What press freedom’s for

Defend press freedom
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World Press Freedom Day has always been the occasion for responsible journalists to re-examine the state of one of the fundamental needs of ethical practice. This year as in 2018, May 3rd was not so much an occasion for celebration as for alarm. As in many other parts of the world, the independent press is under siege from a government that has made it its life work to harass, restrict, threaten and silence it, and to even arrest practitioners for daring to report the truth.

Filipinos should be asking why every regime from Ferdinand Marcos’ to Rodrigo Duterte’s has looked at independent journalists and media organizations as the enemy. The conventional answer is that governments fear a free press because it can expose official wrongdoing. But journalism is also one of those human enterprises that has the power to either help bring about change if the information it provides is accurate, fair, relevant and complete, or to retard and prevent it if its reports are false, biased for certain interests, irrelevant or just plain incompetent.

Change in this country is publicly accepted as urgent even by those opposed to it. Duterte came to power in 2016 on the wave of the demand for change and even revolution by promising that change is coming, and even Marcos promised to “make this nation great again” in 1965, and to “save the Republic and reform society” when he declared martial law in 1972. 

No one in power has ever said they’re against change for obvious reasons. Some 22 million Filipinos are officially considered poor, with some 50 to 60 million more being vulnerable enough for the quality of their lives and those of their families to be at risk when illness, the loss of a job, or  the death of a breadwinner,  a son or a daughter, or runaway  inflation, befall them. 

Social unrest and the rise of revolutionary movements are among the consequences of this true state of the nation. But the oligarchs in control of the Philippine state, while claiming to be committed to change, have used various means including violence and force to suppress the social and political consequences of poverty rather than address their causes. The outstanding example so far is the declaration of martial law in 1972. But a repeat of it is increasingly becoming likely in these perilous times — if an undeclared version of it isn’t already here.

It should be more than evident that under these conditions, the primary task of journalism is to provide the information and analysis crucial to mass understanding of the dimensions and roots of, and the possible solutions to, Philippine poverty and its attendant consequences. It is the necessary condition to putting in place the changes so urgently needed in this vale of tears. But as an institution that can flourish and achieve that task only under conditions of freedom not only for itself but also for all, the press is also called upon to combat dictatorship and tyranny and to defend and enhance everyone else’s freedom as well as its own.

The bad news is that, with very rare exceptions, much of the journalism that we see is not doing either. The verbal, physical and supposedly “legal” attacks and pressures against the press are continuing. There is the ban on some reporters’ coverage of Malacanang and the cancellation of online news site Rappler’s registration and the tax evasion cases that have been filed against it. 

The same public relations rag that claimed that some independent media organizations are part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Duterte regime has urged its government sponsors to shut down media groups that receive foreign funding.  The insults and hate speech directed at critical journalists not only by regime-paid trolls and its old media mercenaries, but even by President Duterte himself have not abated.

Despite these assaults on individual practitioners and media organizations, and the consequent need to be better at describing and explaining what is happening and why, there is little sense of urgency  evident in much of the reporting  in broadcasting, print and  online news sites. 

However, despite the threats, the insults, the harassments, and the killings — 164 since 1986, of which 12 happened during the current regime — there are nevertheless journalists in both the corporate and alternative media who’re doing the best they can by getting at the truth, and reporting and interpreting it.

There is indeed corruption in the media, as President Duterte has often said. It is a reality every honest practitioner knows, and which has been amply documented. But it isn’t the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) or Rappler he should be accusing of being bought and paid for, but those practitioners and media organizations that daily subject the media audience and social media with false and misleading information in behalf of his government and other interests. Corruption in the media is real enough, but it is mostly the vice of those “journalists” in the pay of government and the media organizations they work for whose interests are closely linked with those of the powerful.

There are journalists in this country who are making the best of a bad situation, who daily risk life, limb and fortune in the service of getting at the truth, and who are therefore competently discharging the fundamental responsibility of providing the media audiences the information they need to make sense of what is happening.  But there are also those creatures — one hesitates to call them journalists — who have made a career out of spreading false and distorted information to serve the political and business ends of their patrons as well as of themselves. 

What’s even worse, however, is that the vast majority of media practitioners assume that their responsibility ends once they’ve quoted the powerful despite the urgency of combating misinformation and disinformation. Their work mostly consists of “he-said-she-said” reporting, in which the claims, no matter how ridiculous, stupid, tasteless and dangerous of this or that side in any issue, as well as the lies of those whose agenda is to mislead media audiences with false, misleading and distorted information in order to retard change and frustrate the democratization of Philippine society, are quoted without analysis, critical discernment, or context. 

This kind of reporting isn’t journalism but stenography, as the Australian film maker and journalist John Pilger warns. The journalist’s task, in the words of Bob Woodward who, together with Carl Bernstein, exposed the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in that led to the resignation of then US President Richard Nixon, “is getting the full story — and the meaning of that story.”

May 3rd was appropriately the occasion to lament, and to pledge resistance to, the attempts of government to abridge press freedom. But to that should have been added the need for much of the media to re-examine how they have been doing their job, and how their reluctance to go beyond simply quoting what this or that source, specially the powerful, say has contributed to keeping their audiences clueless about the most important issues of our time — and in the process has made a mockery of such democratic exercises as elections.
          

Journalists must ask a multiplicity of sources the right questions not only to get the facts but also to provide their print, broadcast or online audiences the meaning of events. Freedom of the press is not just about the right to air, say or print anything according to one’s best lights and conscience. Even more urgently does its practice include the duty of creating the informed and engaged audience that is urgently needed in times of peril to both the press as well as the entire nation such as the present.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Arkibong Bayan.

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