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.
It’s happening in the context of Cebu’s reputation as an alleged center of press freedom and model of responsible media practice. The Cebu media community hosts an annual celebration that’s been held up as an indicator of a deep commitment to press freedom. The province is also the site of a regional press council that’s generally considered as the most successful in the country in enforcing ethical and professional standards among media organizations and journalists.
Part of the fallout of the Garcia-Malacanang crisis is the suspension of the operations of Sugbo TV, a provincial government- run TV channel, and the removal from the Sun Star Cebu daily newspaper of columnist Bobby Nalzaro, who says that he was asked to stop writing for the newspaper by the management in deference to the wishes of Garcia family “elders.” Sun Star editor Isolde Amante has confirmed Nalzaro’s “suspension” from her paper.
Although its being government-run has cast doubts on its independence, and therefore its legitimacy as part of the Cebu press, the suspension of the operations of Sugbo TV by Acting Governor Agnes Magpale has been criticized as politically-motivated–and it certainly is. Magpale, a member of the Liberal Party, suspended the operations of Sugbo TV, a project of Garcia allegedly intended to promote Cebu as a tourist destination, which she said Garcia was using to call for public support. But if Garcia wasn’t using Sugbo TV to provide the public unbiased information, neither was Magpale’s suspension of it more nobly motivated.
Garcia’s critics agree with Magpale, however: they say Garcia had been using Sugbo TV even before her suspension to further her political agenda. Her partisans claim, on the other hand, that its suspension is a press freedom issue. But because Sugbo TV is operated by the provincial governor’s office, like other government-run media organizations, there are serious doubts as to whether it can even be considered part of the press.
Not that a government-run or public media organization can’t be part of the press. It can be–if what it does is provide public information. If it reports government-related information without bias, informs the public about what both the administration in power and the opposition are saying and doing, and does so regardless of which administration is in power, then it qualifies as a member of the press. But Sugbo TV has not been known to air reports critical of Garcia or her administration. And neither has it aired the views of the opposition.
Its having been founded by Garcia helps explain why what it was essentially doing was public relations rather than public information. Sugbo TV’s being in the control of Garcia and her allies also makes its independence doubtful. And yet independence is among the necessary attributes of authentic journalists, an attribute that in turn has a bearing on their capacity for fairness–which in practice is most commonly expressed through reporting all sides of an issue or controversy.
Independence not having been, in the first place, one of its distinctions, the suspension of Sugbo TV’s operations isn’t a press freedom issue, merely an administrative matter.
On the other hand, Sun Star columnist Bobby Nalzaro’s dismissal from the Sun Star does involve press freedom. Nalzaro said he “understood” the Garcias and that it was management’s prerogative to remove his column. Columnists do serve at the pleasure of owners and editors, and can be dismissed for various reasons, whether for lack of skill, violations of ethical principles, or incompetence. In all these cases, however, no direct editor or owner interest, whether personal, corporate or political, are involved, only the integrity of the editorial and opinion pages.
The timing of Nalzaro’s dismissal–it came on the heels of his columns critical of Garcia’s refusal to vacate her office–suggests that personal and political interests were involved, the owners of Sun Star being Garcia’s relatives. In this context, the dismissal of Nalzaro looks suspiciously like subsequent punishment, or censorship, for his holding opinions contrary to owner interests.
One can argue until one’s hoarse and blue in the face that free expression is everyone’s, and certainly a columnist’s right. But the reality is that because of the dominant pattern of media ownership in this country–in which the owners of media organizations have interests other than publishing, or maintaining radio and TV stations as well as online news sites solely in behalf of keeping the public informed, those interests usually being business and political ones–journalists are routinely dismissed, suspended, or at least asked to “tone down” whenever they seem to be endangering those interests through their opinions.
It’s usually an exaggerated fear, and not necessarily because of the private ownership of media alone, but also because of the rarity of owners who’re simply into the media. One can name only a very few such media owners, among them the late Chino Roces of the old Manila Times, and the late Raul Locsin of BusinessWorld, who were publishers, period. As for the rest, they’re also Congressmen, Senators, or CEOs, linked in some way with this or that political party, or with a political family like the Garcias . Some even like being called “Don,” as if to emphasize that their interest in a media organization is only one among many other businesses, whether telecommunications, hotels, shipping, real estate, junk food manufacturing, or food franchises, the operations of which always have political dimensions.
Inevitable that sooner or later that these political and business interests will have a bearing on how the news is presented, and on whether columnists will continue to have the space in which to air their opinions, or be deprived of it.