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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dissection of a Tragedy

Last Monday’s tragic incident, wherein a dismissed police officer Rolando Mendoza took hostage a busload of Hong Kong tourists in order to air his gripes, exposed a number of lapses and blunders committed by both the police and the media. These lapses resulted in the death of Mendoza, as well as eight of the hostages, and marred the reputation of the Philippine police, which was still reeling from the graphic footage of police torture the week before.

From the live coverage of the incident, it was clear that the police were not prepared to deal with the situation. They apparently lacked a central command, in order to coordinate whatever course of action they would decide to take. This could be seen from the way it appeared that police were crowding the bus.

It was also clear that the police were poorly equipped. They had no gas masks in order to deal with the tear gas they lobbed into the bus, and they didn’t have any lights on their guns, which would make it difficult to see into the interior of the bus. When it came time to open the door of the bus, a police officer used a rope instead of a chain, and, predictably, the rope broke.

Finally, the lack of police training in hostage situations was exposed for the entire world to see. From the looks of it, it took far too long for the police to storm the vehicle, and I’m not sure what sort of negotiator was assigned to talk with Mendoza, but apparently, at some point negotiations broke down, and the police should have acted more decisively.

At the same time, to some extent, the media should have coordinated more closely with the police, although I will concede that the apparent lack of a single officer tasked to take charge of the situation would have made such coordination difficult. I will assume that Mendoza was able to monitor what was going on outside the bus through the television set that is invariably part of the bus’s comforts. Since there was no delayed telecast, and everything was being reported live, Mendoza would have been able to adjust his tactics to deal with the police.

Aside from being able to know the police’s movements, the report of the arrest of Mendoza’s brother, who was apparently with him inside the bus, was the trigger that set off the tragic chain of events, and effectively ended whatever negotiations that were taking place. If this report was not aired live, perhaps Mendoza would have acted so precipitously.

Of course, the media will huff and puff that it is their job to report the news (and they did just that on ANC), and that there is no call to restrain the press, but, what the media have to remember is that no freedom is absolute. I agree with Cebu Rep. Quisumbing when he clarified that, while it’s important to document whatever event is going on, it’s also important for the media to coordinate with law enforcement officials and not immediately release information which could result in tragedy. Rep. Quisumbing apparently plans to introduce a bill to regulate press actions during situations such as hostage-taking and the like, although even that should be carefully scrutinized, lest it become a tool to muzzle the press.

The incident also exposed Filipinos’ apparent predilection to rush and ogle any dangerous situation. After it was clear that Mendoza was killed by the sniper’s bullet, people rushed in to inspect the hostage site, disregarding any personal safety or comfort, since it was raining in torrents that night. The crowds made it difficult for emergency vehicles to approach the bus. While the police should have exercised proper crowd control, I can only shake my head at my countrymen’s attitude of ogling and kibitzing situations such as these.

If there is something that can be learned from this tragic event, it would be that our government has to invest time, effort and money in training our police force to deal with the situations they face. I’m hoping that the investigation that is taking place to assess and evaluate the police performance will come up with these recommendations, so that the next time something like this happens, our police force will be better prepared to deal with it.

In the media -

I really like Cito Beltran's take on the situation, as he tries to see the tragedy in the context of Filipino culture.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility released a suggested set of guidelines for the media to follow in such situations in the aftermath of the 2007 hostage taking by Armando Ducat.

Inquirer columnist Amando Doronilla worries about the economic and political repercussions of the event.


Dino said...

What an embarassing month for our police. First was that alleged rub-out on two wanted people (although there are still some ongoing investigations for that I think). Next was that torture video.

Then the world just witnessed (numerous times, starting with the police forgotting that arresting the brother of Mendoza like that may worsen the situation) how incompetent we are in dealing with these kinds of situations.

The media also continues to act like press freedom is absolute. One network was even proud because CNN and BBC hooked up with them in the coverage. And as usual, there's our culture of always wanting to be watching the crime scene.

Dino said...

Oh yeah, good suggestion by that article on BBC, "10 Things the Manila Police didn't do right." (not exact title but something like that):

Since his demand wasn't that heavy anyway (compared to let's say kidnap for ransom where giving in right away may encourage people to commit the crime), maybe they should have lured him right away by reinstating him and then putting him to prison immediately.

Aside from the brother of Mendoza (who was performing unauthorized communication and bringing a gun), the driver of the bus was also a little suspicious. First letting a stranger police enter a tourist bus (for what reason?), then claiming that ALL hostages were dead, then claiming he escaped by breaking his handcuff (is it really that easy to break that?). Although to be fair I don't know things from his side, he might have some valid points to share.

Dino said...

More on the bus driver: Well apparently the driver did try to question why the hostage-taker attempted to ride the bus, because his boss might get mad if someone who had no business being in the bus was in the bus. But he was forced to allow Mendoza on the bus in the end. So that explains it.

Bandila, HK Chinese: nice to hear on Bandila's first report yesterday that some/many Chinese are understanding enough: they hate the Philippine government only, but not ordinary innocent Filipinos.