9 months ago, at least 62 policemen participated in the worse massacre in Philippines history: the Maguindanao massacre. Then last week, at least 9 of them, although their numbers should swell as more evidence are uncovered, were also involved in a torture witnessed in every living room in the country courtesy of a cell phone video broadcasted by one of the country’s television giants. Two days ago, there was yet another action packed event- only like the torture- it was not a production of a television company. It was for real, and yes, it involved again policemen- one with gripes, and many others who were simply incompetent. With policemen like this, who will protect us?
I do confess having missed much of action at Luneta as it was televised live by Philippine media organizations. . Thanks to the digital age though, I learned about the hostage taking incident almost as soon as it happened through twitter on my blackberry. While checking in at T-3 headed for Bacolod City, I did manage to read further accounts about the incident on the Internet in my blackberry. I boarded my flight thinking that like a similar “bus jacking” incident in Manila that involved a school bus, this too would pass since apparently, the hostage taker has agreed to wait it out for authorities to heed his demand for reinstatement into the service. I arrived in my hotel in Bacolod at about 5PM and was pleased to have seen on cable that as I predicted, both hostage taker and the police have agreed to wait it out. I then went to my dinner meeting confident that although we would be embarrassed tremendously because the incident involved foreigners, it would nonetheless come to pass.
At about 7PM and well into my meeting, I received a tweet that shooting had commenced. Subsequent tweets erroneously reported that all hostages and the gunmen have been killed. I announced this in my meeting and the responses ranged from shock to anger, and even to despair. Many thought that this was the last thing that the country needed even with a brand new reform oriented leader. There was an overwhelming consensus amongst Negrenses that PNoy would find it very difficult to recover from this incident.
On hindsight, two factors made the incident a real tragedy. First, there was the obvious incompetence of the policemen who decided to arrest the brother of the hostage taker in full view of the cameras. While both the police and media may not have known it, there apparently was a television on board the bus that enabled the hostage taker to know what was happening in his environment. Certainly, the more prudent thing to do should have been to quietly apprehend the brother assuming they had basis in apprehending him in the first place. But no, they had to make a spectacle out of it.
That was not the only evidence of incompetence. By 7PM, the police had already decided to assault the bus as in fact; they came near it replete with dramatic footages of one of them seeking to gain entry into the bus forcibly. Strangely, after using a giant mallet to break open the door of the bus, the police froze and waited! Meanwhile, the lone gunman has violently responded and killed at least 9 of his victims. It took a whole hour for the police to use teargas and bring the hostage taker down.
The point to underscore is that this incompetence on the part of our security force is not isolated. It was this same incompetence that led 62 of them to be involved in the Maguindanao massacre and at least 9 of them to be involved in that highly publicized case of torture. The question is: why such incompetence?
Perhaps a clue may be had in the recruitment process that is being implemented in the PNP. For instance, in Maguindanao before the massacre, PNP insiders told me that recruitment into the ARMM PNP was on the basis of “3 for1”. That meant 3 recruits for 1 million pesos. In other words, those desirous of entering the PNP had to buy their position. This is also apparently the case in other governmental agencies such as the Bureau of Immigration, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs. With public servants having bought their appointments, little wonder that they would give priority to return on their investments over discharge of public service. This would explain why incompetence in the PNP is more of the rule rather than the exception.
The second factor that made Luneta such a tragedy was the manner by which media handled the situation. Make no mistake about it: I have always been an advocate of freedom of expression and of free press primarily because I have been tactless and possess a big mouth. But when you have the media broadcasting for the hostage taker everything happening around him, even the arrest of his brother, in real time, which in turn provoked him to be violent after waiting it out for 11 hours; one cannot help but conclude that police incompetence notwithstanding, the media should accept part of the blame for this tragedy.
Again to be absolutely clear, I am not in favor of any act of the state restricting the activities of the media. That to me would be tantamount to prior restraint and hence, unconstitutional. What I am in favor of is the exercise of voluntary restraint on the part of the media, particularly in incidents such as this, where their coverage could literally mean the difference between life and death.
To be fair to the media, the public at large too is partly to be blamed. The “usisero” syndrome is such a Filipino trait that one can understand the media’s desire pander to the gallery. Perhaps, this could be one of the lessons learned from this tragedy. That in our desire to be at the center of things that are happening, our curiosity could contribute to the death of others. #30#