other cases, where the kidnappers are well known and have a track record, reticence may be in order. This is what one journalist (who happens to be President of NUJP) has suggested.
Which makes the illogical behavior of the government logical only if you assume (as I do) that there are hawks in the administration happy over any mayhem in Mindanao.
Concerning the second issue, see Arlene dela Cruz’s They kept asking about ransom, TV journalist recalls which points to the debate that must have taken place in many a newsroom in the country, and where dela Cruz’s views must have been echoed time and again as editors pondered on whether to go for the story or respect Maria Ressa’s appeal:
A journalist following his or her instinct would file that story right away. But remembering what had happened to me, my unsolicited advice at this stage is to keep pertinent details of the negotiation confidential – if indeed there’s already one – to ensure the safety of Ces and her crew.
Institutionally, I’m assuming media won’t let the hunt for a story extend to actually jeopardizing the safety of hostages: as the Peninsula caper proved, it would not only be condemned by the authorities, and the victims’ families, but the public, too (And an individual, and not just institutional level, there’s also the sobering “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” moment experienced by Julie Alipapa, see her How Inquirer correspondent eluded abduction).
And as for the third, was it just a matter of journalists being clubby?
More of a case of solidarity in adversity, methinks. For one thing, they know what it’s like to have one of their own kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf, who are not, shall we say, cuddly people. For a taste of things to come for Drilon, let’s return to what Arlene dela Cruz recounted:
One day, they blindfolded and interrogated me regarding the text messages I was still getting on my mobile phone. Later in the night they pushed me into a shallow pit – and then someone pissed on me.
In the next few days, they kept asking me about the ransom. The torment only subsided when they turned me over to another group around the first week of February.
The uneasy calm allowed for some conversation between me and a man named Lakandula, one of their leaders.
“When will you, reporters, stop writing stories about the fighting in Sulu? Is that all what you reporters are after?” Lakandula then wondered aloud. “You write your report and that’s it. It’s all just work for you. Is that it? Just another ‘scoop’ from Sulu?”
I remember the two of us having this exchange inside a hut, and outside we could see a group of women passing by.
“Do you see those women, their children? Every day they have to walk for several kilometers to draw water from the river. Why? Because they don’t have a source of water near their homes.”
(Revision to my original comment re: Philippine Commentary: he denies he thinks Drilon had it coming.)
I hope Ces will be OK. But there are many who would want things to turn out otherwise.
Postscript: Coffee With Amee points out,
One does not venture out into uncharted territory without knowing full well the risks involved. It wasn’t like the previous coverage of the Peninsula takeover incident where we saw Drilon running around in heels wearing a headband to get to interview Trillanes et al. That one was unplanned supposedly. This one, they knowingly went to the territory where it is known that kidnappings do happen.
Having said this, the conundrum is, you know what you’re getting into and now you’re faced with the worst case scenario. What to do? There’s no simple black or white answer (Like the New York cookie. Okay, bad insert, but I saw it on “Ugly Betty” last night and I realized how much I missed it even if it’s a hit-or-miss depending on where you buy it.) It’s a bit of a gray area.
Even what ABS CBN did on their behalf regarding the news blackout request is strictly off the textbooks and one where a journ professor will most probably tell his students that it depends on the situation.
If I were the editor, if I chose to honor the news blackout request, it would be for the reason that I personally know the journalists being held captive and that I’m personally concerned. But c’mon, given a nameless, faceless person in their stead, I would highly doubt that media would hold on to the news knowing full well the important value of the story.
On the other hand, if I were ABS CBN and there were indeed ongoing negotiations, would I have asked for a news blackout from colleagues? It would be hard to say. But most probably, no. Rather than have another news outlet report the incident with inaccurate information, I believe it would be best to release a statement from the network involved. That is, if it is indeed true that they will not be paying ransom to give in to the demands of the kidnappers.
A brief addendum, based on a conversation I had with a colleague yesterday.
1. Coming at the heels of the Peninsula Caper, the embargo will inspire the network’s critics to reassert their resentments and antipathy against journalists.
2. Having asked for a favor, ABS-CBN now owes the other networks and media outfits. Not a good situation, pragmatically to say the least.
3. The embargo as I said above, is only acceptable if it is taken, industry-wide, as laying down a precedent for all future coverage of all future kidnappings. Otherwise, it will simply reinforce the contempt of the network’s critics.
And, as The Warrior Lawyer asks, the dilemma now is, to pay or not to pay ransom? The government’s hands, in this case, are tied: it established giving in to ransom and other demands as government policy in the case of Iraq. Since it’s government that serves as the best deterrent to the natural instincts of private entities to ransom hostages, there isn’t any incentive for ABS-CBN to do otherwise.