Blotter Banned

Police beat and the blotter

He stood behind the counter, a plump man with the air of arrogance on his face. He was talking to an elderly woman wearing a duster, somewhat explaining the nature of man. He said they were violent and dangerous, greedy and selfish.
His voice echoed in the room, and it sounded sarcastic. There were hints of pride every time he mentions his profession, bringing the elderly woman’s attention to the shiny badge pinned on his chest.

He flipped through the pages of their station’s blotter—a dirty notebook resting on a stand, where supposedly, a Bible was. He was looking for a blank page where he could record the woman’s name, address, age, contact number and complaint.

That was how things were at Kamuning Police Precinct. People went to file complaints ranging from the ubiquitous cell phone snatching to the more serious stabbing and shooting incidents. And behind the front desk, the plump policeman faithfully recorded the victims’ grievances, mustering as much English as he could to make his report grammatical.

Unlike other police stations however, Kamuning not only gets a daily dose of victims barking for justice for the simplest of crimes. It also receives a steady flow of police beat reporters from the nearby GMA 7 television station and several other radio stations in the vicinity. The visits are so regular that outside the precinct, a media room is constructed to house newspaper, radio and television crime and police reporters.

These journalists churned out the crime reports that dominated tabloid front-pages and primetime newscasts in the Philippines. All these reports, as complete and polished as they could be when aired and ran, all had a humble beginning. They started with the police blotter.

The blotter ban

On Oct. 20, 2008, a memorandum was circulated by the Philippine National Police, signed by, then, new Police Director General Chief Jesus Versoza. Entitled, “Decentralization of the Functions of the Public Information Office,” the memo was meant to outline a guideline that will “mandate and enable the police to provide information to the public and the media.”

Curiously, however, the memo, instead of making information access easier and more organized, set barriers to the free access of the blotter—a supposedly public document, open to all.

Paragraph 7e of the memo states, “The information contained in the Police Blotter, in order to protect the integrity of the document and the identity of any victim and the suspects, shall not be made accessible to the public or media, without the proper authorization from the Head of Office or unless the disclosure is in compliance with a lawful order of the court or any pertinent authority.”

“Public document ‘yan e. Hindi ‘yan itinatago. Ang nakakainis dito, bigla kang pipigilan,” Danilo “Kaka” Santos of Sunshine Radio said, abhorring the PNP’s move to cut access to the blotter.

Kaka, a veteran radio police reporter since the pre-martial law era found the memo alarming. He said such control and interference from those in power existed only during the Martial Law period.

“Noong panahon ni Marcos, talagang pigil na pigil ang press freedom. Pinahinto nga ang mga commentaries, mga public affairs program…Sinakal ang ating kalayaan sa pamamahayag,” he said.

The restoration of democracy in 1986 should have put an end to such control or any move that abridges freedom of expression he added.

The police’s side

After the imposition of the blotter ban, mediamen were quick to defend their profession, attacking the memo as a violation of the constitution, particularly of Article 2 Section 28 stating that “the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.”

Versoza, however, was firm in his decision to impose the memo. In addition he said, “We do not want to curtail access to the blotter. But we want some control pertaining to the access by unauthorized persons.”
PNP added that the move to impose restrictions on the blotter was aligned with RA 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2004 and RA 8505 or the Rape Victim Assistance and Protection Act of 1998. Both laws were geared to protect the welfare of women and juveniles who are involved in crimes. This defense is contained in the PNP’s clarification memo, dated Nov. 11.

Police Chief Inspector Earl Castillo of the Marikina City Police elaborated on this defense saying, “Kung binigyan natin agad (ang mga taong sangkot sa krimen) ng conviction kasi i-pinublish natin (ang kaso nila), unfair ‘yun, kasi sinira natin ‘yung credibility nila.”

He added that the Oct. 20 memo is effective in preventing such occurrences especially in the case of minors whose identity the police must protect. He said the memo is meant for them and not for the “hardcore criminals.”

“Yung minor kahit na napatunayan na nagkasala siguro, kasi minor at hindi pa nila masyadong alam ang ginagawa nila, ito ay itinatago natin sa publiko para hindi masira ang moral at credibility ng bata,” Castillo added.

Analyzing paragraph 7e of the Oct. 20 memo, however, makes clear and obvious that the police intended to cover all suspects not only women and minors. This is read clearly when the memo stated that it is meant “to protect the…identity of any victim and the suspects.”

From here alone, the inconsistencies of PNP are apparent, magnified by the fact that it needed to release a second memo just to clarify what it meant in the original directive of Oct. 20.

Defense of the media

The media banded together in the face of PNP’s attempt to cut free access to the blotter. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) said the move was “patently illegal as it is a clear violation of the constitutional right to access to information.” NUJP was pertaining to Article 2 Section 28 quoted earlier in this report.

National Press Club President Benny Antiporda in the same article branded the memo a form of “media repression…never been done not even during the repressive martial law years.

“Preventing reporters from looking at the blotter does not only prevent reporters from getting access to information but also prevents the public from having access to information. For how will the public know what’s going on as far as crime rate (and) criminal activities are concerned? They know these only through the media,” said Luis Teodoro of the media- monitoring Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
Teodoro added that government employees and officials are bound by a code of conduct mandating them to reply to requests for documents of public nature within 15 days. The memo, then, violates even the government’s own rules on supposed transaction transparency.

In fact, the constitutional guarantee on access to information was propelled by “the corrupt Marcos regime where lack of access left people ignorant of the serious state of the economy, economic statistics were fabricated and peddled to international agencies, the media were muzzled… and information considered as sensitive was withheld,” said Wilfrido Villacorta of the 1987 Constitutional Commission in the book, The Right to Know.

“Kung ang blotter ay hindi ipinapakita sa mga mamamahayag at mga publiko ay itinatago ang impormasyon…Kailangang ito’y lumabas at huwag pigilan dahil parang walang saysay ang aming pinagsusulat at sinasabi kung walang basehang dokumento,” Kaka said.
Adjunct to the issue of free access to information is the right to free expression also enshrined in the 1987 constitution.

Article 3 Section 4 states, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Teodoro said that the blotter ban abridges the freedom of speech because it prevents journalists from accessing sources that are the bases of their reports. They cannot air or print police stories because the stories are withheld from them.

Ethics of journalism

PNP raised a serious issue when it invoked RA 9344 and RA 8505 to defend the imposition of the blotter ban. By doing so, it dragged into the debate the issue of unethical practices among the media in covering minors and women.

Teodoro admitted that there are indeed ethical lapses and offenses in the coverage of media like the naming of minors, the absence of qualifiers like “alleged,” quick conclusions, showing of the faces and full disclosure of the identity of minors and rape victims.

“Like any freedom, it can be abused,” John Oliver Manalstas of GMA 7 said, acknowledging the failures of media in upholding their responsibility for the freedom they are given.

“The media are not perfect institutions. They make mistakes. They have severe lapses. They’re not just lapses, they are severe lapses,” Teodoro stressed.
However, he pointed out that these lapses in no way justify the suppression of press freedom.

Kaka added that the ethics of journalism still acts as a standard that minimizes the lapses done by media in their coverage of minors and women. He said journalism ethics is enough to protect the subjects of news. He noted that the solution is internal and not external like what PNP is proposing with the imposition of the blotter ban.
The eight entry in the Journalists’ Code of Ethics states, “I shall presume persons accused of crime of being innocent until proven otherwise. I shall exercise caution in publishing names of minors, and women involved in criminal cases so that they may not unjustly lose their standing in society.”

In addition to this, the principle of “Minimizing Harm” in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics mandates journalists to “show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

“Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

“Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

“Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.”

These principles cover adequately the concerns of PNP on the welfare of minors involved in crimes and women who are victims of rape. Though there are cases of ethical violations, Teodoro pointed out that it is not the police’s duty to impose journalism ethics on journalists.

Internal Solution: Self-regulation

“There is improvement in the coverage in media because since 1986 there’s been
greater awareness of ethical requirements…There are organizations, there are institutions within the media that are trying to improve coverage,” Teodoro said laying the grounds for media’s ability to censor and censure itself.

He noted PDI’s bluebook, ABS-CBN’s black book and other internal codes of ethics on top of universal journalism ethics codes that guide media conduct in the country. Add to these, Teodoro recognized the role played by media-monitoring bodies like the CMFR, NUJP, Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster sa Pilipinas, PPI and NPC in the education of journalists on ethics, and in greater awareness of the standards of journalism practice.

“Who are the most strict critics of media? Media practitioners themselves,” Teodoro said, noting the seriousness of the industry to curb ethical violations within its ranks.

He abhorred the idea of giving the government powers of regulation over the media because the government cannot be trusted to do that.”

“You cannot expect any government to stop at a certain point. If they’re given the chance to regulate the media, they will go on; they will push it as far as they can…This government is particularly against the media. It’s opposed to press freedom. If you give it that kind of power, it will not stop,” Teodoro said.

The media are one in opposing any form of regulation from the government. This is rooted on historical experiences with the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who muzzled media with intimidation and legal restrictions.

Internal regulations, and media checks and balances are preferred over government restrictions and controls on media practice.

“We like to regulate ourselves. Kasi ‘yung Fourth Estate nga. Kung ikaw ang watchdog
ng government, hindi mo magagampanan ‘yun kung you’re under them,” Manalastas said.

Gate-keeping: A conclusion

A free press is the cornerstone of democracy. A free press translates to media with protected rights to act as watchdogs of government. A free press is the gate-keeper of information, deciding according to the merit of issues and the values of journalism what ought to be printed and aired for the people’s education.
When the blotter ban was imposed, the gate-keeping role was temporarily transferred from the media to the police, effectively robbing the press of its capacity to assess stories on the values of journalism. This duty suddenly fell on the shoulders of the police who were not trained gate-keepers.

At the same time, the move reflected government control and intervention on the workings of the press. By holding on to information, those in power are able to control opinions. They use the information to control the people. Information, as we know it, is power and when such falls on the hand of those who already wield power, abuse becomes an understatement.

The gate-keeping role needs to remain wholly in the hands of the press to ensure that the public forum is truly divested from personal interests and focused solely on public service.

The issue at hand also teaches the Fourth Estate lessons on responsibility. PNP has raised serious challenges on the ability of the press to rein itself. Indeed, how can an irresponsible press be trusted with the critical role of monitoring and disseminating information of public concern? Can an irresponsible press pinpoint the importance of information in the first place?

This is a continuing debate, but PNP’s chosen solution—the blotter ban—is not even a solution but an added problem. The media proposes self-censorship in order to retain its gate-keeping role. There are moves to clean the ranks but the challenges are overwhelming.

In the end, the solution cannot be haphazardly drawn and imposed. History teaches people to learn from their mistakes and to live out what they have learned. In this case, Philippine press has a full history behind it—Spanish colonization, American rule, Japanese occupation and Martial Law. It does not lack the materials. Perhaps, it boils down to the question of commitment to free speech on the part of media and the government.
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