Journalists covering an event (Lito Ocampo/CMFR)
Journalists covering an event (Lito Ocampo/CMFR) Credit: Lito Ocampo /

The relationship between media and power — whether in the form of governments, business corporations, or institutions with large followings such as churches — has always been problematic.

The media are almost always the first targets of repression, whether in Indonesia during the 1965 coup and the decades that followed it; in Thailand in the present day where the military junta has taken down supposedly offensive posts in online news sites and blogs, and disallowed the holding of press forums — or in the Philippines, where, upon the declaration of martial law, the Marcos terror regime shut down newspapers and radio and TV stations, required all means of reproducing texts and photos to be registered, created a ministry of information from which all government issuances were to be sourced, seized control of the broadcast networks, and allowed only crony-owned newspapers to publish.

Even in supposedly free societies, however, it is still possible for governments and other centers of power to transform the media into their virtual handmaidens. The American communication scholar Ben Bagdikian describes the US media system, for example, as “a private ministry of information” that basically reflects the US government position on a vast range of public and international issues. In the US as elsewhere in the world, the private ownership of global media organizations also endows the handful of conglomerates that control them the power to shape both the news and entertainment that reach billions daily according to the demands of their political and economic interests.

Despite the end of dictatorship, Constitutional protection, and an abundance of jurisprudence affirming the imperative of press independence in behalf of the public need for information, in the Philippine setting government and press engagement has often been acrimonious if not outrightly antagonistic.

As much as the outgoing Aquino administration may contest it, its relationship with the media during the last six years has not been all sweetness and light. Mr. Aquino, for example, had several time publicly criticized the press for its supposed bias and inaccuracy — a complaint with which the press is familiar because it goes back to several post-Marcos administrations including that of his mother, that of Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada’s, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s — except that Mr. Aquino has also been critical of the media for their supposed focus on his love life.

Mr. Aquino seems to have expected the press to report only the good news about his administration and to ignore the bad by, among other means, not asking the hard questions during his press conferences and interviews. And yet the task of the press is precisely to ask those questions in behalf of public interest. Mr. Aquino’s view was therefore a serious misreading of the essential role of the press in providing the information and analysis the public needs to make sense of their society if they’re to change it.

Like his soon to be predecessor, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte apparently shares the same apprehension and discomfort with media probing. Weeks before his inauguration, the relationship between the press and Mr. Duterte has taken a turn for the worse, fueled by his remarks about the killing of journalists, and by his anger over what he thinks was a call by Philippine media groups to boycott his press conferences until he apologizes.

It was the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF-Reporters Without Borders) that issued that call without consultation with its supposed partners in the Philippines. It’s a call that has been rejected by, among other journalists’ and media advocacy groups, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP — the Association of Philippine Broadcasters). Mr. Duterte, however, has called his own boycott, by announcing that his press conferences would henceforth be solely held through the government media system, and that he will not grant interviews with the press and media during his entire six-year term of office.

The RSF call for a boycott was at one and the same time (1) not feasible, (2) an overreaction, and (3) ultimately detrimental to the public need for information. Any boycott would have collapsed once a single news organization decided to break it. It was also an overreaction because what it was in response to — Mr. Duterte’s supposedly encouraging the killing of corrupt journalists — did not happen, although some have argued that it’s too fine a distinction to make between his saying that journalists have been killed because they’re corrupt and his supposedly “endorsing” the killing of corrupt journalists. (It may be a fine distinction but a distinction nevertheless. Few may remember it now, but in a number of times Benigno Aquino III not only minimized the seriousness and the impact on Philippine society of the killing of journalists, he also said that most of those killed were corrupt. No one then claimed that he was endorsing killings.)

What’s even more important is that a boycott would deprive the citizenry of information on what Mr. Duterte’s plans are, what he’s doing once he’s in office, etc. — information crucial to both Mr. Duterte’s own campaign against corruption, and, beyond Mr. Duterte’s term, to the continuing imperative of change and democratization.

But it is nevertheless true that Mr. Duterte’s statements about journalists’ being killed because they did something wrong, specifically because they were corrupt, was prone to misinterpretation—and misinterpret it much of the press including foreign news agencies and media watch groups did.

As in several instances during the last six years of the Aquino administration, journalists’ and media advocacy groups have tried to explain to the powerful what the press’ role is. That has never been as urgent as today, when developments have reached such a state that they’re threatening to lead to a situation in which much of the information the public would get would be through the government media system, which itself has not been a paragon of accuracy and fairness, which the public looks at with justifiable suspicion as a mere manufacturer of contrived good news, and which therefore it usually ignores. (Hardly anyone listens to government radio, much less watch government TV.)

Additionally, it would mean that the thoughts, ideas and policy statements of a President Duterte could not be elaborated on, questioned, criticized or even reported by those sectors of the press that may be considered, if somewhat loosely, as independent, accurate and fair.

The press needs to recall its own fundamental responsibilities, its values as well as its professional protocols in these challenging times. What journalists should have been doing was to ask to be further enlightened whenever Mr. Duterte said something even remotely controversial. Was he saying that corrupt journalists should be killed was a fundamental question begging to be raised. It was never asked during that June 2 Davao press conference. But that could be entirely moot if Mr. Duterte does not change his mind about boycotting non-government media.

The relationship between media and power has never been easy. Mr. Duterte’s emergence as a national political figure, his in fact assuming the Presidency of the Republic in less than three weeks, has thrown that reality into harsh relief. The first task of both the media community and those in Mr. Duterte’s immediate circle under these circumstances should be clear: it is to create a situation in which both the press and the incoming administration can learn to live with each other for the next six years. The alternative for the press would be a near total absence of access to the country’s highest official. For the latter, it would mean the absence of reliable communication with his constituency, since a government media system burdened by years of acting as a public relations arm of whoever is in power cannot provide that link with the citizenry.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of Lito Ocampo/CMFR)

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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