IT’S NOT rocket science, and neither is it brain surgery: the country has a new President, and the press must re-examine its assumptions when it covers government. The ex-President it loved to hate is busy reinventing herself. She’s no longer in Malacanang, and with her have gone some of the most offensive public officials this country has had to pay out of public funds. The relationship based on suspicion, mistrust, and outright hostility between the press and the government ceased to exist last July 1. A new one will be, and should be, taking its place.
Will the task of getting information be hard for the press, or will it be easy? Will government officials be so transparent as to develop through the press the public awareness of what government’s doing every democracy needs? How its relationship with the press will develop and what that relationship will be like will largely depend on the Aquino III government and its officials.
If the Arroyo government had such a bad press, it was mostly its own doing. It was opaque rather than transparent, and looked at the press as an object of manipulation to prevent the public from knowing about the web of corruption it had woven over the past nine years. The bottom line was the undisputed existence of onerous contracts, kickback-built projects, misuse of public funds, the most egregious human rights violations including extra-judicial killings, incompetence in the highest places, and plain bad governance. All these it tried to conceal, passing off as progress Filipinos’ leaving the country in search of jobs, and denying the existence of the hunger spreading in city and countryside.
The militancy with which the press watched the Arroyo government was worthy of the best of Philippine press traditions, the lead one being the assumption that it had to reveal what government officials were trying so hard to conceal.
Investigative journalism led in this task, as dangerous and difficult as it often was. It was a necessity the times demanded, given the policy of concealment rather than transparency. While some practitioners made a career of exposing wrongdoing, they nevertheless provided a vital service. The information the press, including investigative journalists, made available enabled the public to form the opinions and explore the options available to address the country’s problems in governance and the increasing impoverishment of its people. At least partly can the press be credited with the electorate’s decision to throw the Arroyo government out and to elect Aquino III.
But while how they conduct themselves, and the way they relate to the press shapes the relationship between governments and the press, the latter does have a say in defining that relationship. The primary responsibility may be the Aquino government’s. But the Philippine press will have to contribute to the making of that relationship, if it’s to provide Filipinos the information they need to form opinions on public matters and to discharge their duties as the country’s alleged sovereigns.
But barely a week into the new government, it did seem as if some reporters at least were still functioning as if Gloria Macapagal Arroyo were still in power. The members of the Malacanang press corps were angry when they were made to wait for hours for Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda to show up at a scheduled press conference. They ignored explanations that Lacierda had an urgent matter to attend to. They were also belligerent, and at least one reporter tried his mightiest to extract from Lacierda a confession that a Malacanang memorandum dismissing non-Career Executive Service Officers from their jobs was a major blunder worthy of the Arroyo era. Education Secretary designate Armin Luistro echoed the annoyance of Lacierda over the Malacanang press conference incident when he accused the press of provoking public disaffection with government.
Those were fighting words, and President Aquino III had to apologize in behalf of his two Cabinet secretaries. But both had reason to be annoyed nevertheless. The attempt of the Malacanang reporter to force Lacierda to say that someone had goofed, and the Education reporter’s pressing Luistro for a statement on the Education Department’s sex-education program were typical of the practice, so common in the Philippine press, of pitting one official against another, and a government official against the public.
But while the press can be annoying and malicious, and some of its practitioners equipped with egos as huge as cathedrals, this doesn’t alter the fact that its basic duty in covering government in a democracy, or what claims to be a democracy, is that of getting the information on matters of public relevance citizens are entitled to. The first has to do with means and methods — even with manners — and is the proper stuff of ethics seminars. The second has to do with what the press in a democracy is all about.
The popularity of Aquino III doesn’t reduce one whit the primacy of that imperative. Aquino’s popularity doesn’t mean he and his government will always be in the right, and will never make mistakes. That popularity in fact makes close press monitoring, including investigative journalism, even more urgent a public need, as was clearly demonstrated in the country’s experience with another President who was also elected with a clear mandate.
Joseph Estrada’s popularity and media skills made press scrutiny even more necessary. His popularity and the ease with which he could be interviewed tended to predispose the press to Estrada-friendly coverage, and for too many reporters to ignore his many failings. During his first year the press ignored such warning signs as his friendships with shady characters and his harem of mistresses as factors affecting the way he was governing the country.
That Aquino III has not the same vices as Estrada isn’t the point. The popularity of any official doesn’t make the job of the press any easier. It makes it more difficult in that the press will have to look beyond that popularity into the realities of how he or she governs, in furtherance of the press responsibility to inform public — despite, and sometimes even contrary to, public sentiment.