By LUIS V. TEODORO
Vantage Point | BusinessWorld
He probably didn’t remember it — or if he did, and was asked about it, President Benigno S. C. Aquino III would very likely have dismissed the Nov. 23, 2009 Maguindanao Massacre as just another case of media sensationalism. After all, Mr. Aquino, for well over five years, has been attributing all sorts of offenses to the media, among them inaccuracy, bias, corruption and undue influence over the public.
On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the worst case on record of violence against the press and the electoral process in this so-called democracy (the Massacre was carried out to prevent the filing of the certificate of candidacy of then mayor, now Maguindanao governor Esmael Mangudadatu), Mr. Aquino was no less critical. In Kuala Lumpur for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting, he dismissed the scandal over the tanim-bala (bullet-planting) incidents at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) as the result of sensationalism rather than the existence of an extortion racket.
Speaking in Filipino, Mr. Aquino said that “That [extortion] was probably not what happened. It was a bit sensationalized and some benefitted from it. But the point is that we cannot just speculate. We need to look for proof, one way or another, to find out what really happened.”
That sounds reasonable — except that contrary to what he himself said about keeping an open mind, the President of the Philippines, from whom everyone has the right to expect enough sense to consider the possibility that some of his constituents are being victimized by uniformed crooks in one of the worst airports on the planet, had already concluded that not only is the persistence of reports on tanim-bala incidents due to press sensationalism; it’s also a plot against the administration.
Mr. Aquino claimed that because only 1,200 out of 34 million air travellers have been apprehended for supposedly carrying bullets in their luggage, the whole thing must be someone’s political scheme to put his administration in a bad light, with the media as either conscious or unwilling accomplices.
Mr. Aquino claimed that “Whoever thought of it knew that as an issue they can prolong it because it cannot be adequately addressed right away, and if that happens, they can always make it appear that we can’t explain it.” Implicit in this statement is that the media would continue to sensationalize it in behalf of boosting newspaper circulations and network ratings.
The flaws in Mr. Aquino’s reasoning should be obvious to anyone except Mr. Aquino himself, his clueless underlings, and his anointed for 2016, Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II, who has blamed the victims and absolved Aquino’s airport bureaucrats of any responsibility.
Whether it’s a plot against the administration or not, the fact remains that people who have been victimized by the tanim-bala scheme have come forward, among them a 20-year-old American missionary, a 77-year-old Filipino resident of the US, a wheelchair-bound grandmother, a domestic bound for Dubai, and a woman who was at the airport only to send off a relative on her way to Singapore.
In another country, these cases would be enough to cause a string of resignations and even suicides in the bureaucracy. But granting that compared to the number of air passengers in whose luggage bullets have not been “found,” what numbers would be convincing enough for Mr. Aquino? A million? Perhaps 5 million? Ten? The fact is that one case is a case too many. The claim that the number of tanim-bala cases have to be big enough to prove the existence of an extortion scheme at NAIA is patently absurd and irresponsible.
Meanwhile, assuming that the media have indeed been “sensationalizing” this three-month-old outrage, the newspapers, the networks and the online news sites wouldn’t be doing that if the cases didn’t keep occurring, in the post-Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit period to the tune of two or three a day. To sensationalize is to exaggerate, which means that there’s something that’s being exaggerated to begin with — or, to put it in terms a kindergarten pupil can understand, exaggeration presumes the existence of a problem, not its absence.
This is not the first time that Mr. Aquino has blamed the media for the woes of his watch. He’s accused the media of supposedly being biased and inaccurate, a charge that content analysis (a communication research method of evaluating media performance) handily refutes. Not that some media organizations are free from bias or have always been accurate, but that as far as his administration is concerned, the media have in general been fair and generally accurate.
But what’s worse than Mr. Aquino’s shoot-from-the-hip, ill-informed attacks on the media is his minimizing the killing of journalists who have been murdered for the work that they do, which during the past five years has risen to 150 since 1986, with 29 of those happening during his term. That’s an average of six a year — or close to the pre-Maguindanao Massacre record of the Arroyo regime of seven a year, and with no end in sight (the latest killing occurred on Oct. 31 this year). Apparently taking the skewed statistics of the police for Bible truth, he has said that the number of journalists killed has been exaggerated, and that, in any case, some were killed for other reasons — as if, even if that were true, it excused his administration’s putrid law and order record, which among others has seen judges, lawyers, priests, teachers, environmentalists and human rights defenders being murdered with impunity.
Typically, while blaming the media for the persistence of the tanim-bala scandal, Mr. Aquino uttered not a single word about the Maguindanao Massacre, the sixth anniversary of which passed with hardly a nod of acknowledgement from his administration — except a department of justice announcement that it has abandoned its earlier pledge to assure the conviction before his term ends in May 2016 of some of those accused of planning and carrying it out.
If asked, he’ll probably say that he can’t do anything about the slow pace of the trial. And yet, in 2010, in a meeting in Malacañang, his bureaucrats agreed to look into the implementation of a set of doable measures proposed by several media organizations that could have prevented more killings, or at least decreased the number of journalists killed. Among these were the suggestion that the administration encourage a review of the judicial processes that allow the interminable delays that prolong Philippine trials; that it strengthen the witness protection program and enhance police forensic capacity, etc., etc.
The results after five years? Zero.
Instead Mr. Aquino went into a near-orgy of media-bashing, signing in record time the 2012 Cyber Crime Prevention Act, while throwing all sorts of obstacles to the passage of a Freedom of Information act, and denying whenever he’s asked when he’s abroad that journalists are being killed in record numbers in the Philippines.
It would serve Mr. Aquino right if the media were to ignore him completely at this point, since he has only seven months left in office. But they won’t and they shouldn’t because he can still do a lot of damage during those seven months to, among others, the lives of the people who have been victimized and who will continue to be victimized by the NAIA extortionists his bureaucrats are coddling.
Be that as it may, hardly anyone expects anything better from this self-promoting, hyped-up, arrogant, heartless, cacique-run administration — except, hopefully, its complete rout in the 2016 polls and its consignment to the dust bin of history.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Business World
Nov. 26, 2015