Understanding corruption

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THERE MIGHT very well be a conspiracy afoot to prevent the election of Vice-President Jejomar Binay to the Presidency in 2016. It doesn’t release Binay from the responsibility of credibly answering the accusations that have been hurled against him. But neither should it prevent the media from using the opportunity to provide the public the information and analysis it needs to encourage citizen action against corruption.

The 2016 elections may be all of nineteen months away, but no one will seriously challenge the probability that what’s happening to Binay is a pre-emptive strike intended to steadily erode voter preference for him. Nevertheless, declarations that “it’s just politics” and “selective justice” won’t do, given the seriousness of the charges, and the opportunity they offer for the media to enhance public understanding not only of corruption but also of the exclusionary character of the political system that makes corruption inevitable.

Binay spokespersons say that what the media have labelled the “Binay hacienda” is actually owned by someone else (who, however, happens to be a Binay acquaintance and business associate). That disclaimer alone is not enough, the public being well aware of the practice among public officials of using dummies to mask their ownership of property as well as involvement in corporations and business interests.

This fact alone should have provoked the media into taking a sober look at the way political power is used in furtherance of limited interests. Instead, some sectors of the media simply went overboard in their focus on the accusations that have been made against Binay, the detailed reports being complete with photos and videos taken from a helicopter provided by Binay’s main accuser.

Binay and company have accused the Department of Justice of partisanship, but neither does that partisanship, of it indeed exists, make the charges against him false. Neither can Binay seek refuge in his status as Vice President in his refusal to appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, for the quite simple reason that it doesn’t contribute to disproving the allegations of overpricing, kickbacks and unexplained wealth against him.

If Binay is saying that his entitlement to respect as the country’s Vice President outweighs the public’s right to the truth about an individual who could very well be President of this country from 2016 to 2022, the media need to point it out as one more indication of what’s wrong with the political system.

Binay cannot just keep on doing what he’s been doing for one simple reason: his approval ratings as well as his numbers as the leading candidate for the Presidency in 2016 are falling, indicating that much of the public believes the charges against him to be true, in all probability because neither he nor his spokespersons have been doing a credible job of refuting them. For his own sake as well as that of the electorate, 41 percent of which, prior to the airing of the allegations against him had declared that they would vote for him in 2016.

On the other hand, the media need to go beyond merely reporting the juicy details of the charges against Binay and, such as it is, his attempts at responding to them. Rather than empowering citizens, the incessant reports on corruption in the public sector, among them the current focus on Binay among other officials, are reinforcing mass apathy and disaffection with political engagement.

It is of course not new. For the longest time, most Filipinos who’ve been sickened by reports and evidence of corruption have been condemning all politicians as uniformly corrupt, about which, they add, they can do little or nothing. In many instances they also shrug away the reports as of no consequence to their lives, except for the opportunities these offer in expressing their contempt for politicians and government officials.

The Philippine media report and comment on — in detail, and with accompanying photographs as well as background material, feature stories, investigative reports and opinion pieces — allegations of corruption against such officials as Binay and Philippine National Police Chief Alan Purisima, to cite the most recent examples.

During the Arroyo regime, the media served up huge helpings of reports on official wrong-doing, as they similarly did during the Estrada and Ramos administrations. Over the last two years, the news media also chronicled the accusations against former Chief Justice Renato Corona as well as the bases for them. Neither have the media been remiss in providing the nasty details behind the plunder cases against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, and Ramon Revilla Jr.

The media also exposed the diversion of pork barrel funds to ghost NGOs and the involvement of both private and public sector personalities in it. The media were also the vehicles in the public exposure of the alleged use of Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) funds in assuring the impeachment and conviction of Corona.

But to what purpose other than for the sake of newspaper circulations and broadcast ratings do the media relentlessly report corruption? If the essence of pornography is its being a detailed account presented for its own sake, so detailed — and presented for their own sake — have the reports been that they practically constitute pornographic accounts. These accounts provoke reactions limited to expressions of cynicism (“that’s just the way things are”), which eventually turn into apathy and disdain for political engagement.

For all of the media’s detailed accounts of corruption, what’s missing in the orgies of media exposure of scandal after scandal are attempts to go into the roots and causes of public sector corruption. Rather than empowering media audiences, the result is the opposite: they create a sense of powerlessness and lead to a rejection of the political involvement and action indispensable to a democratic polity.

The Philippine media have been accused of an inordinate focus on politics, which is true enough. But because the politics that is their main concern has been limited to the reporting of scandal after scandal without looking into their causes, they succeed only in contributing to mass depoliticization by encouraging citizen indifference to political issues, and in preventing understanding of the political system in terms of such fundamentals as who wields political power, how and for whom, as keys to citizen empowerment in understanding corruption and doing something about it.

Corruption may not be the sole reason for the poverty that has haunted this country for centuries, but it is an important factor in the continuing impoverishment of the many. Corruption is rooted in the exclusionary character of the political system, which over the decades has become the preserve of a handful of political dynasties focused on self-aggrandizement. The Philippine media can provide citizens the knowledge they need that’s vital to informed political action. But instead of insight and understanding, some sectors of the Philippine media regale citizens with the lurid details of corruption in high places without providing them a guide in what they can do in putting an end to it.

(BusinessWorld)

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