Photojournalist held at provincial governor’s house

CMFR/PHILIPPINES – A photojournalist was detained and interrogated at the house of Iloilo Gov. Niel Tupas Sr. last 16 October 2009 for “taking photos of the house without permission.” Iloilo is a province approximately 467 kilometers from Manila.

Photojournalist Tara Yap was checking the construction at the Tupas family’s house in Jaro, Iloilo City “as part of an investigative report on the lifestyle of public officials.” Yap works for the Iloilo newspaper The Daily Guardian. She also a correspondent for the Agence France Presse and the broadsheet Manila Bulletin.

In a 20 October 2009 phone interview with the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Yap said she was about to leave when she saw no activity at the house but two men, who later turned out to be Tupas’ employees, stopped her. She was in a taxi approximately 150 feet from the gate.

“They told me to get out and they searched my belongings,” she said in a 20 October interview. Yap said she identified herself as a journalist and even explained her presence there. She also showed the content of her camera to prove that she had not taken any photos.

The men confiscated Yap’s two mobile phones and digital camera and escorted her into the mansion. She was held for 20 minutes. Yap said in the phone interview that she had to follow the order because she didn’t know what they would do to her if she refused.

Nielette “Tweety” Tupas-Balleza, daughter of and an executive assistant to the governor, allegedly also talked to Yap over one of the employees’ phone. Balleza accused her of taking photos showing government-owned trucks being used at the Tupases’ other house in Banate town. Yap denied it, explaining that her camera, a Canon 350D, does not have video capabilities. (The Guardian explained in a news report that the video and photos of Tupas’s property in Banate town was given to it by a source. Yap’s photos of the Banate house taken during the verification of the source’s information were never published.)

She was only released after talking to a certain Joenar Pueblo from the provincial legal office who “acknowledged that the act was in line with investigative journalism,” she said in her report to the police.

Rey De Ramas, the caretaker of the Tupas mansion, reported Yap to the Jaro police station 3, accusing her of unjust vexation and invasion of privacy.

Provincial Administrator Manuel “Boy” Mejorada said Yap’s “suspicious” acts (being in a taxi while taking photos or video) prompted the actions of the employees.

“…nagduda at nabahala ang mga tauhan ng gobernador sa ginawa ng photojournalist na si Tara Yap dahilan kung kaya’t isinailalim ito sa interogasyon (The Governor’s personnel interrogated Tara Yap because they were worried and suspicious of what Tara Yap was doing),” Bombo Radyo reported, based on an interview with Mejorada.

Mejorada also alleged that Yap was a “spy” sent by their political rival. In his blog, Mejorada said that “…Tara Yap was taking video footage upon orders of Congressman Ferjenel Biron to be exhibited as proof to his accusation that Governor Tupas had amassed ‘unexplained wealth’ during his incumbency as provincial chief executive.”

Yap denied the allegation that she was sent by Rep. Biron. “If I’m a spy why was I wearing an ID (press identification card),” Yap said.

“On my part, there was no malice. I was only doing my job…,” she said in a 20 October 2009 e-mail to CMFR.  Yap said she will sue Tupas and his men for illegally detaining her.


Statement of the Iloilo chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on the incident involving photojournalist Tara Yap

By the Executive Committee, NUJP-Iloilo
October 20, 2009

The recent incident involving Iloilo photojournalist Tara Yap of The Daily Guardian has raised issues about press freedom and ethics which the Iloilo chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) would like to address and respond to through this statement.

Exercising the freedom of the Press and the right to information of the public is a constant balancing act between the right to gather information and to report this to the public, on the one hand, and the right of privacy of the subjects of news reports, on the other.

While the right to press freedom is a constitutionally guaranteed right, it has limitations the same way that the right to privacy of an individual or individuals can be subsumed if public interest warrants.

Iloilo Governor Niel Tupas Sr. and his family are public figures by virtue of their being politicians and as part of a political clan. Naturally, they are subjects of news coverage and reports.

Taking photographs or video footage of the governor’s residence by the media is part of the information gathering/documentation of journalists. No permission is required unless the photojournalist enters the private property of the governor’s family.

Normally, journalists need to clearly identify themselves as members of the media and their purpose in news gathering, taking pictures and interviewing. This is to afford fairness to the news subjects that the information being gathered will be used for journalism purposes.

But the use of clandestine techniques and devices like not divulging the identities of journalists and the use of hidden cameras to gather information are not necessarily unethical and in fact have been used by news organizations and some journalists in pursuit of certain kind of stories, especially investigative reports, or when the information sought is difficult to obtain through the usual means.

The taking of photographs or videos of the governor’s house or the attempt to do this by Ms Yap or any other journalist is, therefore, acceptable even without permission.

We, however, do not encourage these techniques and devices because these might intrude on the privacy of news subjects and at the same time put unnecessary risks on the journalist. As a general rule, journalists should gather information without using these techniques and devices and only resort to these means if there is no other way to get the information and if this is warranted by the significance of the story.

But if Ms Yap trespassed on private property while taking or attempting to take photos or video shots, then the Tupas family has every right to seek redress in the appropriate forum and manner.

There are, however, conflicting claims on whether Ms Yap entered the compound and trespassed on privately owned property or not.

If her claim that she did not enter the compound is true, then there was no need for her to identify herself.

If she was accosted outside the compound and brought in by the caretakers against her will, then that placed her in very serious risk and was a clear violation of her rights.

If Ms Yap entered the compound without permission, we understand the actions of the employees of the Tupas family in making her wait inside the compound while verifying her identity after they saw her inside the taxi with a camera, unaware of her identity and purpose.

But this should not be to the point of intimidating her.

We believe that the confiscation of Ms Yap’s two cellphones and camera (even if these were returned to her later) and the search conducted on her bag were uncalled for especially since she had already identified herself as a photojournalist.

Even law enforcers cannot do this except with the necessary search warrants or when they have enough proof to investigate or apprehend a person.

The allegations that Ms Yap’s actions and motivations are other than journalism purposes are allegations that we will not dwell on and is left to the parties involved to prove or disprove. But even if this is true, this does not justify the violation of her rights.

In the aftermath of this incident, we call on our colleagues to uphold the highest ethical standards possible especially with the coming election period and to remain independent, fair and balance.

We should uphold these basic ethical principles to be worthy to be called journalists.

The media and journalists should not allow themselves to be used as means of politicians to further their political agenda or to malign political opponents.

We particularly deplore the wanton abuse of the airwaves by block-timers paid by politicians whose sole purpose is to promote their clients or demolish the adversaries of their patrons.

We are alarmed that this early and months before the election season, programs specializing on personal attacks or praise for or against politicians already proliferate.

This is a slap on journalism and legitimate journalists and this kind of block-timers should harbor no illusion that we consider them as journalists. They are nothing but paid hacks.

Let us be reminded with and abide by our ethical code:

The Journalist’s Code of Ethics

I shall scrupulously report and interpret the news, taking care not to suppress essential facts nor to distort the truth by omission or improper emphasis. I recognize the duty to air the other side and the duty to correct substantive errors promptly.

I shall not violate confidential information on material given me in the exercise of my calling.

I shall resort only to fair and honest methods in my effort to obtain news, photographs and/or documents, and shall properly identify myself as a representative of the press when obtaining any personal interview intended for publication.

I shall refrain from writing reports that will adversely affect a private reputation unless the public interest justifies it. At the same time, I shall fight vigorously for public access to information.

I shall not let personal motives or interests influence me in the performance of my duties, nor shall I accept or offer any present, gift or other consideration of a nature that may cast doubt on my professional integrity.

I shall not commit any act of plagiarism.

I shall not, in any manner, ridicule, cast aspersions on, or degrade any person by reason of sex, creed, religious belief, political conviction, cultural and ethnic origin.

I shall presume persons accused of crime of being innocent until proven otherwise. I shall exercise caution in publishing names of minors and women involved in criminal cases so that they may not unjustly lose their standing in society.

I shall not take unfair advantage of a fellow journalist.

I shall accept only such tasks as are compatible with the integrity and dignity of my profession, invoking the “conscience clause” when duties imposed on me conflict with the voice of my conscience.

I shall conduct myself in public or while performing my duties as journalist in such manner as to maintain the dignity of my profession. When in doubt, decency should be my watchword.

(This Journalist’s Code of Ethics was unanimously adopted during the founding congress of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines on July 30, 1988.)