Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang
Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia. Hosier Lane is known for its street art. (Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash)

A sovereign citizenry’s right and duty of monitoring and evaluating public issues and problems, and of commenting on them and proposing alternative approaches and solutions, are best served by a free press. But because their hold on power partly depends on being perceived as infallible, most governments including the Philippines’ own detest criticism, hence their antipathy to press freedom and free expression.

Despite the pretensions of the bureaucrats that run them, all governments do make mistakes even if they’re not corrupt, vicious or incompetent. Their blunders can only be corrected by a politically-engaged public whose need for relevant and accurate information the independent media can regularly provide.  

The suppression of free expression and press freedom diminishes citizen capacity to perform this essential task even in “normal” times. But it is specially dangerous in periods of crisis, when being informed or misinformed can be a matter of life or death. 

That truth has been starkly evident during and in the aftermath of the disasters this country is prone to. It is once more being demonstrated in the current COVID-19 public health emergency, when timely and accurate information could have mitigated its impact not only on the Philippines but also on the rest of the world. 

The information on the threat came late, was incomplete, and led to delayed government responses in many countries including the Philippines. But it wasn’t the Philippine media that were responsible, but those of another country, in one more demonstration of the fact that the fight for press freedom is a global imperative: a free press is in the interest of every living being in this planet.

An outbreak of “severe pneumonia” in Wuhan that later turned out to have been caused by a hitherto unknown variety of coronavirus had been noted as early as November, 2019, but was reported by the government-controlled media of China only on December 31.

Government regulation of the press in capitalist China had a far reaching international impact. An entire month during which appropriate steps could have been taken to contain and control the spread of COVID-19, the contagion the novel coronavirus has spread throughout the planet, passed with neither much of China’s population nor the rest of the world’s knowing about it.

Not only did the Chinese government suppress information on the contagion. It also spread misinformation about it, which prevented other countries from quickly and effectively responding to it. Instead the ailment spread rapidly and is killing thousands all over the globe.  In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, what and how journalists report, interpret and analyze events, issues and State policies can make the difference between life or death.  China’s partly successful attempt at controlling the content and amount of information on the new coronavirus strain from one of its key cities naturally provoked the question of what its government was trying to hide and why.

In the Philippines, many journalists provide the day’s intelligence and analysis people need to survive and cope with typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, as well as public health crises like SARS and the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the sciences and the arts, by enabling the many to take control of their own lives the media are an indispensable power in the realization of the freedom humanity needs to rise above and overcome the uncertainties of existence.

But the paradox is that journalists and the media can be true to this life-saving task only if they are themselves beyond the control and command of another power. To serve the ends of freedom the media have to be free from State control, from manipulation by political and economic interests, and from their own limitations.

Government accreditation requirements, and penalties for the generation and transmission of disinformation (“fake news”) — against which there are already excessively punitive laws in some countries in Asia, among them Singapore — are some of the most current State attempts to abridge press freedom and journalists’ independence during the current crisis.

The first empowers government to control the news narrative by deciding which journalists and media organizations may or may not cover such critical areas as quarantined communities and what is happening to the population there in terms of their health as well as food, shelter, livelihood and other needs.  It effectively shields government not only from criticism of its policies and actions, but also from what could be constructive and meaningful inputs from health professionals in the field and the ordinary folk under the threat of contagion.

The second is supplemental to the first. The anti-false information laws already in place in some Asian jurisdictions as well as those recently introduced in others can be used to suppress reporting governments regard as unfavorable to them, and to legitimize what puts them in a good light, whether either is true or false. In addition to abridging press freedom and the right to free expression, such laws limit the inherent right of the people to access a multiplicity of sources to enable them to make informed decisions on matters that concern them.

In the current public health emergency, the answers to such questions as, for example, what one can do to insure the continuing health of one’s kin and community in addition to taking the precautions needed to avoid infection are of critical value. By consulting experts, government sources, medical and health front-liners and even ordinary folk, journalists can meet that need. And yet, by appropriating the power to decide between “fake news” and true, governments can conceal as much information as they provide through the threat of punishing those citizens, journalists and media organizations they accuse of generating and disseminating disinformation.

The State is the most common source of media control and regulation. But such other factors as the commercial and political concerns of the private sector also intrude into journalists’ independence. In the time of COVID-19, in behalf of their business interests some media organizations have yielded to State pressure to emphasize if not completely echo the government narrative. They have thus compromised their and their journalists’ autonomy — and limited public knowledge and understanding of what’s going on and its impact on their lives.

Thankfully, however, many practitioners in both the corporate and alternative media have remained true to the responsibilities of the profession by continuing to report and interpret events and issues to the best of their ability despite the difficulties created by both the health crisis itself as well as by government restrictions. They are themselves in this sense as much front-liners as health workers in the fight against COVID-19.

But whether under “normal” conditions or otherwise, the true journalist knows that reporting what is happening, and providing the interpretation and analysis the times call for, is his or her primary mandate. Because their loyalty is to the facts and the public, they must, above all and no matter the odds, resist the demands of both State and private interests to deny them the exercise of their responsibility of holding the powerful to account and to make of journalism and media practice nothing more than recording and repeating what they say without verification, interpretation and analysis. 

These COVID-19-threatened times require the renewed commitment of journalists and media organizations everywhere on planet earth to the independence that’s indispensable in meeting the human need for accurate, relevant, and life-saving information and analysis. Silence, surrender, complicity with, and acquiescence to the powers that rule this world simply won’t do.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

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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