The Rise of Vigilantes
I have a college best friend who is a media person, working with a radio station in Tacloban City renowned for taking up controversial topics and for being some kind of a court-of-last-resort for the desperate and the helpless. This radio station lost their main commentator (Kuya Monching Noblejas) to a gunman a few years back. The buzz was that the killing was ordered by some powerful businessman who felt aggrieved at having his reputation dragged across the coals of public opinion. I think the same circumstances pervade the other murders.
Over dinner and red wine a few days ago, we expressed concern for our friend – concerns which she shrugged off as part of the hazards of the profession. She did share, however, that the string of murders has made them more responsible; they now make sure they have the facts before spewing vitriol and damning someone on air. She conceded that in the past, they tended to shoot from the hip even when the facts and the circumstances were not clear.
Yes, they are killing media people in this country, there is no doubt about this. However, I refuse to be simplistic in my analysis and conveniently lay the blame at the military or the government. If the government has made it a policy to kill people who are vehemently against it, there would be very few media people left breathing. The string of murders is a complicated social phenomenon and the full solution cannot be found in the halls of power in this country regardless of the tough talk and the number of strongly-worded directives from Malacanang or Fort Aguinaldo. However, I do agree that it is the job of government to do something about this problem and it is a challenge that it must address.
I do not know if media intended this to be, but media is a powerful entity in this country and in fact, I think the dividing line between media and politics is now hairline. Some politicians dabble as media people and many media people fancy themselves as politicians, in some cases –often justified - better than the politicians. But what makes media’s power more potent is that they have within their means the capability to make or unmake anyone. And this power has become a curse or a blessing, depending on a number of factors.
I am not saying that the victims of the senseless killings are to be blamed for their deaths. I maintain that no one, bar none, deserves to have his or her life snuffed out; specially under such irrational circumstances. I am not even suggesting that the victims were irresponsible media people. All I am saying is that there is something in our current social structures that breed and mitigate this climate of murder.
It does seem that some kind of vigilante mentality is taking roots in our culture, borne out of some breakdown in the justice system and the haste to render judgment. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds on desperation, helplessness, greed, commercialization of media, etc. If we want to address it, we must address it at its roots. What is fueling this vigilante mentality in our culture?
Among the masa, media people are perceived as powerful people who can dispense justice swiftly. In most cases, media people are seen as their court of last resort. In other words, if anyone wants justice all one has to do is find a way to get to Mike Enriquez of Imbestigador fame or to Korina Sanchez or some other AM radio commentator, or political columnist with a readership. This perception, by the way, did not just arise out of thin air; in most cases, media establishments actually created this image and fueled its perpetuation through public advertising such as "kasangga ng naapi" and similar other attention-baiting slogans. Media people can not wash their hands of the role they play in promoting this vigilante mentality.
Given the challenge, media, particularly in remote areas, has put on the role of accuser, rabble rouser, defender, catalyst and, worse, as judge - all rolled into one; and on almost all issues, from national politics to family squabbles and even domestic discord. There have been many times when I would sit agape watching how Imbestigador would make a mockery out of due process; or listen incrudulously to some AM radio commentator make mincemeat out of someone over unfounded accusations.
I know that media is supposed to play one, or some, or all of these roles to varying extents; but very often, the lines tend to be blurred and many media people, perhaps out of overzealousness, or for whatever reason, do tend to teeter on the verge of being irresponsible. Along the way, some reputations are ruined, some people get scandalized, and in general, feathers are ruffled beyond repair.
Again, this is not to say, that these are enough reasons for some aggrieved person to hire an assassin. Media should not be blamed for taking on the role of court of last resort particularly since the wheels of justice in this country do tend to move like a turtle taking its sweet time.
But then again, not everyone has the capability to rein in desperation or to resist the temptation to take matters into his or her own hands particularly since media - TV shows and movies - has often suggested that these are okay.
I see the string of murders as symptomatic of the social conditions in this country. Solving the problem requires a more comprehensive approach and government, media, the military, social organizations, and the general populace have to come together to address it. We must put a halt to this vigilante mentality together.