Every serious journalist I have ever met or worked with–whether feisty professionals from the Manila press or overworked correspondents in the communities who refuse to be corrupted and who risk harassment and even death to get the news out–is concerned with the standards of a profession he or she knows to be crucial in the making of a free citizenry.
These journalists know that to have some meaning, the calling they chose despite the low pay, the risks, the sleepless nights and the pressures from various sources including owners and editors, politicians and special interest groups, must subscribe to two complementary sets of standards.
The first are professional ones to which adherence and practice are required if the information as well as commentary they disseminate are to be of any use to readers, listeners or viewers. Although these standards were developed in the course of the 500-year development of print journalism, these standards now also apply to radio and TV news broadcasting as well as the Internet, where news sites and blogs have proliferated.
By universal agreement, among the most important of these professional standards are accuracy, fairness and balance. These sound plain enough, but are critical prescriptions for satisfying the core imperative of providing the citizenry information it can rely on, the meanings of which it can interpret without being manipulated into accepting a pre-determined viewpoint. These standards imply that journalism should have no agenda beyond that of providing information, or fair and reasoned comment.
Journalism is thus a world apart from press agentry, which begins with the premise that information should either deter or further this individual’s or this group’s interests. What is known as public information is often press agentry in behalf of governments in that it furthers government viewpoints and fits the facts to achieve that purpose.
The ethical standards of journalism have developed as a child of its professional obligations. Truth-telling as a primary ethical responsibility supports the need for accuracy, while humaneness and justice support that of fairness. What makes press freedom so important is that its absence can, to the detriment of the public, compromise truth-telling and even make it impossible.
Journalists can lose their autonomy and poison the well of information through a variety of means. Although corruption ranks high among those means, government intervention and regulation is by far the most common way through which journalists and journalism lose their freedom.
Media are among the first targets of repressive governments, which, by their very nature, have the most to gain from the suppression of information. The Arroyo government eminently fits the description of a government that has something to hide. The Arroyo police, supposedly as authorized by Proclamation 1017, thus raided the Daily Tribune offices in the late evening of February 24th not only to stop the publication of opposition viewpoints, but also to intimidate the rest of the media into silence. They nearly raided the offices of a tabloid and those of the broadsheet Malaya for the same purpose. They have also placed TV and radio stations under surveillance, and threatened them with the loss of their franchises.
Apparently convinced that he knew what he was talking about, the Chief of the Philippine National Police meanwhile announced that media organizations can be shut down and their operations taken over should they not adhere to “standards” set by the government.
These standards, according to PNP Director General Arturo Lomibao, are no more than that media should “subscribe to what is in General Order No. 5 and Presidential Proclamation 1017.” Should they fail to do so, the PNP will recommend their take-over by the government. Among the prohibitions mandated by these “standards,” Lomibao went on, is reporting (and, presumably, comment), that “hurt(s) or obstruct(s) governance,” “hinder(s) the growth of the economy, (and) sabotage(s) the people’s confidence in the government, and their faith in the future of this country.”
These prescriptions are straight out of the martial law period, which officially adopted “developmental communication” as official policy. “DevCom” it interpreted to mean media-government collaboration, and the media’s reporting only the “good news” about government. The result was the citizenry’s knowing about the country’s US$30 billion debt only in 1986, among other information that never reached it during the 14 years martial law was in place.
Aside from their being conveniently-worded excuses the police can interpret at its discretion, the “standards” the PNP Chief was proclaiming are nowhere near those of journalism, and in fact absolutely contradict them. They further the aims of “public information” as information meant to manipulate the citizenry into accepting the government version of events, rather than providing them the accurate, fair and balanced information the citizens of a democratic society need. They are also unconstitutional in that they constitute prior restraint, or censorship.
But this is not surprising. Neither responsible and truthful journalism nor democracy is in the interest of the Arroyo government to protect. On the contrary: the suppression of one and the destruction of the other are in its own best interests. As this column observed last week, it is an authentic legatee of the Marcos dictatorship, which destroyed the Republic even as it claimed to be saving it.
No one needs the brainpower of a rocket scientist to know who the real saboteurs of this country’s future are. It is thus through the observance of the true standards of journalism, primarily those of independence and truth-telling, that journalists can best serve this country in these critical times and assure its future. What tyrannies don’t and can’t understand is that real journalists, like real doctors who must save lives, are bound by duty to tell the truth, despite Presidential Proclamation 1081 in 1972, and PP 1017 now.