Lethal mix

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JOURNALISTS AND POLITICIANS have always had an uneasy, troubled, and troubling relationship, whether in those countries that are, or which claim to be democracies, and even in dictatorships. But in this country where politics rules both during and between elections, the relationship has sometimes been lethal.

The “Fourth Estate” function of monitoring government often puts competent and honest journalists on a collision course with government officials whether appointed or elected, and with those politicians running for public office during election season. For the dishonest, paid partisanship leads to the same, at times deadly course with his or her patron’s rivals.

Threats and harassments, even murder, are among the consequences of the adversarial relationship that ensues when the journalist takes his job seriously, looks closely into and reports what government and its officials are doing, and/or comments on them. The same perils are generated during an election campaign, whether the journalist reports without bias on those running for office as part of the duty to help voters make intelligent choices, or becomes a paid hack of this or that candidate.

Since 1986 the hostility to the press of local officials, criminal syndicates and other interests in Philippine localities has been amply demonstrated by the harassments, the physical assaults and the killing of journalists for which the country had already gained some notoriety by the time the Ampatuan Massacre occurred in 2009.

That incident, which claimed the lives of 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers, was no less political than most of the murders of journalists since 1986 had been. The journalists and media workers killed had joined the wife, relatives and lawyers of then candidate for Maguindanao governor Esmael Mangudadatu who were on their way to file the latter’s certificate of candidacy.

Their being in Mangudadatu company was interpreted, whether correctly or wrongly, as partisanship. Because journalists are regarded as an annoyance in those localities where concealing wrong-doing is often frustrated by reporters and commentators, it was also an opportunity to silence potential critics as the 2010 elections approached.

Silencing critics and even getting them to attack rivals instead has rarely been a problem for those willing to provide the usual bribes even in Maguindanao. But the Ampatuan Massacre showed that some warlords were so certain of their power they thought they could murder journalists wholesale and get away with it.

As if the relationship between journalists and politicians was not problematic enough, the increasingly common practice of journalists’ becoming politicians while continuing to be journalists, and of politicians doing journalistic work to advance their ambitions, have made journalism practice in localities where violence has been a part of politics for decades an even more volatile enterprise.

Among the more recent victims of violence in the communities are individuals who do journalism work by being block-timers sponsored by local politicians. But in some cases politicians are at the same time also block-timers, and journalists also politicians running for public office.

A politician can be a journalist if he or she is qualified. The same is true of journalists’ being politicians; the only difference is that one needs no qualifications to be one. But because politicians and journalists know only too well that media exposure helps win elections, more and more local politicians are deciding to have their own block-time programs to help advance their candidacies, while journalists running for public office continue to work as journalists while campaigning.

The advantages if not the ethics are obvious, and help explain why, in some Manila tabloids and even broadsheets, some senators, congressmen and even a governor or two write columns, or have been known to have TV and radio programs. At the local level, however, the downside far outweighs the advantages. The mix, or mix-up, leads to the killing of people who, because they do such journalistic work as reporting and commenting on public issues, are correctly listed among those journalists killed in the line of duty in the Philippines even if they’re also politicians.

The persistence of impunity — the exemption from punishment of wrong-doers — has been attributed to the weakness of the justice system especially at the local level, which results in the failed prosecution and even non-prosecution of the killers of journalists.

But the unmerry mix-up of politician-journalists and journalist-politicians is as much a part of the problem. Like everyone else in the Philippine funland, journalists do have their preferences during election periods and are entitled to them. But because of the power inherent in the media, their involvement in the campaigns as paid or “volunteer” partisans, or their being candidates themselves while continuing to report or comment on the elections, often puts them in danger.

Such involvements, particularly at the local level where violence during election season has been a fact of life for decades, have often led to the killing of journalists who’re perceived as either biased for certain candidates, or as using the profession to further their own political ambitions — or who’re simply taken for political rivals who need to be eliminated.

The ensuing conflict of interest — between the journalistic responsibility of enhancing citizen capacity to form opinions and make decisions on the basis of sound information, and the personal interest inherent in running for office — and perceptions of partisanship are not the fundamental causes behind the persistence of the culture of impunity. But they are among the causes.

Murder is not a just response to conflicts of interest or any other professional or ethical lapse on the part of those who do journalistic work. But the reality on the ground, where violence is often the first and last resort in the resolution of political rivalries, is that it’s easier to have someone killed than to bring him to court.

But if this reality has led to the Philippine record of 130 journalists killed since 1986, the same reality contains a partial answer to the problem of impunity. As complex and as difficult are the solutions needed to stop the killing of journalists, there is enough room for those who regard themselves as journalism professionals to help themselves. By expending both effort and care in evaluating the ethical and professional implications of the decisions and choices they are called upon to make before they make them, professionals can avoid the entanglements that are among the reasons that lead to the killing of journalists.

Ethical compliance and professionalism are still the best protection for those who conduct themselves as journalists and true professionals should, rather than as instruments of political interests or as politicians themselves. Journalists can’t be politicians, and neither can politicians be journalists at the same time without compromising either calling, and, as the Philippine experience demonstrates, inviting deadly force.

(BusinessWorld)

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