Frankenpols

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POLITICIANS ARE at least partly the creations of the mass media, which in many cases present to the public only their versions of the person rather than the person himself.

These Frankenpols the media recklessly cobble together out of their often limited perceptions, expectations and biases, the way Victor Frankenstein of the Mary Shelley novel put an artificial being together out of the brains of one dead man and the torso of another. The most well-known example of the Philippine media’s creations is Joseph Estrada, whose movie role as advocate and avenger of the poor too many voters thought was the authentic expression of his real-life persona.

But it’s not just the movies that create the artificial faces politicians present to the public. The blame also goes to print and broadcasting, particularly to the long reach of television, exposure to which provides even the most idiotic among those running for office the opportunity to sound and look like college professors, or to make even those with authoritarian records sound and look like democratic activists.

In the aftermath of the 1986 EDSA mutiny, thanks to those sectors of the press and media breathless before men in uniform, Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan was transformed from just another military bureaucrat whose bayonets had kept Ferdinand Marcos in power, into an anti-dictatorship maven on whose every word the media hung on to, even while he was plotting one failed coup after another against the Corazon Aquino administration. He has since been transformed into a senator, for which event the media must accept substantial responsibility.

Honasan’s patron Juan Ponce Enrile has similarly morphed: from Ferdinand Marcos’ chief martial law enforcer into an elder statesman who couldn’t and wouldn’t harm a fly. Again it’s thanks to the media, which, during the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, put him on the air and in print on a daily basis as he pontificated on this or that point of law for over four months and even after.

And then there’s Benigno Aquino III, who, despite a mediocre record in Congress, was transformed into the country’s sole hope for change through the efforts of his friends in print and broadcast media. Most of them may have been totally clueless about the ethical imperative of avoiding conflicts of interest during the 2010 campaign, but they were, anyway, promptly appointed to various offices once Aquino had captured Malacanang. Aquino has since had the gall to preach to the press about journalism ethics.

After EDSA, when free elections were (supposedly) restored, politicians scrambled for media exposure as it became more and more evident that it was becoming the most crucial factor in the outcome of elections.

The advantage of the moneyed over their rivals was most evident in their capacity to pay for political advertising. Less evident was their edge in exposure via coverage in the news and public affairs programs particularly in radio. It became even more of an advantage when political advertising was banned from 1988 to 2000.

The 2001 Fair Elections Act lifted the ban on political advertising. But the practice of some radio stations of coverage-for-a-fee (you pay, we cover you) survives to this day as an added advantage of the moneyed over those with limited finances.

Without minimizing the issue of media corruption, what all this means is that practically every politician, in some cases even those running for barangay captain and other lowly posts, at least partly owes his or her election to the mass media.

One would assume that once elected, politicians would value the role the press and media play in helping transform morons into PhDs and the most vicious crooks into saints. One would be wrong. Something in Filipino politicians’ DNAs—or in their common interests—makes them almost uniformly hostile to the press and media once they’re in office.

That hostility is evident in the antipathy of Congress for a Freedom of Information act, and its refusal to even review, despite the decades-long campaign for the decriminalization of libel, the draconian libel law under the provisions of which conviction means a prison term of from six months to four years.

In stark contrast is Congressional and Malacanang enthusiasm for, and hasty approval of, the Data Privacy and Anti -Cyber Crime Prevention Acts. Their sponsors claim these acts are not anti-press and media. But the reality is that the first makes access to information even more problematic than it is today, while the second makes the penalty for libel even more excessive and on the same level as the penalty for homicide. Both are not only anti-media and anti-press freedom; they are also against free expression.

While some congressmen have declared support for a Freedom of Information act, they have also sought the inclusion of a Right of Reply rider in one, which would take away with the left hand what such an act would pretend to grant with the right.

Meanwhile, Honasan—the same Honasan who led all those coup attempts against Corazon Aquino from 1988 to 1990 to restore authoritarian rule—has proposed the decriminalization of libel, but in exchange for which he has also proposed the creation of a government licensing system for journalism practitioners.

The Honasan proposal is disingenuously clever. It is also particularly dangerous. Like his fellows in Congress, Honasan would take away what he would pretend to grant, except that licensing would actually be a “cure” worse than the disease of libel as a criminal offense.

Government licensing would endow some of the worst politicians on this planet with the power to decide who may or may not engage in journalism practice. It’s a power they will almost certainly exercise on the basis of which journalists are critical and which are not.

Not only would licensing infringe on press freedom and free expression. Even more critically would it degrade democratic discourse by allowing only some journalists to practice while preventing others from reporting and commenting on what’s happening. In practical terms, such a system would restore a form of State regulation similar to what was in place during the martial law period.

Honasan’s public face as a respectable and responsible official, like that of the congressmen who’re so anti-press and media they haven’t even had the decency to look into the self-regulatory systems in place in print (where national and regional press councils and media monitoring publications are engaged in evaluating press performance) and broadcasting (where the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster sa Pilipinas [KBP] regulates radio and TV practice), is the media’s creation and responsibility. What we’re witnessing as the politicians either pretend to address press and media concerns, or else studiously avoid them, is a real-life replication of Frankenstein’s disastrous attempt at creation in which the monster he fashioned turned against him.

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