Zombie ideas

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CORRUPTION IN media is well known, acknowledged, and being addressed in the press and media community itself. It is wrong to make it seem that it’s of recent discovery, or that nothing’s being done about it.

The many forms of corruption in the media—whether bribery, extortion, being in the payroll of political and other interests, all of which are more generally known as “envelopmental journalism”—have been studied not only in those journalism schools that recognize its impact on keeping the public misinformed and even ignorant of the issues that affect it. Putting an end to it has also been among the advocacies of such journalists’ groups as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).

PCIJ, for example, has published, among others, such studies on media and press corruption as Chay Florentino Hofilena’s News for Sale. CMFR, which regularly monitors media and press performance, has published numerous articles on press and media corruption in its bimonthly publication PJR Reports and other issuances, in addition to devoting, in its book A Values Approach to News Media Ethics, chapters on corruption and other ethical problems connected with and resulting from corrupt practices.

A continuing problem in the press and media, corruption debases journalism practice, and denies the citizenry its right to the fair and accurate information vital to its democratic duty to decide on public issues. Corruption whether in the media or in society at large has a direct consequence on the quality of what passes for democracy in this country.

As valid a concern as corruption is, and as perennial a subject of discourse among the responsible members of the press and media community as it has been, was November 23 (Friday last), the time to discuss it? November 23 was the third anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre, which, it bears repeating, was the worst assault on the press and media, press freedom and democracy in the country’s history, among other reasons because 32 journalists and media workers were killed in that one incident.

But the organizers of the 2012 “Medianation” conference chose, on that day, of all days, to focus the attention of its participants—and, because the major news organizations dutifully reported it, their bosses being in conspicuous attendance, that of the rest of the country—on media corruption, either out of malice, or total cluelessness about the significance of that date.

(“Medianation” is a more or less annual undertaking sponsored by the Pagbabago@Pilipinas group, whose members include businessmen, an actor, academics from obscure schools, a politician, and a trickle-down economist, among others. It has no journalist member.)

Medianation’s pointed emphasis on corruption this year, if we were to assume malice, would seem to be a not too subtle reinforcement of the view, held by people who should know better but don’t, that journalists are killed—and justifiably so—because they’re corrupt.

As a result, there were concerns among the journalists’ groups that were marking the third anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre—which, in recognition of its significance to the press and media anywhere, international press freedom and free expression groups designated in 2011 as the International Day to End Impunity—that that very argument would gain credibility among the public, further make the trial of those accused of planning and carrying out the Massacre even more problematic, and as a result undermine the campaign to put an end to the culture of impunity (or the pattern of State failure to try and penalize those responsible for the killing of journalists and of political activists, environmentalists, reformist local officials, judges and lawyers, students and priests, among others) that has encouraged extra-judicial killings and the killing of journalists.

As of Thursday this week, no such development seems to have, so far, occurred. But give it time. Meanwhile, Medianation’s thoughtless focus on corruption did result in its being cited as an argument for the inclusion of a Right of Reply (ROR) rider in the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill the House Committee on Public Information approved last Tuesday. One of the advocates of a Right of Reply rider, Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, argued that, corruption being a reality in media as supposedly validated by the participants in Medianation, the ROR rider he has been proposing is the antidote against it.

This is what happens when a problem long recognized as a problem, the persistence of which has also long been put in context, is made to seem as if it were due exclusively to the low moral values and/or greed of the media practitioners on whom the citizenry depends for the information it needs to make sense out of what’s happening in this country.

Corruption occurs in the media because of, among other reasons, the low salaries and the absence of job security among the employees of the very media organizations whose bosses were in self-righteous presence in the conference.

Without context, the tales of corruption told by the big shots of Philippine media are only too easily used as an excuse for the adoption of such attempts at abridging press freedom as an ROR rider or a separate ROR law. (Antonino is expected to use the same arguments when and if the FOI bill is discussed in the House plenary.)

Worse, these uncontextualized tales prevent the real solutions to corruption in the press and media from ever being applied. Instead of recognizing the right of media workers to job security, congressmen propose a Right of Reply rider as the solution to corruption. Instead of mandating the regularization of “casual” employees, and the provision of fair salaries and benefits, not only do they refuse to decriminalize libel; they even raise the penalties for it. And instead of recognizing that corruption persists in the media because of the far worse corruption in the State, including in Congress, the Ombudsman continues to implement stringent rules for media access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALNs) of government officials and bureaucrats.

The economist, Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman refers to ideas that have long been dead but which continue to walk around as if they were alive as “Zombie Ideas.” The ideas circulating in Congress to justify an ROR rider in an FOI bill are in that very category of the undead, for the persistence of which Medianation bears at least part of the responsibility.

(BusinessWorld)

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