The monitored as monitor

Martin Andanar
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APPARENTLY UNIQUE in the Philippine press freedom regime, the practice of appointed and elected officials’ serving as newspaper columnists, or as television or radio commentators, blurs the necessary distinction between the government as object of public scrutiny, and the free press’ critical function of monitoring government. It creates a conflict of interest between the government’s and its officials’ interest in getting favorable publicity, and the citizenry’s need for impartial reports and evaluations of events and issues of concern including government doings and policies.

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Freedom’s price

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MAY 3 was proclaimed in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly as World Press Freedom Day on the recommendation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It has since been celebrated every year by journalists’ and media groups in over 100 countries, with UNESCO leading the commemoration.

World Press Freedom Day, says UNESCO, provides an opportunity “to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence, and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.” The theme of the celebration this year is “Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality and Media Safety in the Digital Age.”

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Inevitable

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SOME institutions in Cebu including the media are embroiled in the impasse between Malacanang and suspended Governor Gwendolyn Garcia. It has raised issues relevant to the media and the press, among them whether the suspension of the operations of a government-run TV station and the firing of a columnist of a newspaper owned by Garcia’s relatives are press freedom issues.

The Department of Interior and Local Government suspended Garcia last December for allegedly misusing government funds. Garcia claimed her suspension was part of the Liberal Party attempt to control the province in preparation for the May elections. She refused to vacate her office at the Cebu provincial capitol, triggering a crisis in that province that has affected government agencies like the police and a provincial government-controlled TV channel, and the local media, among others.

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Heralds of the failing state

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THEY’RE known as “public service programs” and have been in Philippine radio for decades, particularly after 1986, when the laws restricting the media were lifted. But they have proliferated in recent years, and every radio station includes at least one example in its programming, although that one may run several hours, in addition to the regular news and commentary programs.

The template is straightforward. The program host accepts complaints from listeners through phone calls and text messages as well as personal visits to the station, puts his phone conversations on the air, reads text messages and interviews complainants.

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Tattered democracy

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THE PHILIPPINE ranking fell from 122nd in 2009 to 156th in the Paris-based Reporters San Frontieres’ (RSF- Reporters Without Borders) 2010 Press Freedom Index released on October 20.

The 2010 Index covers the period September 1, 2009 to September 1, 2010. The Philippine ranking had been rising in earlier RSF Indexes, despite the continuing killing of journalists in the country, and its portrayal in 2003 as “the most murderous place in the world for journalists.”

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Doing right

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BEFORE leaving for the United States to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President Benigno Aquino III said during a press conference that he had the report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) released first to the Chinese government because he wanted to repair the country’s relations with China. He also said he hoped that the Report would “restore confidence that we know how to run our country and we had taken appropriate actions to prevent such (a) tragedy from happening again.”

The IIRC report was on the hostage-taking incident of August 23, which ended with eight Chinese tourists from Hongkong and Canada dead, the country’s relations with Hong Kong and China in shambles, and the media under intense criticism. Upon receipt of the Report, the Chinese government expressed its “appreciation” for the Philippine government’s “sincere and serious manner in handling and looking into the incident,” but asked for more time to study the document.

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Truth and consequence

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CONGRESSIONAL hearings are held “in aid of legislation,” and the leading members of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, and the committee on public services, made it clear last Tuesday that they did not call the heads of the news sections of TV networks ABS-CBN, GMA7 and TV5 just to pass the time. Senator Joker Arroyo, who used to defend journalists from government harassment during the martial law period, warned that the Senate could pass a law to regulate the networks’ coverage of hostage-taking and similar crises if they did not restrain themselves.

The operative word was “restraint.” Despite the lame excuses and the evasions worthy of contortionists, the truth is that television news displayed the exact opposite of it – i.e., the frenzy of predators – when covering the hostage-taking crisis at Manila’s Rizal Park last August 23.

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