(Address delivered during the University of the Philippines
College of Mass Communication Commencement Exercises, April 24, 2005.)
If all roads once led to Rome, today all roads lead to the homeland of another empire–into the very belly of the beast itself.
Social Weather Stations tells us that more than a fifth of the population–20 percent, or some 16 million souls– want to leave the country in response to the brutal realities of economic need, in the desire to assure themselves a future staying in the country of their birth cannot give, or in a quest for order the chaos and violence of Philippine society cannot provide.
Some 8 million so far have preceded them. Unless what they want to escape from abates, many more will follow. And what they want to escape from is the crisis that, while seemingly never so urgent as today, has in varying intensity been a fact of life in the Philippines for over 400 years.
I was a child of the sixth decade of the 20th century and you, children of the 21st. But despite the years that separate us we are all children of crisis as we are all children of these 7,000 islands.
When I began teaching in this University as an instructor many years ago, the streets of our cities rang with cries of Down With Imperialism, Bureaucrat Capitalism and Fuedalism. Though rooted in the specific realities of the Philippines, those cries echoed a global awakening and movement for the dismantling of those machineries of oppression that kept millions of men and women poor and denied them control over their own lives–and the construction in their place of societies in which no one need go hungry or sleep under bridges.
Thirty-five years later the world has indeed changed, but primarily in the strength of the illusion that it has been for the better.
Twenty percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of its resources, over which still only six percent–the handful of multinationals that more than governments now make the decisions that shape the world– have control.
Some 800 million people go to bed hungry daily. Gas, water cannon and truncheons greet protesters in Bogota and Genoa as they do in Manila. Thanks to the madmen of empire, the 21st century is likely to be, as the 20th was, another century of war.
The leaders of the Empire have already turned international law upside down and inside out, not only by attacking and invading a sovereign country in 2003, and by bombing the former Yugoslavia from an industrialized state back to third world status, but also by threatening to do the same to others, even as they continue to control weaker, more pliant countries through blackmail, threats and bullying.
Here, in the client state that a hundred years ago imperialism built over the ruins of the first Republican revolution in Asia, forty eight percent of all households consider themselves poor, as the legions of the unemployed swell in the cities and peasant families that must hire out their labor for a pittance starve in the countryside.
Ruled by an irresponsible, corrupt and incompetent political class that owes allegiance only to their own greed and the empire, Filipinos protest at the peril of their lives. As their incomes shrink, and the effort to keep body and soul together becomes a minute-by-minute imperative, they are made to pay more taxes likely to go into bank accounts under fictitious names like Jose Pidal or Jose Velarde, or at best into kickback- built projects with swollen budgets out of which 30 percent or more goes into the pockets of civilian and military bureaucrats who keep fleets of cars, and maintain houses in Manila, Baguio, and Tagaytay, and even condominiums in New York on P30,000- a -month salaries.
To the despair this breeds, this country’s rulers respond with repression: with threats, harassment, arbitrary arrests, bombings, massacres and assassinations, and only lately, with a national ID system which so shames even its instigator it had to be clandestinely signed, and which will be imposed, at immense profit to the contractor, in violation of the very laws and mandated processes we are told we all should obey.
The absolute wonder of it all is not that all these are happening, but that this immense obscenity persists without the kind of protest that the global and national regimes of oppression, poverty, mass misery, destruction and death demand. Do we not all suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune inevitable in an unjust order? Do we not also bleed like those killed killed in Taguig, Tarlac and Mindoro? And are we not diminished by the murderous global regime that keeps millions unclothed, unfed and unsheltered and condemns them to short brutal lives so homeland moms can drive the kids to soccer practice in their Expeditions? Surely there must be some reason other than blackmail, the threat and actual use of force, or muscle and gunboat diplomacy that has made so many either indifferent to what is going on, or unable to comprehend it.
Let me venture a suggestion why, despite the injustice, violence and misery the global and national orders breed there is less defiance than the reality demands. The media–the disciplines to which you have devoted four years or more of your lives to study and master–have failed to report, much less interpret, the world to its inhabitants.
The media could hardly have done otherwise. In the Philippines the media are firmly in the hands of interests whose political and business agendas are often contrary to the imperative of truth-telling. You have all heard it said that the broadcast media are driven by commercial interests, that it is what will rate rather than public significance that decides which stories will make it to the six o’clock news. The broadcast media are indeed redefining news to mean reports that assure higher ratings and advertising revenues.
As a consequence, broadcast news is turning into entertainment, and into orgies of voyeurism and bloodlust as it focuses more and more on celebrities in addition to the usual emphasis on blood and gore. Since 96 percent of Filipinos have access to television, and since as a consequence television is the most credible medium for some 72 percent of the population, much of the information Filipinos receive is either in the category of fluff stories on the state of this or that actor’s romantic life, the violence of life among the poor, or uncontextualized reports on the latest guerilla-Armed Forces encounter in Mindanao, which leave viewers with exactly the impression the state wants people to have: that rather than responses to poverty and injustice rebellions are their causes.
Reporting in print is only a little less driven by the same commercial aims. The one newspaper in which what appears on the front and opinion-editorial pages is subject to the owner’s approval every day seems to be an exception. And it may also be true that this newspaper’s difference from your favorite broadsheet is evident in their respective attitudes towards government. But it is equally true that they have one thing in common: neither questions the validity of the political, social and economic systems.
The defects of these systems are too obvious to be concealed through editorials celebrating Christmas and Valentine’s Day and the anniversaries of this or that association. These systems’ survival in fact depends on their capacity to reform themselves, which is the cause to which the second broadsheet is dedicated. But in practice, the consequence is a refusal, or inability, to look into the root causes of this country’s problems, and to see them merely as the results of mistaken policies and bureaucratic bungling.
The natural aversion to the effort that providing context entails is reinforced by the logistical demands of keeping expenses down and reporters busy. A 2000 study by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility thus found that only 26 articles–and these included columns and editorials–out of over 6,000 generated in five broadsheets during the March-July period that year provided some kind of backgrounding on the ongoing Mindanao conflict.
Globally the illusion is that audiences have become empowered through their supposed capacity to choose from among media old and new as well as among programs. But it is still only a handful of corporations–seven as of last count, down from nine a decade ago–that control practically all of the entertainment and news that blankets the planet daily, whether via print, tapes, discs, or broadcasting. They provide choices and alternatives indeed–but only from among options they decide and they determine. As a cable subscriber, for example, my choices are limited to the movie and news channels, all of which offer a uniform view of events, without an Al-Jazeera among them. Choosing between CNN and Fox isn’t much of a choice, and is much like choosing between the Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel.
But the global media corporations, like our own homegrown ones, also claim to provide only what people want–after decades of developing those wants through trivial reporting, a focus on actors, rock stars, and kings, queens and princes in the guise of human interest; a refusal to provide readers and viewers the background information the best practice of journalism demands; and steadfast celebration of the virtues of capitalism and the inherent right of the militarily superior country to bomb and threaten those countries that don’t agree with it; to prevent social change of any kind that’s contrary to its economic interests; and to generally to do what it pleases regardless of international law.
A study by the Fairness and Accountability In Reporting media advocacy group of TV news reporting thus found that over 90 percent of those interviewed over US television networks, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, were government officials or belonged to pro-war groups.
The New York Times, in a rare instance of self-criticism, admitted last year that it had not been as rigorous in its reporting as it should have been, and thus ended up supporting the mythical case for the invasion of Iraq because it supposedly possessed those weapons of mass destruction that have never been found. By the time the New York Times had criticized itself–without, however, apologizing to the people of Iraq–a hundred thousand civilians were dead and an entire country including its cultural heritage was in ruins.
Only mostly Internet sites have provided alternative views on such issues as globalization and war. But even in the new media right-wing sites bankrolled by the corporations have proliferated, thus threatening to overwhelm the alternative sites that have tried and are trying to balance the skewed reporting in favor of empire and war dominant in the global news organizations.
Beyond those obvious instances in which a global audience is mesmerized and misled by trivia, distorted and biased reporting and outright disinformation–which those in journalism know as the manufacture of false information to influence opinion along predetermined lines–there is as well the daily assault on the senses of those who have access to television and print: the unremitting pounding into millions of heads of the idea that capitalism and its harvest of misery under the aegis of world empire is the best that mankind can ever hope for. After all, is this not, as postmodernism coyly claims, the end of history as it is the end of everything else except capitalism? Therefore, if you happen to have the misfortune to be born poor in a poor country and not rich in a rich one, the only thing you can do is to move to a richer one, where, among other options, you too can labor as a domestic or scrub bedpans for dollars, yens or euros.
What is the journalist, the filmmaker or anyone else involved in the media and communication professions to do given the disorder that reigns both at home and in the world? I suggest that it is exactly what he or she has been trained to do, and that is to report on the world and to interpret it. That is the media practitioner’s first duty, just as his or her first loyalty is to the facts. The media practitioner true to these first principles through the exercise of those skills in research, documentation, analysis, and writing and expression paradoxically becomes more than just a skilled technician. Falsehood, distortion and bias are after all the foes of the moneybags and militarists whose unholy partnership with each other as well as with local tyrants has shaped both Philippine society and the world.
At the same time, and even more critically, the practitioner needs to restore integrity to the language by being as precise and as exact in its use as journalism demands. He or she must oppose the debasement of language that now reigns in western media : that debasement which has made “militant,” and “liberal” and “leftist” and “radical” into terms of resentment, and which distort the meanings of “fundamentalist” and “terrorist” to apply solely to the enemies of empire though they apply with even greater force on the empire itself and its client states.
Media practitioners need to re-affirm in practice the basics of truth-telling, humaneness, justice and freedom that are at the very core of journalism regardless of medium, and to rescue language from the misuse to which it has been subjected in furtherance of the greed for wealth and power.
Only rigorous commitment to the truth-telling that is journalism’s first and last responsibility, and as a consequence, to reporting and interpretation beyond the conventional, can make better media. For media practitioners, researchers and scholars, the struggle for a just society through better media is of course first of all here, in this country’s newspapers, radio and television, and in the Internet. But there is also room in that struggle for the involvement of those who, for whatever reason, choose to live elsewhere, or have to.
The globalization of resistance is one of the answers to the globalization of oppression and exploitation. The Internet, for one, now provides not only the opportunity to remain connected to the country of one’s birth, but also to interpret events in it to global and Filipino audiences. By doing so through whatever medium or whatever means, you would still be part of the epic effort of the Filipino people, now in its 135th year since 1872, to find their place in the world as free men and women.
Both the global order and the Philippine one need to be understood by the people in their millions who can collectively transform societies. By interpreting the world media practitioners can also help change it. You now have the power to do so, and I hope that you will use it.