I expect our friends in the media, especially in radio and print, as well as the block-timers and those in community newspapers, to monitor their own ranks. May you give life to the basic principle of your vocation: to explain vital issues; to be fair and truthful; and to raise the level of public discourse. (translation from the Filipino original mine)
— Benigno Aquino III
July 26, 2010
HIS REVELATIONS about the gargantuan bonuses MWSS executives had been getting despite a water crisis he refuses to call a crisis may have shocked those Filipinos whom tales of government corruption and profligacy have not desensitized.
The information that the Arroyo government had been importing tons and tons of rice way above what’s needed, in the process further depleting the public treasury, may have even awed a public grown cynical over the conduct of its officials.
But puzzling instead was Benigno Aquino III’s expression of hope that the media would monitor their own ranks, and that the press would give life to the basic journalistic principle of explaining vital issues and to be fair and truthful so as to raise the level of public discourse.
Mr. Aquino made the reference to the media (he meant the press) in a portion of his 3,768-word State of the Nation Address last Monday that declared these to be times of sacrifice (“panahon ng sakripisyo”), and that the necessary companion of citizen rights and liberty is his or her duty to each other and the country (“Kaakibat ng ating mga karapatan at kalayaan ay ang tungkulin natin sa kapwa at sa bayan”).
Some media organizations linked his statements about the media to extrajudicial killings, but Mr. Aquino mentioned the killing of political activists several paragraphs earlier (and, it must be noted, committed his government to solving only those six that had occurred since he assumed the Presidency last July 1).
By urging them to discharge their basic responsibility of being fair and truthful (or accurate) so as to raise the level of public discourse, was he also implying that they have been otherwise — i.e., biased and inaccurate? Was he then admonishing the media, and in the process unknowingly validating the claim that journalists and media practitioners are to blame for their being killed?
He also seemed to be saying that the media had NOT been monitoring their ranks. He did not say why the media had to do so. But we can surmise that it’s in furtherance of discharging their basic (or fundamental) responsibility of truth-telling.
Mr. Aquino — and his media advisers — are mistaken in these assumptions. The media, particularly the press (meaning the social institution charged with providing information and analysis through print, broadcasting and online), have been monitoring their own ranks since 1946, or after the restoration of Philippine independence, although press and media advocacy awareness of that need became more pronounced in the aftermath of the martial law period.
The media’s monitoring of their own ranks has had two meanings: the first has to do with keeping watch over ethical and professional lapses (which include lack of fairness, inaccuracy, and the corruption that makes fair and accurate reporting problematic). This watch has included providing training in ethics and standards to fill the gaps in practitioner education.
The second has been focused on media safety and defense, in response to the attacks on, and the killing of journalists and media workers that began to increase in number in 1986, and soared to unprecedented levels starting 2001, when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power.
Mr. Aquino’s media advisers don’t have to look far, should they want a list of the journalist and media advocacy groups that have been monitoring their own ranks to enhance the press capacity to do its mandated tasks.
Among these groups are the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Press Institute, the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster sa Pilipinas, and the Center for Community Journalism and Development.
There is also a coalition, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists that has been at the forefront of prosecuting the killers of journalists through private prosecutors, and aiding the survivors of slain journalists.
These groups maintain links with, and some are members of, such international press freedom watch groups as the Southeast Asian Press Alliance based in Thailand; the Canada-based International Free Expression Exchange; the UK-based Article XIX; the Committee to Protect Journalists based in New York; the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, etc.
In case Mr. Aquino’s media experts don’t know it, the latter groups have been focused on the Philippines as a global site in the killing of journalists, and as, uniquely among supposedly democratic countries that are not (officially) at war, the one country in the world where despite constitutional protection, press freedom has been under siege for decades.
The Philippine groups’ programs have had for central purpose the defense of press freedom as a necessary component of democratic governance, and in furtherance of raising the level of public discourse to which Mr. Aquino’s speech seemed to assume the Philippine press has not been contributing.
Mr. Aquino was wrong on both counts about the media. His SONA was also remiss in its failure to recognize the imperative, together with that of investigating corruption, of his planned Truth Commission’s looking into how the previous government created a climate that encouraged the killing of journalists through an anti-press offensive that included the threats and harassments it unleashed during the state of emergency in 2006, its dragging its feet in the search for, and the investigation and prosecution of the killers of journalists, and its practice of naming journalists’ groups enemies of the state and including community journalists in the military’s Orders of Battle.
Mr. William Esposo of the Philippine Star denies that he was ever a public relations practitioner, which this column assumed last week.