Casualties of failure

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MEDIA ADVOCACY and journalists’ groups marked World Press Freedom Day last May 3 after a year (May 3, 2010- May 2, 2011) of continuing violence against the media.

Iraq and Afghanistan, where they faced the usual perils of being caught in the crossfire between warring groups, and in some cases targeted for abduction and assassination, were still major areas of conflict journalists had to cover, courtesy of the wars generated by US incursions in those countries. Five journalists were killed in Iraq in 2010, and two in Afghanistan. But the unrest in Egypt, Tunisia. Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya also subjected journalists to the same perils of being killed, threatened, harassed or abducted. Four journalists have so far been killed in Libya, and two in Egypt. Several others were abducted in the crisis-ridden countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

In the Philippines, very little has changed despite the change of administration in July 2010. In what would have been another record were it not for the Ampatuan Massacre, nine journalists were killed in the Philippines from May 3, 2010 to May 2, 2011. Six of the nine killings were work-related.

Before Benigno Aquino III assumed the Presidency, three journalists had been killed for their work within one month — on June 14, 16 and 19, 2010. But six more were killed during the ten months (July 1, 2010- May 2, 2011) that the Aquino government has been in power. Three of the killings from July 1, 2010 to May 2, 2011 were work- related.

The continuing killings emphasize that the culture of lawlessness and impunity that has made violence not only against journalists but other sectors as well so common persists. In the Ampatuan Massacre trial, the outcome of which would be crucial to halting impunity, hearings on the petition for bail of the principal accused are still ongoing, and the trial mired in the technical bog of the Philippine justice system.

But the bad news includes the apparently long half life of those professional and ethical problems that during the last year or so were so egregious as to earn for the media the scorn of that part of the public that’s more or less media and politically literate. Plagiarism was a recurring problem, together with sensationalism, lack of fairness and balance, the absence of contextual information, biased reporting, and corruption.

Rarely mentioned is the link between the persistence of the culture of impunity and the levels of ethical and professional malpractice in the Philippine media. Not that those killed were unethical or unprofessional, as some in both academia and even journalism practice insist, although a few may indeed fall into that category. But years of unprofessional and unethical media performance have predisposed the public to look at the media as of no consequence to their lives, and even as an annoyance.

In the rural communities where most of the killings have taken place, radio is very seldom more than background noise both because of the high decibel levels as well as worthlessness of what passes for commentary that’s usually merged seamlessly with what passes for news. For its emphasis on celebrity news and some of the most idiotic and most mindless variety shows on this side of the Pacific, television has become a medium not to be taken seriously, good for a laugh now and then, but not a medium you can trust for information, and even less for interpretation and analysis. For all its vaunted sobriety, print is not immune to sensationalism, and too often fails to provide the context vital to the public’s understanding of the complex events and issues that confront this country and the rest of planet Earth.

When journalists are killed there is little of the outrage one would expect over the deaths of men and women charged with providing information, analysis and interpretation on matters of common concern. The journalists killed in this country because of their work are casualties of their own profession’s failure to be worthy of Constitutional protection. That protection is premised on the value of free expression and a free press to the processes of democratization. Instead of being protected, uniquely among those countries with pretensions to democracy are journalists routinely killed in this country, as part of the collateral damage of a weak justice system, warlordism, and local conflicts.

But if journalists were as a rule more ethical and more professional, and as a result doing a better job reporting and explaining the social, political and natural environment to the Filipino public, they would be so valued in the communities as to merit the protection of the people themselves and their loss universally lamented.

That is not happening. Together with the weaknesses of the justice system and the privatization of police, military and paramilitary units which assure them that their prosecution will be unlikely if not impossible, the absence of widespread public outrage is a crucial factor in the encouragement, in fact the boldness, of the killers of journalists. That a demonstration against the killing of journalists in which there are more ordinary citizens than media workers has so far not been forthcoming from the communities is one more factor in the making and persistence of the culture of impunity.

The responsibilities of the media in a democracy, or in those countries that would be democracies, hardly need elaboration. But they do need to be restated for the edification of those practitioners who have either forgotten them, or haven’t even the foggiest as to what they are. Those responsibilities are both simple as well as complex. They are as simple as that of reporting what happened accurately and fairly. But they are also as complex as doing so without plagiarizing someone else’s work, sexism, subjecting the powerless to ridicule, being the lap dogs of power, harming the innocent and vulnerable, and further dividing a country already splintered into warring factions. Media ethics, after all, has to do not only with journalists’ lives, welfare and safety, but also with the lives of the people, and the survival of whatever remains of democracy in this troubled land.

Adapted from the author’s presentation at the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2011.

(BusinessWorld)

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