It takes a village

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 Updated:

MANILA, Philippines — When [Executive Director] Bill Luz asked me to address the Makati Business Club two weeks ago, I asked him why he wanted someone so small and so puny to speak for the press. After all, we are supposed to be a powerful institution - loud, bold, fearless, beholden to no one. I am sure you expected someone more formidable. Instead you have me, just another weary and scarred veteran wandering shell-shocked amid the minefields of journalism.

Let me confess to you that I sometimes rue the day I stumbled into this profession. It was 1982, the same year [Editor-in-Chief] Joe Burgos and the entire staff of We Forum were hauled off to jail for writing that Marcos’s World War II medals were fake. It was not the most auspicious time to start a journalism career. I should have known better.

That year, I joined the staff of the Sunday magazine of what was then called the Bulletin Today. No one ever told me what the rules were, but they were apparent to anyone who lasted beyond a week in that establishment (I lasted more than three years). The rules were: No stories critical of the ruling family; no photographs that showed the president or any member of his family in anything but a flattering light; no articles that even hinted that there was something less than legitimate about the family wealth.

I am telling you this to remind you what it was like then and why it is important that the press not be like that again. What we got in 1986 was freedom. And it was, I recall, something we thought was precious. Since then, this freedom has been much devalued. Some people now think it is a curse rather than a blessing. We have been accused of abusing our freedom, of using it for the basest of motives: to sell newspapers. We have been told that we do not deserve of this gift, that we have never demonstrated the capacity for responsibility that goes with it.

Our detractors are right. Some of us are reckless. Some of us make up quotes; some of us sensationalize stories or write baseless reports to suit screaming headlines. Some of us even accept money from their sources. In fact, I will dare to say that some of us are paid to write positive articles or not to write damning ones paid discreetly through intermediaries, of course, but paid nonetheless by some of you who are in this room today.

I will even venture to say that some of us receive money from some of the highest government officials. Ironically, these are the same officials who accuse us of being irresponsible and careless. I will tell you something that Secretary Rod Reyes probably already knows. Last April, two news photographers managed to snap pictures of the president and his companion of many years relaxing with their young children in Subic. That photograph was never printed because a Malacañang [the presidential palace] representative asked newspapers to kill and I use this word in the journalistic sense to kill the story.

The official argued that there was no public interest in publishing the photograph of a presidential paramour. Besides, he said, such a photo would only hurt the First Lady. The newspapers agreed. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton.

I am telling you this story to make two points. One, that excessive, irresponsible and inventive as it may sometimes be, the press has exercised some restraint in its coverage of government in general and the presidency in particular. Despite what Malacañang thinks, the media have actually been circumspect and have demonstrated discretion in their reportage on the president’s private life. What the president does in public is a different matter, and I think that no one here will argue that the public actuations of government officials are fair game for the press.

Point number two: The government, in general, and the presidency, in particular, has a vast media (I will not say propaganda) machine at its disposal to counter or neutralize negative reporting. The government has one newspaper chain, two sequestered TV stations, one official government TV station and 32 radio stations throughout the country. In addition, it has the Office of the Press Secretary, the Office of the Presidential Spokesman, Radio-TV Malacañang and the Philippine Information Agency.

Let us put things in perspective. When President Estrada talks about unfair reporting and a carping, hectoring press, he actually means only the [Philippine Daily] Inquirer. The other thorn in the president’s side was the Manila Times, but that paper has closed down, its independent editorial staff has been thrown out to the streets, and the paper’s assets have been sold to owners who will likely be more friendly to Malacañang. It is, when you think of it, an uneven battle, the entire arsenal of the government media war machine versus one stubborn – and its critics say also irresponsible, self-righteous, careless, self-indulgent-newspaper. Is this a threat to press freedom? We can argue this point later. For now, I will only say it is overkill.

Arguably, the Inquirer is the biggest newspaper and carries a great deal of clout and influence. But what about newspaper number 2, the [Manila] Bulletin? From the looks of it, the rules in that paper have not changed much since I was there 16 years ago. Let me repeat. The rules were: No stories critical of the ruling family; no unflattering photographs of the president or any member of his family; no articles that hinted that there was something illegitimate about the family wealth. During martial law, the Bulletin‘s headlines tended to be like this: School Opens Today, President Delivers State of the Nation Address Today, Classes Suspended Today. The Bulletin‘s headlines are not much different today. And the rules that operate there, as far as coverage of the presidency is concerned, were the same that prevailed during the Marcos period.

The truth is there is little reason for Malacañang to worry. No newspaper in its right mind will print whether a presidential companion is really building a mansion on a half-a-hectare property in exclusive Wack-Wack [neighborhood]. Few journalists will risk incurring the presidential ire by reporting that a supposedly disgraced ex-presidential adviser is still happily making deals. The editor who loves his job will probably not question why the gambling industry has been parceled out to presidential friends. The next time a presidential son runs away with the presidential jet, maybe even the Inquirer will think twice about reporting the incident.

President Estrada has said that the issue is not press freedom. True, no journalist has been hauled off to jail. No reporter has been given a lethal injection for getting his quotes wrong. Heavily armed troops have not shuttered any newspaper or padlocked a TV station. The Inquirer complains, but really, it is still doing business, perhaps more briskly so now than before.

The Philippines is not quite Burma or Singapore.

To be sure, the media situation here is much better than that in many of our Southeast Asian neighbors, but this is no thanks to Malacañang’s forbearance. We have a press whose freedoms are guaranteed by the constitution and the law. Our citizens strongly support a free press. Our newspapers played an important role in the struggle for democracy, and Filipinos can rightfully say that they fought for and won their freedom. It was not something given to them by an enlightened leader.

As of today, our freedoms are safe even if they are being subverted. In place of Marcos-style tactics to control the press, more sophisticated methods of influencing media reportage are being used. Instead of the strong-arm of the state, market mechanisms are being employed to put the squeeze on critical reportage. Resorting to private entities — particularly businesspeople who own newspapers or advertise in them — to clamp down on newspapers is a tacit acknowledgment that the use of state power to control the media is not publicly acceptable. But whether done directly through the state or through market mechanisms, these tactics undermine the independence of the media and reduce the diversity of voices offered to the public.

Actually, these days, you don’t have to jail journalists or close down newspapers to ensure favorable reporting. In a democratic setup, there are more subtle ways to achieve the desired effect without having to violate the constitution or the law. One is through “envelopmental journalism” or bribing journalists. Everyone in the media knows that this is a reality; there is argument only about the extent of the problem and the damage it causes. The systematic bribery of journalists, through a sophisticated system established with the complicity of PR firms and practitioners and the entities that hire them, distorts news coverage in many harmful ways. It happens in part because journalists are poorly paid, but also because companies and government agencies are willing to pay a high price for favorable coverage.

A second way to undermine the independence of the media is the use of advertisers to tighten the noose on critical news organizations. The Inquirer‘s is the most recent case. But it is not the only instance where advertising power was used to tone down critical reporting. The reality is that in probably all television stations, the cardinal rule is not to upset big advertisers. In TV, if the choice were between running a tax-evasion story and airing a beer or cigarette commercial, I assure you news managers would choose the ad.

A third way to control the media is by arm-twisting media owners who are vulnerable to government pressure because they own businesses that are subject to official regulation or depend on government favors in order to survive. Nearly all of those who own media companies in the Philippines today are families who run big business houses. Newspapers have been used by their owners to promote their businesses, put down their rivals, even to contest the results of public biddings in which the press proprietors lost.

Media proprietors have tended to take politically safe positions, discouraging reports or exposés that will incur the ire of government. Because business in this country is often subject to whimsical regulation, and because the success of business here is often determined by who your friends are rather than how well you have invested your money, newspaper owners who run business empires are vulnerable to government pressure. Ownership is the true chink in the armor of the mighty press. And it is a credit to President Estrada’s perceptiveness that he has realized this so early in his term.

How then can these new-generation tactics of media control be resisted? Forums like these help and so do other ways of informing the public about the problems. Rallies and statements make a lot of noise and drum up interest in the issue of media muzzling. But these are not enough. A free press needs to be buttressed by much more than the constitution and the law. A free press needs the support not only of noisy publics. A free press will flourish only if it is also supported by structures that allow the media to be both free and responsible.

Earlier this week, President Estrada said in Cebu: “The issue is the values and ethics of some of the press.” He is right. A free press has to be ethical and responsible; otherwise it risks losing its credibility and alienating public sympathy. Ethics is a problem, although it is difficult to be lectured to about ethics by a President whose men have been accused of distributing wads of money to acquiescent journalists.

What is the solution to the ethics problem? Certainly not forcing owners to sell critical newspapers to Malacañang’s business allies. Imagine a scenario where the Inquirer is sold to a Palace crony. Will it be a better paper? Not likely. It will be a Malacañang mouthpiece, distorting news and information so that the president will not lose his equanimity. The establishment of a crony press is not the sensible substitute for sensationalism and irresponsibility. For all its perceived faults, we need the Inquirer for its boldness and daring.

We can take comfort in the fact that when everyone else has been silenced, the Inquirer will still scream.

You do not have to be told that a free and credible press is good for business. Investors require transparency if they are to make sound business decisions. A free press encourages the development of an even playing field for business, helping struggling economies avoid the pitfalls of cronyism and corruption. After the Asian crisis, foreign investors are putting a premium on access to information in deciding where to put their money. Foreign analysts are telling us that one reason the Philippines weathered the crisis so well was because of the openness of its society and the freedom of Filipino journalists to report.

The problems of freedom and ethics therefore are not just the problem of the press. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village – an entire caring and nurturing community – to raise a free press to maturity. First of all, journalists have to reach a consensus on ethical standards and to impose these standards without fear or favor. This means admitting responsibility for errors of fact or of judgement and if necessary, imposing sanctions on those who err. It also means the publishers should raise the salaries of journalists so they are not prone to temptation. They should also commit to training and improving the quality of the craft and the standards of the profession.

We have to plug both the supply and the demand side of media corruption. This means that accepted PR practices of bribing journalists should be stopped. Private companies and government agencies that pay journalists should be exposed and held to account. A consensus on the rules of the game also has to be reached by the sources of news.

Beyond ethics, we have to do something about the structure of media ownership. Democratizing ownership to allow, for example, journalists and members of the public to buy into newspapers or TV stations is one option. The high costs of putting out a newspaper or setting up a broadcast station has left the field to big, but vulnerable, businesspeople. Instituting systems whereby owners leave newsroom decisions completely to editors is one way to cushion news organizations from outside pressure and to encourage the emergence of independent media. But this requires owners to let go of their power to influence the news.

There are more positive ways to nurture free and responsible journalism, and some of you have contributed to these efforts: awards for exemplary work, training to upgrade skills and perspectives, advertising support for good programs and good newspapers. All of us have a role to play because we all have a stake in a free and ethical press. At the very least, subscribing to newspapers and journals that take the effort with their reporting or viewing and advertising in TV programs that promote good journalism. How many good programs have been axed because advertisers have refused to subsidize them? How many serious newspapers have closed because readers preferred sleaze and sensation?

In the end, our mass media reflect who we are – our basest instincts and our noblest aspirations. We cannot leave it to either the market or the government to decide what we read in newspapers, what we watch on television and hear on the radio. We have to bear responsibility as a society for the state of our media.

In hindsight, fighting for a free press was easy. The harder task of nurturing it lies ahead of us.

I hope for all our sake that we’ve got what it takes.

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