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Isagani Cruz, Press Freedom, and Media Ethics and Responsibility September 4, 2006

Posted by lagablab in in the news, LGBT and the media.

Barely a month since it started, it appears that the controversy sparked by a homophobic column is finally over. Or at least that’s how the Philippine Daily Inquirer would like to have it.

After publishing the last letter to the editor on the issue on August 25, 2006, the editor issued this notice:

About a hundred readers — and counting — have written the Inquirer in reaction to Isagani Cruz’s columns on LGBTs. The Inquirer regrets that for lack of space it cannot accommodate all their letters. For this reason, the Inquirer decided to publish those that it deemed most representative of the collective sentiments of the letter-senders. This letter should be the last on the matter. — Ed.

It thus killed an issue that should have been resolved through an honest discussion on media ethics and responsibility.

How the controversy unfolded: Columns, letters, and an Editorial

The controversy was triggered by Inquirer columnist and former Supreme Court Justice Isagani Cruz, who, in his regular column “Separate Opinion,” derided Filipino homosexuals. Bloggers across different sexual orientations and locations quickly condemned the bigoted column. Manuel Quezon III, another columnist from Inquirer, wrote a powerful rejection of Cruz’s bigotry and likened him to a Grand Inquisitor. A few days later, Cruz responded to Quezon’s column, calling his critics’ arguments “neither here nor there,” and at the same time invoked free speech to articulate his hatred against “certain” types of homosexuals. In Quezon’s succeeding column, he said that Cruz’s distinction between acceptable and unacceptable homosexuals is tenuous because for bigoted people, “all gay people are fundamentally the same because of their sexuality.”

Letters were also sent to the Inquirer in response to the controversy. Among those that got published are the following:

In an editorial on August 22, 2006, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) conceded that the widespread protest against the column of former Supreme Court justice Isagani Cruz is understandable since it “portrayed homosexuals in a negative light.” After briefly indulging in a rather curious discussion on whether homosexuals are born or bred, the editorial concluded that regardless of the nature of homosexuality, “all human beings are born equal and free.”

The Editorial elicited mixed reactions from the community. Others considered it as a sign of victory – it admitted that the newspaper received scores of letters because of the column and it reminded homophobes like Cruz that homosexuals are humans, too. Others, however, felt that it was “neither here nor there”: it was patronizing to a certain extent, but it was silent, too, on the responsibility of journalists like former Supreme Court Justice Isagani Cruz not to use a powerful medium to sow hatred.

In a show in ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) and in a meeting with various LGBT groups, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, PDI’s Ombudsman and Readers Advocate, admitted that Cruz violated the newspaper’s Code of Ethics, and yet the Editorial was surprisingly silent on what sanctions PDI would impose for these violations.

The Real Issues

Despite claiming that the “controversy may yet result in something good for the homosexual community,” the Inquirer itself has been mum on what concrete actions it would take to address the issues that Cruz’s column raised. It says that Cruz violated some of the newspaper’s policies on journalism ethics, yet its silence on punishing Cruz for his transgressions is raising a more fundamental question – does the newspaper, as a matter of policy, concur with Isagani Cruz’s belief that press freedom and free speech give journalists a license to sow hatred?

The line between free speech and hate speech is thin, and the consequences can be debilitating, especially if the target of the latter are communities that are already vulnerable because of discrimination. Isagani Cruz’s column is no different from the Danish cartoon that vilified Islam – it helped galvanized a common perception that furthers the prejudice and abuse that the community encounters daily, be it within the family or in workplaces. Hatred, when expressed through a popular and powerful medium, reinforces hatred.

This is not the first time that LGBT groups have expressed concern with the way Philippine media in general has portrayed homosexuals. In 2001, the “Hello Billy” ads of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) caught the ire of the LGBT community when it portrayed a gay character negatively. “Hello Billy” was about the stereotypical life of an overseas Filipino worker named Billy and his relationship with his overprotective mother, who kept prying into Billy’s private life. From the conversations between Billy and his mother, his girlfriend, Gracia, and his apparently gay friend, Joey, emerged as new characters. Billy’s relationship with Gracia turned out to be serious, and Joey appeared to be dismayed by this development. Later, an episode insinuated that Joey was spreading bad rumors about Gracia in a bid to prevent her looming marriage with Billy.

The Library Foundation protested the ad, followed LAGABLAB’s campaign to boycott PLDT. LAGABLAB argued then that ads like the “Hello Billy” series reinforce the negative attitudes toward homosexuals in Philippine society. LAGABLAB pointed out that “priests who have condemned homosexuals for immorality, parents who have taught their children that homosexuality is evil, comedians who believe that slapping homosexuals is funny, and, yes, advertisements that portray homosexuals negatively have a role to play why some homosexuals lose their job, get unfair treatment from restaurants or hospitals, or even get killed.”

Another incident, which took place in 2003, demonstrated how unethical media practices target vulnerable sectors like the LGBT community. On February 19, 2003, members of the Central Police District of the Philippine National Police (CPD-PNP) conducted a raid on Alta Theater, a movie house frequented by homosexual patrons and a known cruising area in Cubao, Quezon City. police subjected patrons to physical and verbal abuse as well as extortion attempts, apprehended 63 men “for verification”, and arrested and detained five men in nearby Camp Karingal.

The raid, sardonically referred to as “Oplan Lollipop” by policemen, was provoked by a reporter from ABS-CBN, one of the largest media company in the Philippines. According to the blotter report, the reporter, Mr. JV Villar, approached the local District Police Intelligence Unit (DPIU) and reported the existence of “indecent acts” inside the theater. The report prompted the raid, which was dutifully covered by Villar and his cameraman.

Several cases of police brutality and human rights violations took place during the raid, according to witnesses. One witness saw policemen violently hitting the confused moviegoers with their bare hands or with sandals that were left behind by those who were quick enough to flee. The same witness also noticed one man bleeding from a wound on his head after being hit by a gun by one of the operatives. Dozens were illegally detained, while five were arrested.

Policemen allegedly asked money from the moviegoers in exchange for their freedom.

When they were being led outside the movie house, our source, “Christian”, saw that JV Villar tried to interview some of the moviegoers. The confused and startled moviegoers made attempts to avoid the camera, but they were forced to expose their faces. Christian could not determine if those who forced them to show their faces were policemen or staff from Channel 2 themselves, since no one was in police uniform. When Christian saw the report the next morning, he was shocked and angered that Channel 2 did not even bother to cover the faces of the moviegoers. Christian also said that the report conspicuously did not include the extortion that took place inside the theater, as well as most of the physical harassment and violence. The man who was wounded on the head, according to Christian, later had an asthma attack and was told by the police that he would be brought to a hospital. Upon hearing this, Christian, seriously doubting the sincerity of the policeman, feared for the man’s safety. (LAGABLAB learned from a source inside the camp that the man was also brought to Camp Karingal, and instead of being brought to the hospital, he was forced to walk around the camp barefooted while being threatened not to talk to anyone about the incident).

When the report was shown the morning after in ABS-CBN’s Magandang Umaga, Bayan!, one of the hosts noticed the excessive force that the police used during the raid. Another host, Mr. Ramon Tulfo, allegedly remarked that the gay men inside the theater deserved such treatment from the police since they should be concentrating on their work in beauty parlors instead of committing lewd acts. In ABS-CBN’s news reports on the raid, it did not cover the faces of the interviewees and the other movie goers. (For more information on this issue, visit the website of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, which supported LAGABLAB’s campaign on this case).

Ethics in Media

At the core of the issue is the need for media establishments to enforce on its own policies on ethics. Free speech, in the hands of irresponsible journalists, may contribute to human rights abuses. Mass media has become a powerful instrument that shapes public opinion and discourse, and this power has to be used responsibly to encourage critical thinking and informed decisions, not to sow divisive sectarianism and hatred.

While LAGABLAB is against censorship, media responsibility has to be exercised by media institutions. If PDI has a Code of Ethics, then it should be enforced without exceptions. Any thing less smacks of discrimination against the aggrieved party, or in this case, the LGBT community.