Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping pose for a photo following a successful bilateral meeting at the Boao State Guesthouse on April 10, 2018. (Ace Morandante/Presidential Photo)

In the aftermath of President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar announced the availability in that country of scholarships on media and communication studies for his staff, and, presumably, for anyone else qualified and interested in a career in government media.

Andanar said that Philippine media practitioners have much to learn from their Chinese counterparts in terms of management and technology, hence the administration decision to continue to take advantage of the program, which the Chinese government has promised to continue for four more years.

What these scholarships’ political and other costs will be are in addition to an equally important concern. The scholars the government will send are likely to absorb more than media management and technological expertise from the Chinese.

The media in China are state-controlled and practitioners subject to regulation and censorship. The Philippine media are mostly privately-owned and their practitioners legally free from government interference and subject only to self-regulation. The two systems are so far apart that the Duterte regime’s enthusiasm in sending media scholars to China defies rational explanation.

The Philippines already has hundreds of schools that offer media and communication degree courses, some of which do provide scholarships, among them Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines. Some government media people are already in these school’s programs. But the Chinese scholarships’ being superfluous is only a secondary issue. Every seeming boon also has a price. Are the scholarships, like the billions in aid China has promised, partly in exchange for the Duterte regime’s continuing its policy of surrendering Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea to Chinese military interests?

Of even more importance is what practices and ideas about the media and society the beneficiaries of those scholarships will bring back to this country with the hope and intention of realizing and putting them in place.

The educational system is a major component of the ideological apparatus of the State. Together with the coercive instruments of power — the laws, the courts, the police and the military — it is among the means through which citizen compliance with, and acceptance of, the dominant ideas, attitudes and assumptions of the ruling system are assured.

In authoritarian regimes and even alleged democracies, the media are specially vital in controlling the public mind. A rising and aggressive imperialist power, China’s interests include not only keeping intact the capitalist system its rulers have erected on the ruins of its socialist past. Like the United States, it is equally focused on compelling other countries to accept its hegemony in furtherance of its economic, military and strategic interests. Among the means available to it are the media. Not only will its scholarships predispose future media practitioners to acceptance of the Chinese world view. These would also give China an ideological foothold in the Philippine press and media.

Upon their return to the Philippines after some time in a society whose government is frankly authoritarian, if the regime’s made-in-China scholars remain in the government media system, how much more difficult will reforming the system and even Philippine society be? Should they migrate to privately-owned media, how committed would they be to the imperatives of defending and nurturing free expression and the independence and critical outlook of media practice that are so vital to rational discourse, democratization and change?

Andanar’s unstated assumption that the government media system needs to improve and that one way of doing this is by training both present and future staff is certainly valid. But he did not mention exactly what the problems are that the training would address.

A number of complaints have been raised against the system by informed citizens, independent journalists and communication academics. These complaints are not new. They go back to the martial law period. The Marcos terror regime used the elaborate and heavily-funded media system it erected, when it shut down much of privately-owned media, as a weapon against its critics and as a means of prettifying itself.

Attempts to reform it after EDSA 1986 failed. The politicians in power didn’t want to lose the advantages of having a media system under their control that they could depend on to grind out positive reports on themselves and the administrations they were part of. Hence the complaints against the system’s pro-administration and anti-opposition bias, and its focus on reports favorable to whatever regime is in power, despite its being sustained by the people’s taxes.

However, the complaints have been more pronounced and more compelling during the past 22 months of the Duterte regime. Not all have been on such incompetencies as the Philippine News Agency’s (PNA) mistaking the Dole Corporation logo for that of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), or the use of the wrong photograph to accompany a story on the war in Marawi City last year, and its Photoshopping others. Rather have most of the complaints been on what seems to be the deliberate dissemination of false information and the use of hate speech to demonize through blogs and social media the political opposition, regime critics, and independent journalists.

President Rodrigo Duterte did declare in one of his speeches last year that he would allow the PCOO “some freedom,” and even suggested that it adopt the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) model. He implied that he would allow its various agencies (among them Radyo ng Bayan, PTV4, and the Philippine News Agency) to report the opposition side on a public issue and even the Communist Party’s views. As usual however, what Mr. Duterte said was not necessarily what happened. The opposition and regime critics have yet to have the opportunity to express themselves via government media.

The consequence is the system’s being widely perceived as a propaganda tool rather than as a means of providing the reliable information citizens need on the government and its policies. The main characteristic of an authentic public information system is its openness to views other than those of the current administration, its allies, its political party, and its other partisans. The citizenry is entitled to a multiplicity of perspectives and to as much information as possible so it can discharge its sovereign duty to decide matters of public policy.

This is a process that demands more information than that being provided by the self-serving advocates of regime policies and actions. In partnership with citizen access to information, it is also in furtherance of the citizen duty to hold the powerful to account.

What has been evident over the last four decades is the need for the government media system to change from being the propaganda instrument of whatever administration is in power into an independent public information system. That system must provide information on what government is planning and doing, and on the response to them of various individuals and groups, including the opposition, dissenters and ordinary citizens.

Achieving that ideal will require first of all assuring the financial independence of the system from whatever regime is in power, perhaps through automatic annual appropriations to sustain its operations. But it will also require the retraining of government media people on the ethics, responsibilities and standards of journalism as a source of accurate information on the issues that confront a sovereign people.

Management skills are important, and so is media technology. But neither is as crucial as assuring the independence of a true public information system committed to the realization and enhancement of democratic discourse, and the re-orientation and retraining of its practitioners towards realizing that aim. China’s media system is far from the ideal source from which the Philippine government can learn to develop such a system.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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