People’s Issues and Investigative Journalism

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My assignment this afternoon is investigative journalism and people’s issues. Everyone of us here knows what the standards of investigative journalism are, and are familiar with that form. I think what we need is a framework from which to appreciate what it can do for this country. I will therefore start with a review of journalism’s role in society, and more specifically its responsibility, or what I think should be its responsibility, in a society like ours–or to be more precise, in a society in perpetual crisis, where the most fundamental issues of governance, social justice and sovereignty have been begging for solutions for centuries. From there I hope I can go on to the subject assigned to me this afternoon.

Various human enterprises share with journalism the role of attempting to explain a complex, problematic and perplexing world. In this attempt journalism’s special function is to provide information, and beyond that–but as a consequence of that function–to help men and women interpret what’s happening around them so they can make decisions about important issues, and when necessary, act on them.

Journalism is thus ideally a liberating and empowering undertaking, just as science and literature can be. But like science and literature, it too can be enslaving. It can liberate human consciousness by providing information that is significant, accurate and complete, but it can also help harden what 200 years ago the poet William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles” through information that’s trivial, inaccurate, misleading, or even false, and which helps create a consciousness captive to ignorance.

In the Philippines journalism has been, since La Solidaridad, an arena of contention between the forces of liberation and change and the forces of captivity and stagnation. For over a hundred years this confrontation has continued in Philippine journalism, taking various forms as the 300-year-old crisis of Philippine society is played out like an endless drama, and each assuming dominance as the crisis wanes or intensifies.

It is important to keep in mind Philippine journalism’s two traditions, each of which has gone by different names in the last 100 years. There is the tradition of acquiescence, which basically supports whatever is in place–whether governments no matter how abusive and brutal, or Philippine society in its various stages of illusory change, and however unjust. This is the tradition, embodied in the colonial press, that supported Spanish rule and opposed reform and independence over a hundred years ago. On the other hand is the tradition of protest, which in the late 19th century demanded reform initially, and then progressed into a demand for independence and social change, among them the restructuring of land ownership.

The latter tradition is what went by the name “alternative press” during the latter part of the Marcos period. It was presumed to be a new phenomenon, but wasn’t. What it was was that part of the press that during the most acute periods of the Philippine crisis has resurfaced to provide Filipinos the information they need to understand events that the tradition of acquiescence is either too timid or too involved with to be able to adequately interpret, or even to want to report. The Marcos period was an important watershed in the resurgence of this tradition.

The Marcos dictatorship came to an end fourteen years ago, amid hopes that the lessons of the authoritarian experience would lead not only to the restoration of democratic governance, but also to the making of a just and reasonably prosperous society.

Among the lessons of the period was that a free press could be a means of mass empowerment. That empowerment would be achieved among other means through the information that a free people need so they can make decisions about their governance and the issues that affect their lives. Marcos himself implied through his acts that the press was crucial to that process.

One of his first acts when he declared martial rule on September 21, 1972 was to arrest critical media practitioners and to shut down all mass media, particularly the newspapers and magazines that had been exposing the corruption and brutality of his government. In explaining this away as necessary, he claimed that media were part of the “leftist-rightist” conspiracy–i.e., the growing mass movement that was threatening not only his rule but the entire economic and political system.

That such publications as Marcos targeted could exist in the 60s and 70s was the result of worsening antagonisms within the ruling elite. But that such practitioners could be in those publications was the result of the politicization that the Philippine mass movement had set into motion in the mid-sixties, first among students, writers and artists, and then later among professionals, workers, Church people, and poor farmers.

Though a part of the press–thanks to inter-elite antagonisms and to politicized practitioners–was indeed critical when martial rule was declared, it was within reach of government, was therefore vulnerable, and was easily suppressed. Part of the vulnerability lay in the nature of press ownership, which at that time as now, was in the hands of groups and individuals with economic and political interests to protect and advance. Thus the regime eventually allowed the publication of certain newspapers-but only those owned by Marcos associates. It also allowed the resumption of broadcasting by similarly controlled TV and radio stations. But what followed was nearly fourteen years in which, with all mass media under government control, the regime decided which information should reach the people and which to withhold.

However, despite repression in the form of imprisonment, torture and even extra-judicial execution, an alternative information system slowly developed during the period. The building of this system was initiated by the mass movement that had been driven underground. Through its persistent efforts to publish newsletters and flyers hostile to the regime, this press system flourished as martial rule wore on.

According to Marcos laws, these publications were illegal, but so numerous some of them were soon being circulated freely, and the regime could no longer physically stop them. It continued to arrest critical editors and writers, but the proliferation of “alternative newspapers”–and alternative news agencies like PNF–specially after the assassination of former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino in 1983 at the Manila International Airport made thorough suppression impossible.

At the same time, what has come to be known as “Xerox journalism” flourished. This consisted of distributing photocopied articles from foreign publications-articles which, at times unwittingly, exposed the corruption and extravagance of the regime, among them a frankly adoring article in the American magazine Cosmopolitan which ranked Imelda Marcos’ wealth with those of Queen Elizabeth II and the tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Though a legitimate response to the dearth of reliable information, Xerox journalism was a transient phenomenon known only to a small segment of Philippine society–those with access to foreign publications through various means, particularly through relatives in the United States.

The alternative press was far more crucial in providing Filipinos the information they needed during a period of repression. Conventional wisdom in the Philippines regards the alternative press as a recent phenomenon, but the tradition actually goes back to the late 19th century, during the reformist, and later, the revolutionary period, when the reformists first published “La Solidaridad” (Solidarity), and the revolutionaries, “Kalayaan” (Freedom) in the course of the campaign for reforms and later, the revolution against Spanish rule.

What distinguished this press was its advocacy and courage, made possible during the Spanish period by the involvement of writers without political and economic interests to protect within the political, economic and social system they were challenging.

During the American colonial period (1899- 1941), this tradition receded before the upsurge of the “mainstream” press, with its economic and political interests rooted in the colonial regime. (The first English language newspapers in the Philippines were owned by shipping interests.) From the turn of the century to 1941, this press developed as the voice of business and political interests, establishing thereby a pattern of ownership that survives to this day. When the Japanese invaded and occupied the Philippines (1941 to 1944), this press capitulated with hardly a struggle, and became the mouthpiece of the Japanese conquerors. With information a monopoly of the Japanese puppet government, the alternative press once again assumed the responsibility of providing through clandestine publications the information the people needed. The first manifestations of the rebirth of the alternative press were the guerilla publications which eventually developed into full-fledged underground newspapers, and proliferated throughout the archipelago, challenging the credibility of the captive press.

When the Japanese were defeated and Philippine independence from the United States was proclaimed in 1946, the mainstream press once again assumed dominance. As in the past, this press was easily subdued and effectively regulated during the martial law period, its basic weakness being its ownership by political and economic interests the survival of which depended on capitulation to and collaboration with whatever government was in power. Free from these pressures, the alternative press tradition once more assumed the responsibility of providing the people with the information they needed to overthrow the dictatorship and restore democratic institutions.

The true history of the Philippine press is indeed that of the alternative press, with its immense contributions to the 100-year Filipino struggle for national independence, social change, democratization, and justice. It is a press for the periods of adversity and challenge that has characterized the turning points of Philippine history, among these the Revolution of 1896, the American conquest (1899), the Japanese Occupation (1941-1944), and the Marcos Dictatorship (1972-1986). Emerging from the period of dictatorship which it helped overthrow, it was in this press where resided widespread hopes for a journalism that would assist the emergence of a society of justice, freedom and prosperity.

In 1986 the alternative press itself consisted of two streams, however. There was the progressive stream, with its radical critique of Philippine society, and its vision of an alternative economic, political and social system. There was also the liberal stream, with its reformist outlook and its basic faith in the justice and wisdom of the existing system. In the years after the 1986 EDSA (People Power) Revolt, this stream, though retaining its liberal outlook, became itself as much a part of the establishment as the conservative press, which during the Marcos period had been so supportive of the regime.

This stream still exists today, though only in token form, and mostly only in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the rest of its partisans, like the old Malaya, having metamorphosed into firm supporters of the establishment. What is left of the alternative tradition in the Inquirer has meanwhile yielded to the pressure of commercial interest, although the Inquirer still retains an erratic, and at times unpredictable, adversarial relationship with government.

Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the Philippine press, to which the other broadsheets based in Manila overwhelmingly belong, has been driven into further timidity. Only five newspapers with small circulations published the PCIJ report on Mr. Estrada’s unexplained wealth, while the Inquirer, the Manila Bulletin and the Philippine Star–the Big Three in terms of circulation–chose not to publish it.

At the same time, there is a growing number of reports of columns being censored, as well as instances of self-censorship. The PCIJ’s Sheila Coronel also said during a press forum last August that there is increasing resistance among editors to publish pieces critical of government, particularly PCIJ reports.

Most of the broadsheets show their support for the government of President Estrada in many, often obvious, ways. One newspaper’s banner stories for nine consecutive days last summer were all on Estrada. Another has several columnists uniformly praising everything the government does daily, even as it concentrates on fashions and other trivia as the staples of its news, including its front page, reporting. Still another has government officials for columnists, and makes it a point to publish government-issued press releases on the front page.

Perhaps worst of all in the present context of events, a study by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility of five Manila broadsheets including the Big Three revealed that from March to June this year, they had not only failed to provide the contextual information needed for readers to understand the crisis in the Muslim areas of Mindanao. Several commentators had actually fomented anti-Muslim prejudices through hate articles that identified terrorism with Muslims as an ethnic group. These were in addition to these newspapers’ overwhelming dependence (80% of the time) on government sources, and their concentration on news stories that would sell newspapers rather than enlighten readers on a complex and destructive conflict.

Some of the practitioners responsible for these horrors are in the payroll of government and other allied interests, but others simply share the government’s ideological framework and the fear of change that is strangely rampant among the professional classes.

But what drive Philippine newspapers are their commercial and political interests–interests tied up with government, interests for the preservation of which government favor or disfavor is vital. Last year the Philippine government showed how vital government approval or lack of it can be. First President Estrada sued the Manila Times for libel–for a report which said that he had been the “unwitting ninong” (godfather) in an anomalous government transaction. The owners apologized, and then, in fear of tax audits and other government action, sold the newspaper to Estrada associate Mark Jimenez. Infuriated by the Inquirer’s supposedly biased reporting and its focus on his person, Mr. Estrada convinced his film producer friends to withdraw their advertisements from the newspaper, resulting in revenue losses of some P100 million for your favorite newspaper and mine.

The demonstration effect of these moves was not lost on the press, the vulnerability of which rests on its ownership by various private groups with diverse political and economic interests. Fear–of government displeasure, of advertisers, and of financial losses–has made an already timid press even more timid, even as, themselves sharing the ideological assumptions of a political and economic system of which they are a part, individual practitioners as well as entire news organizations never quite succeed in examining the roots of the Philippine crisis.

The result is intellectual compromise and less than rigorous analysis, as well as reporting that goes only so far–seemingly critical but never really forthright insofar as the fatal limitations of Philippine democracy, and therefore the need for mass empowerment, are concerned. The Philippine mainstream press, though widely regarded as free and rambunctious, never goes far enough in its reporting and analysis of crucial issues, both for fear of the consequences as well as for its own ideological sympathies with a state of things it claims to abhor, but has always championed.

No laws regulate the Philippine press. But what do regulate it are extra legal forces–the power of government over the business enterprises of media owners, the power of the advertisers, and the ideological shackles that unbeknownst to many practitioners shape their responses to public issues and thus make the educative tasks of journalism in a society in crisis extremely difficult.

Yet the need for the democratization of a society still burdened by authoritarian legacies grows ever more urgent, even as poverty has worsened, and justice remains more elusive than ever. What the Philippine experience has so painfully demonstrated is that a free press is not achieved simply through the absence of official regulation, and that a free press even when achieved does not necessarily lead to a society of justice, freedom and democracy.

However, even in these circumstances there are encouraging signs, among them the existence and growth of a corps of dissident practitioners who see the limitations of their own coverage, who daily test the political, economic and ideological limits erected by the ownership system, and who hunger for a truly relevant journalism that owes its allegiance first and last to the people and their historical quest for a free society.

They are everywhere in Philippine newspapers–in Manila as well as in the communities, and as reporters, columnists and even editors–seeking the information that would help Filipinos understand their own society and its problems, and engaging newspaper decision makers in daily struggles to get the news out to a people hungry for information, and what is equally important, interpretation. Successors to the alternative press practitioners of these many past decades, they are the reason why, despite the political economy of the Philippine press, critical articles and news vital to public understanding of recent events still manage to be published. Despite a military-imposed news blackout, for example, reporters on the ground in Jolo island managed to get information on the toll on the civilian population of the Philippine military’s ongoing assault on the Abu Sayyaf group launched September 16. And of course there are the PCIJ practitioners among others, with their determined pursuit of information to document and bring to the attention of readers the actual state of the Filipino nation.

These are the practitioners to watch, not the predictable yes men and women in the power structure of the Philippine press to whom approval of what exists is second nature. These are the practitioners upon whom has fallen the responsibility of deepening the Filipino people’s understanding of the issues of authoritarian governance, foreign dictation, and poverty–and all their attendant horrors including cronyism, corruption, gross incompetence, and official lawlessness not only at the Department of Education but also at the highest levels of the so-called government of the Philippines. This is the urgent task of the alternative tradition today, and investigative journalism is its primary vehicle.

The investigative report is the most logical form for the need to demonstrate and document in all its painstaking detail and sordidness the political and social realities that still define Filipino existence today, towards the historic end of arming the people with the consciousness that will mobilize them. It is also the one form that can repudiate the martial law legacy of secrecy that still haunts us all. Of all the journalistic forms it is the investigative report–with its demand for consummate research and precise attribution–that lends itself to the deepening of public understanding of the way the political, economic and social systems work for the benefit of a handful and to the detriment of the many.

Whether at the community or national level, all issues that touch upon the way people live are people’s issues. These issues range from the need for day care centers for working mothers to the undeclared martial law in Jolo. Whether by documenting corruption or environmental degradation, child labor or the manipulation of the stock market, the investigative report can help put an end to both the ignorance as well as the legacy of secrecy that are among the instruments that help keep Philippine society what it is for the overwhelming majority of the people–a society of vast injustice and even greater misery. For the investigative report to do this will require, as we have seen lately, the practitioner’s continuing engagement in the daily struggles in the newsrooms and editorial offices of Philippine newspapers. That is another story for another time, but that engagement is crucial to getting the news out.

(Delivered during the 14th anniversary celebration of Philippine News and Features on September 29, 2000, at the UP Balay Kalinaw in Quezon City.)

2 thoughts on “People’s Issues and Investigative Journalism

  1. kristelle joy festin

    thanks. because of you I’ve learned so much about my course. I’m excited to report this on class.I’ll invite my classmates to view this site. However, I’ll appreciate it more if you will include stories about Philippine Journalism during the Japanese and post-war period. Thanks!!

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