Worse than the problem

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CONGRESSMAN Feliciano Belmonte has filed a resolution urging both Houses of Congress to propose amendments to Articles 2, 12 and 16 of the Constitution.

These provisions restrict foreign exploitation of natural resources, and limits foreign investments to certain areas as well as ownership of public utilities, advertising firms and the media, among others. Belmonte says these provisions must be amended to address the continuing poverty in the country despite economic growth by relaxing restrictions on foreign investments.

Is it the limits on foreign investments that are preventing the benefits of economic growth from reaching the majority in this country — among whom poverty incidence is even increasing — or is it the unjust social structures, among them the land tenancy system, that decide how those benefits are distributed?

In what way, on the other hand, would opening the advertising industry and the media to foreign ownership correct the present situation in which economic benefits only a relative handful of families while millions of others continue to be brutalized by poverty? By providing a few hundred jobs, most of which would demand special qualifications and therefore would be beyond the reach of most Filipinos?

The Constitutional injunction for 100 percent media ownership was presumably included in that document — immediately after, we should remember, the fall of the Marcos regime — in recognition of the power of the media (print, broadcasting, and online) to help shape people’s lives.

Every communication student knows, from the communication theoretician Denis McQuail, that the media can “serve to repress as well as to liberate, to unite as well as fragment society, (and) to promote and to hold back change.” The media can “attract and direct public attention,” “persuade in matters of opinion and belief,” “influence behavior,” “structure definitions of reality,” “confer status and legitimacy,” and “inform quickly and extensively.”

The social and political issues that confront nations are in these times mediated primarily by the media, which if controlled by competing interests, for example in a society like the Philippines, can present a multiplicity of views rather than a single, dominant perspective in fulfillment of the need for making intelligent choices on public issues.

The media are also vehicles of culture, especially popular culture. Even without direct foreign media ownership the country is inundated daily by inane soaps and game shows, sitcoms and disaster movies, wars in galaxies far away, vampires and werewolves, bored housewives arguing over what to wear and where to find one’s next sexual partner, as well as teen-age problems with acne and puppy love. All of these flow like an endless stream from the culture factories of, in the main, only one country, the United States.

Culture has a direct impact on politics in that it introduces and reinforces certain values and helps establish the norms of political discourse and decision-making in society. That totality we refer to as culture refers not only to a way of doing things; it also refers to a way of looking at things.

Every American film on Vietnam, for example, creates drama out of the supposed American anguish during that war to the exclusion of the anguish of the real victims, the Vietnamese. Viewers are thus treated to a way of looking at things which in turn helps shape their responses to political issues — such as, for example, early in the last decade of the 20th century, the US military bases question and, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and more recently, the use of the Visiting Forces Agreement to justify the country’s military re-engagement with the United States.

By insisting on 100 percent Filipino ownership of media, the political and social activists and the activist artists (for example, film director Lino Brocka) among the 1986 constitutional commissioners apparently wanted to provide Filipino culture at least a fighting chance against the cultural and political deluge from the huge media conglomerates that dominate the global media market. They knew that culture shapes politics as much as the other way around, and that it is necessary to preserve whatever identity Filipinos still have — among other means through, at the very least, Filipino-owned media.

We have also heard it said and seen it written that the issue of cultural dominance, in the era of globalization, is “outdated.” Primarily the argument seems to be that because it’s happening via the new media technologies anyway, there’s no way we can stop it.

Yet in almost the same breath the same advocates tell us that the core value of globalization is competition. Opening media ownership to foreign groups with unlimited resources would entrench in these islands the same media monopolies that reign in the West, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, whose dominance over the consciousness of billions constitutes a power superior to that of any government.

The Philippine media do not need what would amount to government support for the media monopolies’ even more intensive penetration of the media market. It is the more responsible sectors of the Philippine media, such as the alternative press, that need State support, if only in the form of leaving the Constitutional provision on media ownership alone.

If allowed to fully develop into responsible and meaningful vehicles of information and analysis, not only can the Philippine media put a brake on Western, mostly US, cultural domination, they can also present to the citizenry information on how best to address this country’s problems, among them the issue of authentic development. Opening the media to foreign ownership, as the experience of other countries has shown, will further transform them into instruments of inanity and foreign interests.

For Philippine media to be vehicles of the information Filipinos need, and as instruments of defense against cultural domination — and, therefore, the enhancement of citizen capacity to choose the country’s own paths to development, and to address such social issues as education and health care — they need to be Filipino-owned. The artists and media practitioners among the framers of the 1987 Constitution understood this only too well.

The issue is the need in societies like ours for a multiplicity of voices as a condition of democratic choice. Foreign ownership would only enhance even more the power of the global media monopolies and the dominance of one culture over what remains of ours. Congressman Belmonte’s “solution” to poverty by allowing foreign media ownership would be worse than the problem.

(BusinessWorld)

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