Missing in MTPDP obectives: “compliant media”

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Amending the Constitution to allow foreign ownership of the mass media has been proposed since the Fidel V. Ramos administration. It was again suggested during the Estrada presidency, when it went into the back burner because of the furor created by the Estrada impeachment trial, EDSA 2, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s assumption of the presidency.

It has recently been revived–it turns out as part of the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan (MTPDP) for 2004-2010, which the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) published recently. Among other intentions, the 2004-2010 MTPDP will also allow foreign ownership of other domestic industries from which foreign investors are banned by the 1987 Constitution.

The government’s intention in seeking a Constitutional amendment that would allow the foreign ownership of the mass media is implicit in the economic targets the MTPDP has identified, which include (1) Raising the economic growth rate to 7 percent by 2009; (2) reducing poverty incidence from 28.4 percent of Filipino households to 17.9 percent by 2010; and (3) creating 1.5 million jobs annually. Presumably, government planners believe that opening the mass media industries (television, radio, print and film) to foreign investors would help create the jobs they hope to generate, which would in turn help alleviate poverty, which would then help raise growth rates. But there’s another objective missing from that list: the making of a compliant media.

During the Ramos and Estrada administrations the proposal to open the media to foreign ownership predictably set off a fierce debate in the media and academic communities, with those opposed to it outnumbering those in favor in the mass media community. But the debate assumed that foreign investors would trip over each other to get into the Philippine media market, given the experience of Singapore and Hongkong, where international media organizations maintain their Asian offices.

NEDA Chair Romulo Neri thus declared that opening the media to foreign ownership was “a good idea” because once media operators come to the Philippines… then the Philippines could be a center for media distribution throughout the world because we have very good media people here. We can become a global media player.”

If that sounds like wishful thinking, it’s because it probably is. Singapore and Hongkong are the media centers of Asia, among other reasons because it has the predictable laws, the communication infrastructure and the almost corruption-free environments attractive to foreign investors.

That last condition is especially problematic in the Philippine case. Corruption whether in government or in the private sector is a leading obstacle to Philippine development, and there are so far no indications that it will be successfully minimized within the foreseeable future.

(The Transparency International Corruption Index for 2003 ranks the Philippines 92nd among 120 countries in the levels of corruption foreign businessmen perceive. The Philippines received an average rating of 2.5 [based on a low rating of 1.6 and a high of 3.6] out of a possible 10, earning it the tail-end company of countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia. The year 2004 is hardly likely to be any different.)

Given the cost of corruption not only in terms of added financial outlays but also the delays it creates in transactions with either the government or the private sector, foreign investors are not likely to make a rush for the door marked “Foreign ownership of the mass media” once the Constitution is amended (by 2005, say Mrs. Arroyo and her allies in Congress) unless corruption is minimized, or at least reduced to manageable levels.

There are other obstacles to the realization of Secretary Neri’s hopes. Buying into the local media will entail tremendous costs for foreign investors, who, in the case of television, will have to infuse vast amounts of capital to either new TV stations or to existing ones. The government can put sequestered TV channels 13 and 9—and even throw in the government-owned Channel 4–on the auction block.

Developing any one of these channels enough to make it profitable by credibly competing with industry leaders GMA 7 and ABS-CBN for a share of the vast TV audience is likely to be prohibitively expensive. Of course foreign investors may buy into the industry leaders. Whether the latter will allow them to do so is open to question.

In print the option would be to buy into existing newspapers and other publications, or to publish new ones. While cash-challenged newspapers might welcome the opportunity to pass on some of their financial burdens, they would probably limit foreign equity given the role the media, particularly the newspapers, play in defending certain economic and political interests–since the 1930s a key factor in Philippine mass media ownership, and which is one reason why newspapers in the red keep publishing.

Meanwhile, despite the existing ban on foreign ownership of the mass media, domestic versions of foreign publications do publish anyway, because the local franschise holders are Filipino citizens.

Let us assume, however, that the path to foreign ownership of the mass media is somehow cleared of these problems and obstacles. The more critical question would be the consequences of foreign media ownership to the country.

The communication theoretician Dennis McQuail emphasizes the power of the media to, among other capacities, “repress as well as to liberate, unite as well as fragment society (and) to promote and hold back change.”

Indeed the media cover a wide range of public issues crucial to societies. They can “attract and direct public attention,” “persuade in matters of opinion and belief” “influence behavior,” structure definitions of reality,” “confer status and legitimacy,” and “inform quickly and extensively.”

To do any, most, or all of these, a media organization does not even have to say anything specifically about any public issue. A women’s magazine that does nothing more malevolent than to feature recipes, fashions and gardening, for example, strengthens existing stereotypes and biases about the role of women in society. A newspaper that reports on nothing but crime creates the impression that crime is everywhere. By merely photographing an official from her best side, the same newspaper can indirectly confer legitimacy even if the official cheated in the last elections.

That approach would best suit foreign media owners. To be profitable a foreign-owned media organization in whatever form would most likely avoid being controversial, defining “controversy” in terms as broad as possible. It would limit itself to what would sell, which could mean presenting news in an entertaining way, or even reporting only “the good news” and appealing to the dominant prejudices of the public.

It would not be much different from Philippine television. But while it would not seem to be engaged in any attempt to sway public opinion, it would actually be enhancing certain views by excluding others.

Would that natural tendency for foreign investors to focus on sales rather than the public need to know lead to better media? The case of the Australian media could be educative. The media mogul Rupert Murdoch–who was once interested in investing in the Philippine media–controls 90 percent of the Australian metropolitan press in addition to owning newspapers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere.

Murdoch’s control has not led to the responsible and skilled press important to the development of informed opinion. The great Australian reporter John Pilger has accused the Murdoch papers of suppressing information and printing only distorted “news” reports to support their pro-Iraq war views. Other observers have complained of the dominance of trivia, press releases and public relations manipulation in the Murdoch papers not only in Australia but also in the Britain and the United States.

The dominance of trivia and avoiding critical reporting or comment on the public issues that are of concern in the Philippines would not only be contrary to efforts to make journalism more meaningful in this country. It would also be no less than a Godsend to this as well as future governments.

It would be the realization of every Philippine governments’ dream of eliminating critical media practitioners–and without their having to tamper with Article III Section 4 of the Constitution. (“No law shall be passed abridging freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for the redress of grievances.”) Maybe NEDA should add another objective to the MTPDP thus: “to create a compliant media community that will support the government either through default or through conscientious effort.”

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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