press conference

During a May 31 press conference after the 2016 campaign for the Presidency of this endangered republic, a reporter asked  President-elect  Rodrigo Duterte his views on the killing of journalists, which among other consequences had led the US-based press freedom watch group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to describe the Philippines as “the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism.”

Mr. Duterte  not only practically justified the killings by saying that those killed “did something wrong.” He also implied that all the  broadcasters and print journalists killed in the rural areas were corrupt, despite research findings that only ten percent of them had ever been so accused, while some 90 percent were exposing official corruption and/or local criminality.

Mr. Duterte’s declaration turned out to be indicative of what has since been his  repressive press and media policy. Over the past six years of his troubling watch, he has caused the shutdown of ABS-CBN network, the withdrawal of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registration of Rappler news site and the persecution and harassment of its staff, and the banning of journalists from covering his Office as well as public events in which he is present, while his military and police minions “red tag” and arrest on fabricated charges media practitioners he does not approve of.

Deny it as many journalists will, these attacks have dampened the media’s essential role of monitoring government and holding it to account. And even that most fundamental media responsibility of all — providing their audiences the information they need — has also suffered.

Not only is it because the shutdown of ABS-CBN has denied the communities it used to serve such vital information as the imminence of volcanic eruptions and typhoons. It is also because much reporting has fallen into simply quoting this or that source without analysis or interpretation — officially so as not to appear biased, but in reality in fear of  persecution. 

Equally distressing is the flagging interest of some media organizations in asking the hard questions that journalists have to ask of the powerful and those aspiring for public office, and even in fact-checking their claims.  

Two recent incidents come to mind. The Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms was appraised during a hearing on March 9 by, among other groups, the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) stopped them from entering the National Printing Office (NPO) where ballots for the 2022 elections were being printed, and the Comelec warehouse in Laguna in which vote-counting machines are stored. Journalists were similarly excluded.

Only four online media organizations reported the hearing. Neither print nor radio and TV did. Only later did one broadsheet report the absence of witnesses to the printing of ballots. It was followed by other print and TV organizations nearly a week after the event, on March 15. Only then did the Comelec allow media and election watchdog groups into the NPO after allowing access to its Laguna warehouse the day before, on March 14.

The question this incident provokes is why only a handful of online media organizations reported the Comelec breach of the Omnibus Election Code. One possible answer is the hesitancy of some media organizations in calling attention to, and being critical of, “untouchable” government agencies whose members are so evidently well connected they are unlikely to suffer any consequences from even their most egregious offenses.

Almost at the same time that all this was happening, some media organizations replicated the claim of one broadsheet that half a million (!) people attended the March 13 Marcos Junior-Sara Duterte rally in  Las Piñas, a claim the Marcos-Duterte camp  attributed  to the local police, which, however, denied making that estimate, and said that only some 18,000 were in attendance in that rally. But two online news sites nevertheless repeated in their reports the same 500,000 figure, while another broadsheet did the same.

In addition to the possibility that what  makes such bad reporting possible is the total absence of the skepticism journalists are supposed to have a healthy dose of — “Half a million? Really?” — is the suspicion that  there are under-the-table “arrangements” between some media organizations and the more moneyed candidates to make the latter look more popular than their rivals.

But it is also one more indication of the disturbing development in some media sectors of the mindset that even if something seems wrong, there isn’t much sense in looking into  it because doing so will most likely get one and one’s media organization into trouble. 

Evident is the  need for all this to change by restoring the democratic space — and  the focus on the principle of  doing the right thing  as an ethical and professional responsibility — that would encourage all media practitioners to be as thorough in their roles as government watchdogs as their colleagues who, despite tremendous difficulties, are trying their best to provide the citizenry both the relevant information and analysis these times need. 

An administration committed to the defense and enhancement of that space, of which free expression and press freedom are primary elements, can help do that — with, however, the involvement of both the media themselves and the citizenry. But glaringly absent in the current election campaign is any mention of the media as an election issue. No journalist or media organization has asked the candidates, whether for President, Vice President, Senator, Congressperson, or Party List Nominee what their policies on the media are or would be once they are elected to the posts they are running  for. 

No one has even raised, as did that journalist in 2016, any question on this or that candidate’s views on the continuing killing of journalists, the answer to which could provide a clue today, as it did then, on the candidate’s attitude towards, and what could therefore be his or her policies on, the press and media. 

The media should raise such questions now, before the May elections, so the candidates can reveal in their platforms of governance whether they intend to honor and respect, to even enhance through words and deeds, the rights to free expression and press freedom the Constitution guarantees and protects — or, for those tyrannically inclined, whether, a la Rodrigo Duterte, they will ignore and even undermine those rights once they are in power.

From the mid-1960s until 1972 when the Marcos dictatorship shut them down, not only the magazines but also some broadsheets  were providing in-depth pieces on the most urgent political, social and other issues the Filipino nation had to contend with. But almost on the eve of the declaration of martial law, then Philippines Free Press Editor Teodoro M. Locsin, Sr. described the Philippine press as “cheap” rather than free. 

He was not referring to all of the media, and neither was he describing only how cheaply some of its sectors could be bought, but also how even those others aware of the value of truth-telling to people’s lives could be harassed and threatened into silence by an administration focused on keeping itself in power through any and whatever means including repression.

It is to preclude the election of another such regime that the entire country needs to hear what their media policy is or will be from the candidates vying for public office, most specially the Presidency. Make no mistake about it, every last one of them including the most mindless has one.

First published in BusinessWorld.

Luis V. Teodoro

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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