Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hongkong reacts with outrage over the Quirino Grandstand bloodbath

I hope next Monday will be better, this Monday was pretty much shot to hell along with most of the week.

The hostage taking at the Quirino Grandstand ended in a bloodbath that left 8 people dead, 7 of them tourists from Hongkong and one of them was the hostage taker, dismissed policeman Rolando Mendoza.

Reports on CNN, BBC, and other international news TV channels all carry reports blaming the Filipino police for mismanaging the hostage situation.  One of the more often cited mistakes made by the Filipino police was that they failed to take control of the hostage situation.  Other cited that the police failed to grab opportunities to incapacitate Mendoza on several instances where there was a clear shot.

Certainly other mistakes can be cited and there is no dearth of Monday morning quarterbacking, but it all would have been gladly looked over if none of the hostages were killed.

Philippine media made a big show of sidestepping whatever blame was coming their way for contributing to the Filipino police's blunder.

The head of one of the major TV networks even went to the point of saying that Poynter's Guidelines for Media during Hostage Situations could not be applied to the Quirino Grandstand hostage taking.  The TV executive said that Poynter's guidelines were applicable only to much more developed Western nations where clear protocols were in force.

The executive essentially threw back the blame on the police on the scene, pointing out that they failed to control the crowds -- which included the media.

The executive, perhaps, will not admit that their TV network showed footage of the police approaching the bus and preparing to storm it.  Neither will the executive, perhaps, admit that it was the tight competition with another network for video of Mendoza's brother that led to the airing of the scuffle which incensed Mendoza and triggered him to shoot his hostages.  (The other station isn't blameless either as one of their senior reporters was actually embedded with the police -- which probably is a bad idea for the police.) 
Getting a scoop
The media might have focused on “getting the information and beating the competition,” but forgot about the safety of the hostages and the impact of their killings on the country’s image, Teodoro added.
Burgos said the detailed coverage not only “telegraphed” the actions of the Special Weapons and Tactics assault team, but triggered the “rampage” of the hostage-taker.
“The footage of his brother being restrained and handcuffed, that really triggered the rampage. There were calls not to cover this. But the TV and radio networks were trying to outdo each other to get a scoop,” he said by phone.
“It’s lamentable that in a life-and-death situation, many of our colleagues were going for a scoop to be on top of the ratings game.”

To be fair, I don't think I really got everything that the TV executive was saying last night. Perhaps my opinion may change, but this is how it stands as of this writing.

In any case, I think President Noynoy Aquino's honeymoon with the media is over as he deliberately made a point to mention how the media contributed to the snafu.
“What were the limitations imposed on the media, I think none,” the President said, noting that the journalists sought to get “the latest tidbit” throughout the crisis.
Mr. Aquino said that media’s intensive coverage “provided a wealth of information” to Mendoza, whom he noted was watching television on the bus and listening to the radio “throughout the whole time.”
“And each time he got a new piece of information that obviously factored into his equations and it didn’t help our security forces any,” he said.
Asked whether officials erred in not imposing a news blackout, the President said if he ordered one, the media would say that the government was “guilty of censoring a priori.”
“We cannot censor you for things you have to do,” he said, but noted that something could probably be worked out between the government and the media that will see the media being able to do its work without impeding security operations.
Well, in hindsight, perhaps the President ought to have risked incurring the ire of media in order to save the lives of the hostages.

This leads me to ask, was he in a position to issue orders to stop media coverage in the first place? Was he really monitoring the situation?

More importantly, why was he not able to accept the call of Hongkong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen?  The only thing that I was able to gather on TV last night was that the person who had his phone was not able to enter the room he was holed up in.

Was Aquino actually shielded or kept from talking with the Hongkong Chief Executive for fear that he might make a bigger mess of Sino-Filipino relations? Or, even worse, reveal to the international community that he was poorly equipped to handle crisis? 
Palace officials said Mr. Aquino was at a closed-door meeting with local government officials on Monday night when Tsang called up.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Mr. Aquino was “not aware” that Tsang was trying to contact him.
Lacierda said that when Mr. Aquino learned Tuesday about this, the President decided to call Tsang after his meeting with the Chinese ambassador.
Communications Development Secretary Ricky Carandang said President Aquino also wanted to know the details of the incident before he spoke to Tsang.
Carandang said this was the reason the President did not immediately speak before the media because he wanted to first “determine what exactly were the facts on the ground.”
While Mr. Aquino said he asked that he be “kept apprised” of developments, he delegated authority to the rightful persons.
“To be honest with you this whole day, aside from the hostage situation, I was in touch with Health Secretary Ona about the dengue situation. I was also talking to Budget Secretary Butch Abad about the submission of the budget message,” Mr. Aquino added.
Just as the police assault on the bus took “quite a while,” the President acknowledged that it took him some time to speak to the media and the nation because he wanted to get details on what happened.
An hour after the hostage crisis was over, Palace officials issued a statement saying that Mr. Aquino had been meeting with Mayor Lim and police officials and giving out figures of the dead and the wounded. They also said that another statement would be issued late Monday.
The Palace statement did come out as promised but it was read by the President himself at a news briefing at midnight of Monday in which he condoled with the families of the dead Hong Kong tourists and conveyed the government’s “deep feelings of sorrow” to the People’s Republic of China and to Tsang.
Even if he did not make his presence felt throughout the hostage crisis, the President ended his news conference with a message to the people.
“We should not just give up because of this one incident,” he said. “Let’s all strive all the more to ensure that there will be no repeat of this kind of situation.” 

Perhaps, if the President was better prepared and by accepting the call from the Hongkong Chief executive, Aquino might have been better able to calm the anxiety that the hostage taking situation was creating among the Hongkong people.

If there is one thing that I've learned from observing someone who is quite adept at handling crisis situations, it is that open communication lines are essential to resolving any crisis.

No matter what the Aquino Administration does now to salve the pain and grief felt by the people of Hongkong, China and Taiwan, it will be all too little and too late.

Right now, there is a rather garish show of solidarity with the Chinese people.  Flags are being flown at half-mast, people are light candles, and some have  taken to writing letters to the people of Hongkong.

Perhaps apologies and condolences will do some good.

Then again, sometimes apologies sometimes encourage even more outrage to be expressed and perhaps the better tact would be to make people accountable for the mistakes that were made.

A speedy and thorough investigation should be made.  Those commanding police operations on the ground should be meted with stiff penalties if they are found to have bungled any of their decisions.  The media covering the crisis, if they had been found to have interfered with the sensitive crisis situation, should be charged appropriately in court. 

On the flipside of things, as people were waking up from the aftermath of the Quirino Grandstand bloodbath, Filipino Miss Universe 2010 contestant Venus Raj's entry into the final 15 of the pageant provided a brief respite from the bad vibes.

Before it was announced that she had made it into the top five, a number of people on facebook and twitter were rooting for her as if by clinching the Miss Universe crown the rest of the world would forget the tragic conclusion of the Quirino Grandstand fiasco.

One of the more crucial portions of every beauty contest is the Question and Answer portion.  It is usually the time when people find out if the contestant's brains matches her beauty.
Question and Answer of Miss Universe Contestant Venus Raj
Question to Venus: What is one big mistake that you did in your life? And what did you do to make it right?
Answer: In my 22 years of existence, there is nothing major, major.. er...  problem that I have done in my life. Because I am very confident with my family and the love they are giving to me. So thank you thank you so much.
Now, I don't think there can be any right or wrong answer to such a question.  We all have regrets and we all have ideas of how we can probably have done it differently -- differently, but necessarily better.

But, perhaps just like President Noynoy Aquino and the police at the Quirino Grandstand, a better response would not have been forthcoming to one who is too nervous to think -- assuming that one has the sort of mind that can come up with the right response at all.

In any case, Venus Raj fourth runner up victory isn't a total disaster.  Then again, it ain't something we can really cheer about.

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