Despite the usual lament that they’re too dependent on the government, Filipinos especially the poor don’t run to the government when they need help; they call on the media first, whether as intermediaries with this or that agency, or as themselves the provider of solutions to their problems.

This is markedly evident in broadcasting, where “public service” programs proliferate and rate. The need for these programs is driven by the increasing failure of public institutions to provide the many services that people need, such as police protection from violence, garbage collection, and, as is being demonstrated by the current crisis, rescue and relief.

Few Filipinos during “normal” times would call the Mayor’s office to complain about garbage on the streets, but they seldom hesitate to call the media to intercede in their behalf. They don’t call the police when someone’s firing off a gun in the community either; they call the media for help instead, and not only when the drunk shooter’s himself a policeman.

As floodwaters rose last September 26, it was the media that received the most calls for help and which served as the distressed people’s link to government agencies. Collective experience has shown that media intervention can prod into action government agencies that would otherwise ignore appeals for help, or, if they do respond at all, would take their own sweet time doing so. Without articulating this argument, those Filipinos who needed help acted on the assumption that it’s the media they had to call. They knew from experience, for example, that police and fire services are notorious for their slow response even to the direst emergencies, but that media attention usually hurries things up.

In the aftermath of storm “Ondoy’s” rains, while continuing to transmit calls for help to government agencies, it was also the media — ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7 particularly — which rushed to provide relief to flood victims.

What’s been obvious for years is that the media have had to assume roles in Philippine society additional to their basic responsibility of providing information as well as interpretation and analysis on issues of public concern. What’s less obvious is that this burden has been thrust on the media because of critical state failures.

The Philippines has in fact been in the Failed States Index of the US think tank Fund for Peace since 2005. The country of our distress is not yet a failed state, but it already has characteristics indicative of that possibility. Those characteristics place it in the second worst category (Orange: Warning) after Red: Alert. Among those characteristics is the failure to protect the population from violence as well as the inability to provide social and other services.

In addition is population pressure so great that it has made providing food and other necessities extremely problematic. The catastrophic non-policy that has kept Philippine population growth among the highest in Asia is responsible for the pressure, which over the years has intensified and promises to intensify further unless a rigorous population control policy is implemented.

The displacement of large numbers of the population as the result of incidental or deliberate acts of violence as well as state repression is also an indicator of pending or actual state failure. Among other consequences, population displacement, which occurs regularly in the Philippines, causes food shortages, lack of clean water and other humanitarian and security problems.

Another indicator is a phenomenon most Filipinos may not associate with state failure: the “brain drain” of professionals, middle class people and intellectuals to other countries which has an impact not only on the current state of intellectual life and the capacities of the professional class, but also on national development.

Related to the brain drain is inequality in economic status, access to job opportunities and education, as well as group poverty levels and high infant morality rates.

The Philippines is not in severe economic decline, but shares with failed states such phenomena as the growth of “hidden economies” like the drug trade, smuggling, and increasing national indebtedness.

In at least two areas, however, the Philippines is so close to the danger zone as to be in a critical state. These include endemic corruption on the part of the ruling elite, the increasing aversion of the same elite to transparency and accountability, its efforts to erode democratic representation, and the resulting lack of confidence in state institutions and processes among the people evident both during the present crisis as well as during “normal” times.

In addition, we are also witnessing the accelerating loss by the government of its monopoly over “legitimate” armed force due to the proliferation of various armed groups. The loss of this monopoly makes the implementation of policy even more problematic, and in turn leads to the widespread violation of human rights as a government response to its own weaknesses despite constitutional and other legal guarantees.

Both have other consequences, one of the worst being the emergence of de facto dictatorship and the privatization by the elite of such state agencies as the security forces including the military and the police, and even of tax and other collection and financial agencies.

Of equal interest is the rise of acts of violence including the political assassination of civilians, the denial of due process to political prisoners, the regular abuse of the legal, political and social rights of citizens, the politicization of what should be independent institutions such as the judiciary, repression of the opposition, and harassment of the press.

If these indicators seem familiar, it is because they are already pronounced in the Philippine setting. Their existence in fact explains the many roles the media have been forced to play, which, while indicative of the media’s capacity and readiness to respond to Filipino needs, also indicate an emerging trend towards state failure.


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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