May 3 was proclaimed in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly as World Press Freedom Day on the recommendation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It has since been celebrated every year by journalists’ and media groups in over 100 countries, with UNESCO leading the commemoration.
World Press Freedom Day, says UNESCO, provides an opportunity “to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence, and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.” The theme of the celebration this year is “Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality and Media Safety in the Digital Age.”
The theme resonates with significance in the Philippines, where the killing of journalists and media workers is still the main threat to media freedom and the autonomy of journalists. The killings—two journalists have so far been killed “in the line of duty” this year, raising the number killed since 1986 to 147—has diminished the capacity of the press, especially in the rural communities, to gather, process and disseminate the reports, commentaries and analyses the public needs to understand and act on such vital issues as human rights, conflict, war and peace, national development, and gender equality.
As problematic to media independence, however, is the absence in some media organizations of job security for journalists and media workers. Ironically, a few days before Press Freedom Day 2015, some 200 media workers were dismissed nationwide by the TV network giant GMA-7. Adding to the irony was the reality that as far as better reporting goes, Philippine journalism is still plagued by a number of barriers to it, among them the persistence of bias and inaccuracy.
Journalistic independence is the necessary condition for practitioners to discharge their public duty, but the killings have made it exceedingly problematic not only by instilling the fear of harassment and murder among the ranks, but even more urgently, by also reducing the number of voices necessary in meaningful public discourse.
The arbitrary dismissal of practitioners, however, is equally dangerous to independent practice. Uncertainty over whether one will still have a job next year—or even next month—creates among practitioners a tendency towards self-censorship and for tweaking their reporting in a way that they think would prevent their being fired—although even doing one’s job well is no guarantee of employment security.
Two journalists have so far been killed for their work in 2015. Both occurred in the context of the same impunity that has prevented the prosecution of hundreds of killers of journalists and media workers and the masterminds behind them. Impunity—exemption from punishment—has been the main reason why the killings are continuing. The Philippines has for years occupied a leading place in the impunity watch lists of several press freedom groups, among them the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), Article XIX, and the International Free Expression Exchange (IFex). But the Philippines was also recently named by the World Impunity Index of the Impunity and Justice Research Center of the University of the Americas of Mexico as the country with the worst record among 59 countries in prosecuting and penalizing wrongdoers.
In both the 147 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986 and in the Ampatuan Massacre trial have the weaknesses of the Philippine justice system been obvious. Only a few hired killers have been convicted rather than the masterminds, some of whom are local government, police and military officials. The November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre itself was carried out by private armies in the pay of warlords, whose power and wealth have enabled them to silence witnesses and to hire lawyers adept in manipulating the justice system.
But while the continuing killings have undermined the Constitutional protection of press freedom, journalistic independence has also been under threat from the commercial character of the Philippine media system. Because the dominant media organizations are controlled by powerful political and economic interests, media independence has been compromised by the focus on profit-making as well as by these media organizations’ functioning in the defense and enhancement of owner interests. Not only are these twin preferences evident in the focus on celebrity news, trivia and sensationalism; they are equally clear in, among others, the practice of making journalists advertising solicitors as well as the absence, in certain media organizations, of job security. While threats from government have for decades been the main focus of press and media community concerns over press freedom, the pronounced emphasis on the commercial character of the media as money-making enterprises—equally evident across much of Southeast Asia—has attracted scant attention.
The public should be equally concerned over such professional and ethical lapses as bias and inaccuracy. On April 29, a Manila broadsheet headlined the execution of OFW Mary Jane Veloso even as she was being granted a reprieve in Indonesia. The same broadsheet dignified what amounted to an incitement to violence from the usual clueless denizens of social media—who think access to a computer a license to harm others—by opening its pages to the tasteless hashtag “Firing Squad for Celia Veloso.” (Celia Veloso is the articulate and understandably outraged mother of Mary Jane Veloso.)
Press and media independence, their capacity to provide the public the information it needs, and the safety of journalists are joined in the Philippines. The State has the responsibility of assuring the safety of all citizens. But the press and media community itself has the responsibility of strengthening its own independence and assuring the safety of practitoners by encouraging observance their own ethical and professional standards, which include such obvious mandates as accuracy and humaneness. (The latter demands that the press do no harm.)
Not only on May 3rd, or this year alone, but throughout the year, should journalists and media workers strive to strengthen their resolve to do better despite admittedly difficult circumstances. They should continue to monitor the Ampatuan Massacre trial towards hastening not only its course to its credible conclusion. But they also need to combat the inequalities in both the media and in Philippine society which have given birth to, and continue to assure, the persistence of impunity.
There should be no hindrance to the media organizations’ putting their own houses in order even as they address these concerns. Freedom after all has its price. It includes the defense of one’s autonomy, and a sincere commitment to fairness, accuracy, and the duty not to do harm in reporting.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from CMFR