The face of a victim

“I am in a state of confusion this morning; I don’t know what is happening to me.  Too much, too harsh.  I think there’s only one victim in this case – me.”  That was Congressman Romeo Jalosjos, handcuffed, head slightly bowed, soulful eyes seeking human contact, emitting great soundbites for the early evening news.  Is that the face of a child-abuser or that of a victim of political intrigue?

“I would like to ask him (Jalosjos) not to spin all kinds of tales.  He is not the victim here.  I am the victim.  He should stop acting dramatically.”  That was the 11-year-old schoolgirl – voice soft but unwavering in her first video interview – reacting to the public statements of the politician she has charged with 2 counts of statutory rape and 12 counts of acts of lasciviousness.  Is that the face of an abused child or that of a conscious accomplice in a mature game of political combat?

It has come to this, whether we like it or not – the public is wittingly or unwittingly being led to judge guilt and innocence on the basis of what it sees or hears on television.  No one who has avidly followed the saga of Congressman Jalosjos, from the time he retreated to Dakak and went fishing in Bagac to the time the Presidential Security Guard brought him in in handcuffs, can possibly fail to notice how the man has suddenly become articulate and available to media.

He knows, or his advisers know, that in cases like this, where credibility counts for much, the presentation of self could spell the difference between acquittal and conviction.  It is a perilous game, full of opportunities and booby traps, but with the guidance of imagemakers, it can yield for its player a lot of sympathy or at least diminished public hostility.

Unfortunately, rape victims cannot play this game with equal agility. While the accused can and will plead innocence, the rape victim, paradoxically, suffers the shame of her victimization.  A curious public would stare at her — often wondering what it is about her that might have contributed to her misfortune.  Or, in the case of rape survivor, 42-year-old university-educated Karen Vertido — wondering  how a woman her age and stature could have possibly failed to protect herself.

It is for this reason that the faces, and sometimes the names, of rape victims have been shielded from media.  Care is especially taken in the case of child victims, who may not have the psychological fortitude to respond to the taunting of neighbors and classmates.  But the discomfort felt in public is something that is shared by all victims of sex crimes regardless of age.

Karen has had to relocate her entire family from Davao, where the rape happened, to Manila where she could claim some degree of anonymity.   It is in deference to this need for a little privacy that in a recent TV interview with her, I offered to talk to her without showing her face.  In the footage we used for the pre-taped portion of the program, we took the precaution of digitizing or blurring her face even when we were using photos that had previously appeared in the newspapers.

“But what difference will it make now,” she sadly told me before the show.  “My photograph has been seen by many readers, and some programs have openly shown my face.”  For her, it was a price she was willing to pay just so her case would not be completely shelved in the public mind, as the media turn their attention to more celebrated cases.

There is something about the public memory that attaches itself more easily to faces than to events.  A truism that we are often reminded of in media is that issues and causes are abstract; they are quickly forgotten unless they acquire a face.   I suppose it is this same belief that recently persuaded the Department of Social Welfare and Development, standing as the guardian of the girl in the Jalosjos case, to permit media to get a glimpse of the victim and to hear her say something about the experience she is going through.

But one will immediately notice the extreme reluctance of the DSWD in making this concession.  Instead of allowing her to be filmed by the networks and grilled by reporters, the DSWD used its own camera, showed only half of the girl’s face as she spoke, and the interview was done by a person she was comfortable with.

Before this, the public’s acquaintance with the victim had been limited to scant footage of a girl huddled behind lawyer Katrina Legarda, her face totally concealed by a jacket.  In contrast, Congressman Jalosjos holds almost daily press conferences and TV interviews inside prison, using every opportunity to ask the public whether anyone in his position deserved to be disgraced like this.  Whatever convictions one may retain from such fleeting impressions, Congressman Jalosjos certainly cuts a more sympathetic figure on the screen than Mayor Sanchez.

It is a huge dilemma for the media.  They had performed a crucial role in pressuring the law enforcement authorities to serve the warrant of arrest against the Zamboanga del Norte lawmaker.  Today they find themselves in the problematic role of supplying images which the public uses to decide who is telling the truth.  As it is not the function of media people to play judge, they have no choice – if they are to remain true to their profession — but to be self-critical and judicious in the construction of these images.


Comments to <>