Heralds of the failing state

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THEY’RE known as “public service programs” and have been in Philippine radio for decades, particularly after 1986, when the laws restricting the media were lifted. But they have proliferated in recent years, and every radio station includes at least one example in its programming, although that one may run several hours, in addition to the regular news and commentary programs.

The template is straightforward. The program host accepts complaints from listeners through phone calls and text messages as well as personal visits to the station, puts his phone conversations on the air, reads text messages and interviews complainants.

The grievances could include being duped in a private transaction that went sour, fired by an abusive employer, ignored or given the run around in a government office, and wronged by an abusive policeman. Once armed with the details of the complaint, the host either calls the government office involved, or makes arrangements to confront the wrong doer and even to cause his arrest, during which he’s usually present, and which is duly recorded in sound and video.

In one episode of a popular program that runs for several hours in the afternoon, the host interviewed a construction worker who had lost his job, and for P4,000, pawned his motorcycle to a neighbor, who, he complained, lent the motorcycle to someone who in turn “pawned” it to someone else. The worker’s neighbor was demanding P60,000 to return the motorcycle, which was still in the hands of the last person to whom it had been pawned. The complainant named all three people involved. The host instructed an assistant to call the police and to arrange for the arrest of the man holding the motorcycle, during which both he and the complainant would be present. The arrest would of course be recorded.

The host interviewed next a taxi driver who said he’d been pulled over by a policeman for ignoring a red light. He admitted the offense, but complained that the policeman, after confiscating his license, was angling for a bribe, which he said was obvious from the fact that he (the policeman) wanted him (the taxi driver) to get out of his cab and to talk to him in the shadows of a pedestrian underpass. When he did not comply, the policeman did not write him a traffic ticket, but refused to return his license.

The host managed to somehow call the policeman and to ask him if he was authorized to apprehend traffic law violators, since that task is primarily the responsibility of metro Manila traffic enforcers. At the same time, his assistant had managed to call the policeman’s immediate superior, a police captain. The host gave the policeman an ultimatum: return the cab driver’s license or else. The “or else” part was no idle threat: he proceeded to extract from the policeman’s superior a promise to discipline him unless he complied, at one point berating the captain for hesitating to order the policeman, while on the air, to return the license.

The two cases took all of one hour to air. Both were demonstrations not only of the appalling state of law enforcement, the desperate straits of the poor, and the absence of plain civility in much of Philippine society. It was also a display of media power.

To anyone whose radio was tuned in to the program, the host’s action in both the worker’s and taxi driver’s cases would be something to applaud, leading him or her to thank “the media” for helping curb the abuses so rampant in Philippine society and bringing its most abusive elements to account.

Public service programs over Philippine radio do serve what has become an urgent need to curb abuses so egregious they defy explanation. They also help justify the need for a free press. (Without the media, a listener observed, abusive officials would get away with it.) In addition, these programs either prod government agencies to provide the citizenry the service they’re entitled to but seldom get (e.g., being served promptly at the local office of the Social Security System), or provide the service themselves (e.g., getting the complainant taxi driver’s license back).

The downside of the media’s assuming roles government institutions are supposed to be playing in behalf of a sane, safe and orderly society is not only the encouragement of media arrogance and a sense of entitlement.

The media practitioners killed on November 23, 2009 assumed themselves immune from harm. Others presume they’re entitled to various perks, including the usual envelope and the deference of government officials and of the public as a whole. In addition there’s the tendency on the part of many media practitioners, especially the untrained, to take on such dubious roles as the entrapment of criminal suspects, and other functions way beyond their mandate of providing information and commentary.

But the proliferation and popularity of these programs speaks for itself. It is the direct result of the decline or outright failure of the institutions of Philippine governance, particularly of the police and judicial system — some would say of the entire justice system.

The killing of journalists, for example, has continued because of the culture of impunity — the police and judiciary failure to identify, investigate and prosecute the killers that’s based on the weaknesses of the justice system particularly at the community level. That failure has compelled private intervention in the form of journalist and media advocacy groups’ having to go on fact-finding missions and to hire private prosecutors, not only in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre, but in numerous other cases as well.

What’s happening in the Philippine media echoes the privatization of functions that are the government’s responsibility but which it is unable to perform because of the failure of its institutions. That failure has been evident for decades in, for example, such private initiatives as the development of more and more gated communities in response to runaway criminality; the hiring of private garbage collecting companies; the institution of “the little divorce” and co-habitation without the benefit of either law or clergy, etc. Public service programs are part of the same environment of government failure. They are heralds of the failing state.

(BusinessWorld)

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