An idea whose time has not come

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Former University of the Philippines President Francisco Nemenzo has high hopes for the mass media: he says they can help turn the Philippine situation around. Nemenzo was delivering his centennial lecture at UP, which celebrates the 100th year of its founding this year.

Most Filipinos should be familiar with the situation Nemenzo referred to, because they’re living it. Ruled by a political and economic elite whose greed knows no bounds (despite efforts to “moderate” it), Philippine society is mired in poverty, injustice, and mass misery, of which political instability has been a continuing sign.

A contentious lot whose political education is currently in its second century, Filipinos should by now know why they have been so afflicted. There was the succession of colonial regimes to begin with, during which the inhabitants of these happy isles were taught the basics of greed and corruption as well as political wheeling and dealing, followed by governments after “independence” distinguishable from each other only by the degree of their corruption, inefficiency and violence.

The Marcos regime was admittedly exceptional — in the gall with which it dismantled the window dressings of democracy and tried to justify one-man rule, its systematic assault on human rights, and its escalation of the costs of corruption.

The Arroyo regime has its own unique traits. It’s threatening to outdo the Marcos period in corruption, violence and sheer lawlessness. And like the Marcos regime, it too has added to the political class’ putrid lore.

The Marcos gang may have discovered that so fragile are the institutions of liberal democracy it needed only a martial law proclamation (and US support) to plunge the country into dictatorship. But the Arroyo mob has discovered something even weightier: creating a dictatorship doesn’t even need a declaration.

Given the weaknesses of the Philippine constitutional order, once in power any one can simply do what he or she pleases until challenged, in which case one can always buy off witnesses or silence them somehow, often through the equally corrupt justice system. In all other cases there’s the police and the military that one can sic on the dissenting or conscience-stricken.

What’s media’s role in all this? Nemenzo reiterates what every student of the media knows: “The impact of the media on the people’s consciousness and their sense of values is profound and enduring.”

Nemenzo goes on to note something media advocacy groups like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (www.cmfr.com.ph) have also pointed out: that mass media reporting, comment and analysis have been improving, among other reasons through the efforts of the media themselves as well as media advocacy groups.

But in television particularly, the better programs are aired via cable and/or outside prime time hours, the main reason being these programs’ relatively low ratings, and, therefore, limited revenue-earning capacity. This perpetuates already limited audience access. In print the same access limits are practically assured by the broadsheets’ use of the English language, and their concern for revenues and over dwindling readerships. (Anxiety over the latter has compelled some broadsheets to pander to perceived audience preferences for entertainment and gossip.)

Nemenzo’s observations are valid enough. But his proposed solutions may not be, to those media practitioners and media advocacy groups that see press freedom as the key to the enhancement of the media’s capacity to provide Filipinos the information they need not only to understand the country’s situation, but also to act on it.

Nemenzo proposes state subsidies and content regulation of the media, along the lines of state subsidy and regulation of private schools. Nemenzo suggests that the regulatory power over the media he’s proposing should be vested in an independent board made up of representatives of professional journalists, academics and consumer cooperatives.

While that seems sound, the independence of such a board would depend on who will appoint its membership and to what extent the qualifications of its members would be the deciding factors in their appointments. Philippine experience with “independent,” even “constitutional” agencies is not encouraging. The independence of the Commission on Elections, for example, has been fatally compromised by the appointing power since the Marcos period.

Nemenzo being a Marxist (he has described himself as an “unrepentant” one), the dismantling of the present State might have been the key condition for his proposal, although he doesn’t say so. It would make better sense.

Its implementation under existing conditions — i.e., with the present State intact — can only lead to the demise of press freedom, which Philippine governments, dominating the State through their coercive powers, have tried to undermine, the worst offender being the current regime. That freedom, despite constitutional protection, has in fact come under serious and varied threats from the Arroyo government.

Media organizations and advocacy groups have been defending press freedom through various means including court suits. Accepting government regulation would not only be suicidal for the media. It would also reverse the progress the media have made in terms of better reporting, comment and analysis over the last five years, and devastate whatever’s left of Philippine democracy. It’s an idea whose time has not yet come.

(BusinessWorld)

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