A conference among lawyers and journalists from several Asian countries including the Philippines is concluding in Cebu. Sponsored by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) through the London-based Open Society Institute, it is the second gathering of its kind. The first was held in Hongkong two years ago and examined the legal environments in the varied legal and political contexts in which journalists have to function in Asia.
The Cebu meeting has been looking into, among other topics, the ways in which lawyers and journalists have been cooperating to defend and advance free expression in Asia. Among the cases the conference looked into which has the potential to help besieged journalists cope with state repression elsewhere was the class suit filed by journalists and media organizations against Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo in 2006.
After living through three bad weeks, while on the way to a speaking engagement outside Manila it was my misfortune to be in the company of a local politician whose sentiments were firmly with the current national administration.
The normally one hour trip turned into two and a half hours because, over the protests of the vehicle driver, he insisted that we use a route other than that which most travelers to our destination know has cut travel time by half. That gave him a captive audience of three (there was one other passenger, in addition to the driver), and he made free with his opinions on the 2010 elections, the candidacy of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Philippine politics in general, the inadequacies of the Philippine electorate, and the current state of the media.
Many media organizations are involved in relief operations, and there’s no question that their efforts are helping alleviate the humanitarian crisis the floods and landslides have created.
No one so far has argued that the media should keep solely to their primary responsibility, which is that of reporting and interpreting events of public significance. The crisis is after all of such proportions, and the government capacity to deal with it so limited, that the people and the communities affected need all the help they can get.
Despite the usual lament that they’re too dependent on the government, Filipinos especially the poor don’t run to the government when they need help; they call on the media first, whether as intermediaries with this or that agency, or as themselves the provider of solutions to their problems.
This is markedly evident in broadcasting, where “public service” programs proliferate and rate. The need for these programs is driven by the increasing failure of public institutions to provide the many services that people need, such as police protection from violence, garbage collection, and, as is being demonstrated by the current crisis, rescue and relief.
It’s a convenient excuse government big shots trot out during disasters to placate those who can’t understand why they’re getting no relief from hunger, thirst and cold, whose very lives are under threat during earthquakes, fires, mudslides and floods, or who have actually seen their children, parents and other kin drown in flood waters or burn in a house on fire. Mostly these bosses blame God, declaring that against natural disasters mere human beings contend in vain.
The September 27-28 floods and the misery they once more subjected Filipinos was one more occasion for the same excuse. This time, however, the by now predictable defense was accompanied by the argument, a tad more sophisticated, that global warming is to blame and not the government officials in this part of the planet.