090904_KeystoneKops2One of the things that struck me as very odd and disturbing when I first arrived in the Philippines was the habit of the media – and transitively, the people – to treat news of crimes in a sensational way. A fair portion of every newscast and newspaper is devoted to lurid coverage of crimes and arrests, and at best flirts with the bounds of good taste when it is not actually unethical – which it is, when as-yet uncharged suspects are “presented to the media”, or dead victims or perpetrators are shown, with just enough pixilation to keep viewers from gagging up their dinners. News outlets will even go so far as to regularly provide vehicle license plate numbers; a public service, perhaps, if it is a vehicle containing dangerous wanted fugitives, but an unnecessary and invasive detail when the vehicle happens to belong to a crime victim. On those occasions when a really spectacular crime occurs, such as the recent armed robbery inside the Greenbelt 5 mall in Makati, the media and the blogosphere is filled for days with endless speculation and lament over the sorry state of law and order in the country. If one pays too much attention to the hand-wringing commentary and the nightly news, one could easily draw the conclusion that the Philippines is just one more phone-snatcher or stick-up artist away from utter chaos.

According to figures provided by the NCSB, the overall crime rate in the Philippines has fluctuated between 1993 and 2007, the last year for which overall figures are available. Crime incidents (measured per 100,000 population) generally decreased from a high of 145.7 to 81.9 between 1993 and 2006, but then increased sharply in 2007. To be fair, one problem with these figures is that they only represent reported crimes, and might not be exactly reflective of the actual extent of criminal activity one way or the other. A better yardstick might be the murder rate, for the simple reason that it is much more difficult to not report or record a murder than other kinds of crimes. According to figures drawn from various UN and NGO studies, the Philippines has seen a steady drop in its murder rate since 2000, averaging 3.82 per 100,000 population in 2008. That is still a bit higher than the regional average of 2.8, but well short of the US average of 5.8, or neighbouring Thailand’s 7.92.  In quantitative terms, there are far more dangerous places in the world than the Philippines.

But in qualitative terms, there may not be many more lawless places than the Philippines. Visible police presence is virtually non-existent in most of the country, apart from the immediate vicinities of the local stations and the occasional roadside checkpoint. Community policing at the local barangay level varies with the level of funding and organisation; wealthier barangays, such as Bel-Air Village in Makati, have police forces that rival the PNP in terms of efficiency and resources, but other, less well-endowed barangays (such as the one I live in) might be lucky to be able to deploy a couple volunteer tanods with no real equipment save for maybe a bicycle and a second-hand radio, and absolutely no training of any sort. Obvious law enforcement otherwise is manifested by traffic wardens and security guards, each with a narrow focus and area of concern, both of which in most cases seems entirely misplaced and handled inappropriately.

It’s difficult to say whether the attitude of the population is a result of the poor management of law and order, or if the management is a reflection of a casually dismissive culture. Perhaps the reason crimes are treated so sensationally in the media is because one has to do something truly sensational to actually get in trouble here; everyday life is an exercise in impunity. Those who would gnash their teeth about a major armed robbery have a hard time seeing the connection between that and the national habits of urinating in public, jaywalking, littering, and a dozen other antisocial acts that people engage in with no more thought than they give to breathing, but those things are a big part of the reason the truly sensational crimes happen. When the small laws – whether they are the ones that are actually written down or the ones that develop as a natural product of a civilised society – are neither respected nor enforced, no laws can be enforced.

In the wake of the Greenbelt robbery, there have been calls for all the typical reactions: “more police patrols”, “tighter security”, and “better co-ordination”, but these will not solve the real problems. The rules imposed by a democratic society are, by definition, rules the people impose on themselves; it’s a distinction, one of many that defines democracy, that the Pinoy enthralled by the mere word has apparently never learned. If they ever do decide to acknowledge that the rules are not simply meant for everyone else, and break the even more destructive habit of looking the other way when ‘everyone else’ isn’t following the rules either, they may actually begin to look like a modern human society.


About bkritz

I'm a writer, and I do things my own way. That might sound cool to you, unless you're one of the people who actually knows me, in which case you're probably shaking your head in exasperation at the depth of that understatement.
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15 Responses to Insecurity

  1. benign0 says:

    That is why it is so hard to take seriously all these calls made to the high heavens for “justice” and “rule of law” when even the smallest acts of propriety cannot be observed at the grassroots. It’s almost like a habitual diverting of attention away from our inability to do the right thing within our own personal space, in the same way that outrage directed at government failures to respond well to the Ondoy disaster routinely drowns out the small voices that point to the garbage improperly disposed of by ordinary Pinoys that accumulated in Manila’s esteros, stormdrains, and sewers over the years.

    It is at the very DNA of the society — its culture — where the very nature of our regard for lawful engagement with the greater community can be found.

  2. FreeSince09 says:

    Shit, people expect the government to do everything

    • BenK says:

      That’s exactly my point: if you want to be a democracy, YOU’RE the government. Freedom = responsibility. That means sensibly choosing candidates for public office, paying attention to what they’re doing and holding them accountable, and thinking of one’s place in and impact on the community.

  3. Hyden Toro says:

    Bad News sell. Good News will never sell. The more sensationalize the news, the more it sells.
    We have to find something that is worse from our situations. Since Ondoy hit us all. And food
    is scarce to come. A Holdup in Greenbelt Makati. Place of the rich.
    At least, we are not only the miserable. Someone is more miserable than us! And they are in
    the rich exclusive Mall area…

  4. FreeSince09 says:

    the problem though, if everyone acted so selfrighteously none of us would be alive

  5. Maia says:

    Jesus, I remember seeing something on the news about a guy who got run over and his wife was sobbing to the camera and blaming the government for it.


    [insert facepalm, headdesk and lots of sighing here]

    I swear, that woman ought to have cursed her husband’s stupidity instead. If he hadn’t been too lazy to use the stairs on that overpass, he would have been alive. They’re just stairs, for crying out loud! What do these people want? Elevators?!

    And yet, I’m told to sympathize with people like her and blame the administration? Why? It’s not my fault I’m still alive because I had the common sense to use the pedestrian overpasses once they were built. I can’t call it much of a loss if it was a result of stupidity.

    • Chino F says:

      That’s a good example of how tragedies in the Philippines are made. It brings to mind the Bocaue Pagoda Tragedy. Maybe they just love to do the impossible. Like fly without wings, cross the street without getting hit by speeding vehicles or succeed at business without a sensible business plan. Common sense is a bit foreign to Philippine culture.

      • Maia says:

        And some people blind themselves to these little things and still pin the blame on the government leaders for not doing their part, supposedly. Come on, it isn’t anyone’s fault but yours if you decide you want to try being a stuntman and cross a dangerous highway and then you end up dead. We’re responsible for our own lives, not other people. This is chronic dependency that we have and we need to get rid of it.

  6. GabbyD says:

    i personally have never seen such video of the plate numbers of the victims, but i have seen the line-up press conference.

    i wonder what the CHR has to say about it…

    • BenK says:

      Check the newspapers (print or online), and the TV station websites. They’ll generally publish the plate numbers. I’ve always found it strange, and disturbing in a way I can’t really put my finger on, other than to say that if it were my car that was stolen or involved in an accident, I would be extremely uncomfortable with my plate number being publicized.

      To me it seems like a part of the attention that is paid to superfluous details for the sake of established the authority of information; for example, when SM has a 30% off sale, and they’re obliged to print the DTI permit number on the sign in the store window (that there is an actual permit required for that sort of thing is another matter entirely).

      License plate numbers on cars are not really personal information, after all, but does the public really need to know the plate number of a car involved in an incident? Where’s the line between informative and intrusive? Like I said, if the car happens to contain a gang of armed thugs fleeing from the police, that would be one thing — but if that car hits the car of an innocent passer-by, why do we need to know his/her plate number too? Very curious.

      I have no idea what the CHR thinks of this, if anything, but I do know they’ve openly criticized the parading of suspects, which is a good start.

      • the problem is the people running the newsrooms. many of them have grown into the job thinking that sensationalism should be the norm. the situation is even worse in tv newsrooms where substance is often trumped by “great video.” an editor friend of mine says of all so called journalists those in tv are the stupidest and least responsible.

      • BenK says:

        I realize there is also a certain business component to the journalistic decisions that are made; viewers’ eyes on screens equals money in the bank, and it’s easy to understand how things can quickly spiral away from information and towards entertainment. Overcoming that requires a mutual effort on the part of the news organizations and the viewing public: the public needs to learn to demand better, and the media needs to learn to guide public choices towards something more substantial.

      • benign0 says:

        That’s the effect of a visually-rich communications medium like TV. Humans are very visual creatures. So in the visual arts/media, there is more opportunity to gloss over substance because once you’ve captured a consumers’ visual senses, the substance behind the message becomes subordinate.

        Truly fine works of visual art — the kind that stands the test of time has multi-layered meaning underpinning them; which accounts for how those who view a piece of fine art say that they see something different or different aspect/facet of it everytime they come back to view the same piece again.

        TV content is very fleeting and it’s all mostly geared towards capturing eyeballs and holding them for at least as long as the next commercial break.

  7. I think mass media report on crimes sensationally because it is easy (and cheap, as in no investment required) to do. Consequently, the people are “taught” it is important that is why it is “news”.

    Just this morning, there were two news items I saw on TV. One is about PGMA’s trip to Thailand which the station gave a few seconds of coverage (about 5 secs I think) with a one-liner interview of Serge Remonde. Meanwhile, immediately after, a 5-car relatively minor (no injury) accident was given what seems to me more than 5 minutes of coverage complete with interviews with at least 4 of those involved and a police officer, and different camera shots of the damage (few broken bumpers and headlights)!

    But what choice do we have We see the same kind of reporting in almost every channel we turn to. Amazingly, these channels even win awards such as in the recent CMMA!

    The problem of the country is obviously not in the masses but in the mass media controlled by some in the elite. I think what we need to do is to compete with them (in their own game). How to do that? I do not know yet… We at LeadPhil are already trying to do that but perhaps not as effective as we hoped. But I think if all our resources and thoughts are focused on this problem, then we can start the country moving in the right direction.

  8. Pingback: Why be part of the mad rush? | The Anti Pinoy :)

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