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Risks and Responsibilities

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Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani and his Filipino crew were not kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf, but are being held against their will by the kidnap for ransom group, said Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo over the weekend.

The Abu Sayyaf Group did not seize Atyani and company, and it now seems likely that they voluntarily entered Abu Sayyaf “territory” in full awareness of the risks involved.

As in the 2002 case of then freelance journalist Arlyn de la Cruz, and of ABS-CBN anchor Ces Drilon in 2008, both of whom were also held against their will by the Abu Sayyaf, Atyani et al. were presumably after a story.

Whether that story will be fair, balanced, or even accurate depends upon Atyani, and his story, whatever form it will take, can add to, or detract from, what the Philippine and other publics know about the Abu Sayyaf. Even more critically, however, whether fair and accurate or otherwise, it is also likely to help further that group’s agenda.

The Abu Sayyaf has survived military operations for over a decade; and terrorism, despite the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, remains the tactic of choice, if not of the Abu Sayyaf, certainly of the Jemaah Islamiyah with which it is said to be affiliated.

The legitimacy of a story on the current state, leadership and views of the Abu Sayyaf, while not particularly in the public interest, could probably be defended, although with a bit of a stretch. But every journalist must keep in mind that such groups as the Abu Sayyaf have a stake in maintaining a media presence.

The Abu Sayyaf has been out of the media limelight for some time, and its leaders are likely to welcome any opportunity to remind the public that it is still around and to present its political views through the media, assuming it still has any.

It is government awareness of the role the media too often play in keeping terrorist and other groups in the public eye that cast enough doubts over Atyani’s impartiality for the Philippine government to suggest that he is no merely disinterested observer of the Abu Sayyaf.

Robredo therefore told the media last week that once out of the clutches of the Abu Sayyaf, Atyani should be deported and blacklisted for deceiving the Philippine government, while President Benigno S. Aquino III declared that he should be made to explain why he did not alert the Philippine government about his intention to do a documentary on the Abu Sayyaf and/or to interview its leaders.

Like that of de la Cruz’ in 2002, Atyani ‘s disappearance last June 12 seems to have been not only voluntary, but was also meant to mislead the Philippine government. Implicit in these government claims is that Atyani could be an Abu Sayyaf sympathizer.

Every government has a right to know what’s going on in its own territory, and to expect visitors to behave in a manner that, to paraphrase Robredo, would not create problems for the host country. On the other hand, a journalist has the ethical and professional responsibility to be fair, accurate, and balanced in his or her reporting, commentary and/or analysis.

Antipathy or sympathy for his or her subject can and often does color his or her work, which can lead to reporting so distorted, biased, and even inaccurate it detracts from, rather than adds to, the public’s understanding of matters that concern it. If indeed Atyani is sympathetic to the Abu Sayyaf, like Arlyn de la Cruz who was similarly suspected of the same bias, the ethical standards of journalism should have compelled him to inhibit himself from reporting or doing a documentary on it.

If on the other hand he is indeed a disinterested chronicler of the Abu Sayyaf, and his intention solely to provide the public information that is as accurate as it is fair and unbiased, there is nothing to stop him from doing the story. Informing the government, specifically the Philippine police and military, of his intentions would have been acceptable and even preferable—but only if the point is to enable the latter to know where he is and to have some assurance of his safety.

Informing security forces can be problematic, however, if the information is used to tail Atyani and his crew towards finding the Abu Sayyaf location and, say, engaging it in a firefight.

A firefight or any other incident resulting from information gained by surveilling Atyani once he has informed the government of his intentions would not only place Atyani and his crew in danger. It would also have repercussions on other journalists, who would henceforth be regarded as government informers not only by the Abu Sayyaf, but also by other groups in the conflict zones journalists cover.

The primary protection of journalists in conflict situations is their being perceived as non-partisan, and to be thought of as otherwise is to be exposed to dangers that could include being killed. Neither the Philippine police nor the military have shown any appreciation of this reality: both have even argued that rather than being non-partisan, journalists should assist them in the apprehension of wrong-doers.

We can only surmise that Atyani and his crew did not inform the government of their intentions precisely to prevent being tagged as government spies, which would have multiplied those risks. One of the results of that decision is that there is a fair amount of possibility that they will survive their captivity.

Part of the risks that Atyani and company took, however, is that of being held accountable by the government for whatever violations of its laws they may have committed. A story is very rarely worth dying for. But the writing of stories such as those on conflict and the armed groups involved does require observance of the ethical imperatives of journalism—and the readiness to be held accountable for one’s actions. (Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility)

by Luis V. Teodoro




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