P.I. versus P.R.

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THE DESIGNATION of two cabinet secretaries to oversee the communication operations of the Aquino administration seems to be the result of Mr. Aquino’s attempt to accommodate, appease, calm, or whatever, the factions to which former broadcaster Ricky Carandang and former Transportation undersecretary Herminio Coloma belong.

The existence of these factions among others has been noted in the press community since the campaign for the May 10 elections, and most particularly when former Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay won the vice presidency over Manuel Roxas II. Neither has confirmed or denied it: Carandang, who’s now in charge of putting together Mr. Aquino’s messages, is with the group that supported Roxas, while Coloma, who now oversees the government TV station NBN 4 and the sequestered stations IBC 13 and RPN 9, is with the faction that supported Binay for the vice presidency.

Executive Order No. 4 created the bureaucracies over which Coloma and Carandang would preside. It not only renames the Office of the Press Secretary (it is now the Presidential Communications Operations Office, Coloma’s turf) but also reorganizes it.

EO No. 4 also creates a totally new office for Carandang, the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office. Besides being a mouthful of bureaucratese, the Office is tasked with research functions and the generation of Palace message content.

It may look acceptable to all. But having two Cabinet secretaries for the communication tasks Mr. Aquino and his advisers are contemplating is unprecedented. It should make for interesting sessions before the Commission on Appointments which has to approve Carandang’s and Coloma’s designations.

EO No. 4 does declare that its purpose is to assure transparency, and “appropriate” (in contrast to “full”? ) disclosure of the administration’s, specifically the Executive Branch’s, “policies, activities and achievements”.

As politically correct as the declaration in favor of transparency is — and as thoroughly as the EO seems to have thought out the bureaucratic imperatives of achieving that purpose — what’s missing from the EO is the reorientation the government information and media system has so obviously needed since the demise of the Marcos regime 24 years ago.

Marcos and his media hacks created the complex system of media and communication agencies succeeding governments have inherited and which survives to this day. This system controlled information about government. But it was also intended to undermine the capacity of the few, mostly crony-owned, private media organizations that were allowed to function, to monitor regime policies and activities.

The system was guided by the regime’s superficial interpretation of development communication, of which the idea that development requires collaboration among government, journalists and the media was the most prominent. In practice this meant government censorship over private media, monitoring and even imprisoning critical journalists, and disseminating through the Ministry of Information and the agencies it controlled solely the “good news” about, and the alleged achievements of, the regime. Although it called what it was doing “public information” what it was actually doing was public relations by developing and enhancing a positive regime image through its control over the entire media system.

Some journalists dismiss public information as no more than another name for public relations. But best practice endows public information with a function indispensable in a democracy, and in companionship with the citizen right to access government information. A public information system worthy of the name does provide what EO 4 declares to be the aim of the reorganization of the Office of the Press Secretary: it is to provide information on the policies and acts of the Executive Branch.

On the other hand, the EO’s emphasis on disseminating Presidential “achievements” could lead to the exclusion of “bad news,” from the information the system would disseminate. And yet public information should be about both the bad news about government as well as the good — or about government news and information, period.

It may be too much to expect bureaucrats committed to an administration as well as to keeping their jobs to be so neutral. Which is why one of the imperatives of an authentic public information system is to open it to diverse, rather than just to administration, views. This is unthinkable to the managers of the government information system as it has been handed down from the Marcos dictatorship to its successor governments. But opening it to diverse views by making the media under its control a forum for debate and discourse on public issues, is the only way the system can be of real service to a free citizenry which needs information as complete and as accurate as possible so it can make decisions on public matters.

That it can be done has been demonstrated in other countries. Coloma mentioned the British Broadcasting Corporation in one of his media briefings. The BBC is an example of a broadcasting organization devoted to public information, or public service information.

Coloma vowed to make the programming of the government-owned NBN-4 TV as relevant as that of the BBC, but without saying how that can be done. It certainly can’t be done by saying it alone, but by recognizing that NBN-4’s first problem is its lack of independence from every administration since Marcos, as a result of which it serves as the public relations arm of current administrations rather than providing public information. As a scan of its performance during the last election campaign will show, this has resulted in unprofessional, biased broadcasting.

What’s needed to assure NBN-4 autonomy, to start with, is an independent source of funding similar to that of the BBC, which is primarily funded by an annual television-license fee paid by every household and organization that record and/or receive television broadcasts. Creating a similar funding source will require legislation, the details of which the legal geniuses of the Aquino government can hammer out. Once such funding is assured, the reorientation, reorganization and professionalization of NBN-4 should follow naturally, and with it, its capacity to develop and air the relevant programs Coloma mentioned. That would be an achievement Coloma and company can really crow about.

(BusinessWorld)

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