Monday, November 20, 2006

Media Coverage on the Subic Rape Case

Covering the Subic rape case: What is the verdict on media?

On Monday, November 27, Presiding Judge Benjamin Pozon will promulgate the verdict on the Subic rape case. The trial of the case ended last September 25, after four full months of marathon hearings that played out on the airwaves and the front pages. What now is the verdict on media coverage of the trial?

Before the trial closed, a virulent word war between the complainant "Nicole," who turned 23 in September, and state lawyers led by senior state prosecutor Emilie delos Santos hogged the headlines.

Nicole had scored the prosecutors for "incompetence," and in turn, they tagged her and her and her mother as "ingrates." What followed was a parade on the press by the litigants who all too suddenly became more open to interviews, more abundant with quotes on matters that largely remained unspoken during the trial. Protest rallies by Nicole and her supporters among feminist and civil society groups subsequently came in a series.

For many reasons, the Subic rape case is not the typical crime story that is staple fare to a neophyte reporter. The story, after all, draws from a deep and broad context -- the century-old love-hate relationship between the Philippines and the US. As well, the story wrapped in sensitivity and nuance is also the first rape case against US servicemen to go to trial in court.

Finally, the case is the first real test of Republic Act 8353, or the new Anti-Rape Law that amended the definition of rape from being a crime against chastity to a crime against persons.

Rachel Khan, journalism professor at the UP College of Mass Communication, tells GMANews.Tv that the media fared well in monitoring the case since last year. But in her view, the real test of media ethics came when the hearings started June 2 this year.

The attention given by media to the case raised expectations in both Philippine and US governments that the public is watching the controversial case through the media, says Khan. When the coverage shifted to the courtroom, however, Khan says the media occasionally fumbled in discernment of how much or what the public should know. "News should always be [about] the public's right to know," says Khan, who is also deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a nongovernment institution focusing on press freedom and professionalism.

In this case, she observes that the public's right to know is anchored on two main issues: One, is justice being pursued, and two, is government performing its job in pursuit of justice?

Khan laments that soon, many in the media treated the case just like any other crime story. "The media generally took advantage of the fact that it was a rape case. They were selling flesh instead of selling the news," Khan says.

News on the walkout

Khan pointed to the stories media churned out when Nicole and her mother Susan Nicolas walked out of the courtroom on Sept. 14, 2006 to protest the prosecutors' alleged incompetence.

"We were given typical event reporting, without digging deeper on the objective reasons of the family for the walkout," Khan points out.

Instead of dwelling on the personality clash angle, Khan says the media could have looked into the responsibilities of the prosecutors and the assessment on their efficiency.

Still, in Khan's estimate, the media also had its high points in the coverage.. One of these was when media reported apparent attempts to whitewash the case based on Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez's statement to exclude Staff Sargeant Chad Brian Carpentier and Lance Corporals Dominic Duplantis and Keith Silkwood from the rape charge.

The principal accused, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, maintained he had consensual sex with Nicole that fateful night.

Learning in progress

While old journalistic rules on objective and fair coverage, as well as sensitivity to the protection of the alleged victim's identity still applied, covering the Subic rape hearings had become a learning-in-progress experience to some Filipino journalists.

The case put to serious test more than simple reportage skills, they acknowledge. Covering celebrated cases of rape and murder are not something new to media, indeed. In the 1990s, there were the Vizconde rape-slay trial, which resulted in the conviction of scions of known families in politics and the entertainment industry, and the rape-slay of University of the Philippines student Eileen Sarmenta, for which the principal accused, former Mayor Antonio Sanchez of Calauan, Laguna, had to spend time at the New Bilibid Prisons.

Four times weekly since the Subic rape case trial began on June 2, about 20 journalists from various dailies and broadcast media entities were detailed in court. They listened in to an average of four-hour hearings daily at a session hall-turned-courtroom on the third floor of the old Makati City Hall's regional trial court Branch 139. Because Presiding Judge Pozon banned cameras, audio recorders and cellular phones in the courtroom, the journalists had to make do with the barest tools of trade – pen and paper – a pair of good ears, a pair of sharp eyes, and possibly wit, to get by the details.

But how the render the details in visual form became the challenge to GMA News reporter Joseph Morong. From Day 1 of the trial, Morong supplemented his reports with his own sketches of the litigants as they were called to testify. Following Morong's example, two other networks brought in their own sketch artists on June 20, the 10th day of the trial. It was only GMA News, which deployed two television reporters to the trial — one to cover the defense panel, and the other, the prosecution panel.

This, GMA News did to ensure that both camps got fair and sufficient coverage, according to Morong, who covers the justice and court beat. But the high public visibility of the case eventually turned the hearings into a contest for public sympathy. Morong recalls an instance when Nicole's relatives and supporters complained that GMA 7's news reports appeared to be siding with the accused, and that the presentation of Nicole's side was taken out of context.

"We explained to them that we are after fairness in our story," says Morong, adding that the perception was easily corrected after he spoke with Nicole's camp. Morong credits Pozon, a former municipal trial court judge in Taguig City in northwestern Manila, for maintaining an atmosphere of fairness and objectivity in his courtroom.

The judge had barred from court placard-bearing advocates or those wearing shirts with political statements, Morong says. Too, in another instance, Pozon had, just as promptly, stopped lawyers who tended to 'perform' for the gallery, he adds.

Morong says fairness in coverage should always remain the reporter's primary goal.

Stick to the testimonies

To Volt Contreras, Philippine Daily Inquirer reporter, the public was best served by reports of what was said inside the courtroom by both the defense and prosecution sides, and not as much by "post-mortems" or interviews with lawyers after the hearings.

Before covering the case since its arraignment in April, Contreras had been assigned to cover the Department of Foreign Affairs, specifically US-RP bilateral relations.

Contreras' view is that his duty was to detail the courtroom events and exchanges that could not be captured visually because of the absence of cameras.

Since the hearings dictated the coverage, Contreras says there were times when the story shifted from the prosecution to the defense and back. "You can't say that the coverage is 50-50 for both parties," he says.

Contreras says he has thus opted to set aside his opinion, and just stick to what had been said on record at the heatings.

In his view, the four American marines remain accused until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. "Lawyers have their own interest to advance certain issues," he says.

Khan maintains that not all parts of the testimonies offered in court should be reported in the media. "The media is into graphic details, which is in a way it is already invasion of privacy of the victim. It is closer to further trauma," says Khan.

In Khan's opinion, media reports on the testimonies of medical experts, for instance, should be trimmed to statements that the injuries the complainant suffered were concurrent to injuries of rape victims, instead of a graphic rendering of the injuries.

Khan observes notes that because lurid, graphic material sells, and some reporters simply got away with it.

Complainant's anonymity

Nearly to the last person, however, reporters maintained the anonymity of Nicole in their stories, even as they have full and clear knowledge about her real name and true identity.

It is part of journalistic ethics to uphold the right to privacy of alleged victims of rape or sexual assault . Keeping them anonymous is one way of shielding them from the censure and stigma that typically, if unfairly, hound victims of sexual crimes.

The media's duty to contribute in the alleged victim's recovery through this rule is reminiscent of the media coverage of an American woman who was raped and left for dead in New York City's Central Park in April 1989.

The media referred to the victim as the Central Park jogger all throughout the four-month coverageof the case. Her identity was never revealed until 13 years later, when she finally agreed to grant an interview.

Nonetheless, the excesses and wayward behavior that occasionally marked the Subic rape case coverage point to the need for improvements.

Rape, Khan insists, "should not be treated as a typical crime story" and with the trial long concluded, "this is unfortunately happening now."

Except for occasional spot reports on protest actions by Nicole's supporters, reporters seem to have lost interest in the Subic rape case.

Their focus has shifted to other issues in the meantime, and perhaps they would take notice again only on November 27, when Judge Pozon is scheduled to promulgate his verdict. GMANews.TV

1 comment:

s2pid_gur; said...

ganun ba talaga....bat ganun ang naging hatol ng korte kai lance cpl.daniel smith......