Police, media 'repeat' 2010 Luneta hostage crisis mistake in Cubao terror drill

MANILA, Philippines – What was supposed to be a harmless simulation of a terror attack concluded into a throwback of a dark chapter in Philippine police history.

The Quezon City Police District (QCPD) held on Thursday, April 12, a terror attack simulation in the middle of transportation hub Cubao. The simulation comprised of an armed encounter, a bomb explosion, and a hostage-taking crisis perpetrated by two suspects.

For media coverage, reporters and cameramen were told to cover from an area cordoned off by a thin alloy rope. Police alerted media that fake bombs would also be detonated.

The simulation reached its climax when the imagined perpetrator "Suspect B" made his last stand, holding hostage a bus with a dozen of passengers inside. Suspect B angrily refused to compromise with cops.

Amping up the intensity, the suspect put a choke hold on a female hostage with his left arm. Then with his right hand, pressed the muzzle of his pistol to the temple of the hostage.

Simulated or not, it was a scene too dramatic to miss for broadcast for some cameramen. Two jumped over the thin cordon and ran to the "hostage negotiation."

The breach caused other cameramen and photographers to also do the same. 

By the time police were able to respond, a swarm of camera shooters had already surrounded the police negotiators, well within the aim of the imagined terrorist suspect.

An old mistake: Incoming Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director Oscar Albayalde was dismayed by the breach by media.  He said during the post-drill briefing that if it had been a real hostage-taking incident and media personnel disobeyed the guidance of law enforcers, the results would have been similar to the 2010 Luneta hostage-taking crisis that left 8 Hong Kong tourists dead.

"If that were true, the safety of the media would have been compromised, and of course, the operation itself," Albayalde said in a mix of English and Filipino.

"The safety of the media practitioners who went near because the suspect was armed and dangerous, then the operation would have been compromised if there was a television inside just like what happened in Luneta," Albayalde added.

Local news outfits took a lot flak from their coverage in that 2010 incident after they broadcast live the rescue operation of the hostaged bus, and the arrest of the brother of hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza. 

The relentless coverage led to trouble as the bus Mendoza boarded had a television inside, and this was tuned in to the live news coverage of the incident. It was believed that watching the news of his brother's arrest triggered Mendoza to go on a shooting spree. 

"At about 7:15 pm, a policeman explicitly asked TV reporters not to cover live the arrest of Mendoza’s brother, Gregorio. Gregorio, who was also a policeman, was accused of being an accessory to the crime his brother was committing," the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) wrote months after the controversial hostage-taking.

"Despite the policeman’s pleas and his colleagues’ attempts to prevent the media from covering the arrest, all the television stations continued covering it live," CMFR added.

Who's to blame? In the end, Albayalde said police should have briefed the media thoroughly and deployed enough cops to guard overzealous media men. 

"They all wanted a good story. Kaya talagang napaka-importante yung role ng ating mga kaibigan sa media hindi natin talaga natin maiwasan 'yan kung talagang makakasingit, sisingit. So it's really very important doon sa umpisa pa lang meron tayong napansin ko kaagad 'yun na walang nagcocontrol sa ating media," Albayalde said.

(The role of our friends from the media is really important so we really cannot control those who would slip past police lines if given the chance. I noticed from the start that there weren't enough policemen controlling our media personnel.) – Rappler.com

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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