MEDIA UNDER FIRE (For #throwbackwednesday)


Screengrab of Bulatlat.com page that featured the author's 2004 speech when she was elected chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). She served as chair until 2006 and as a director from 2006 to 2008.
Screengrab of Bulatlat.com page that featured the author’s 2004 speech when she was elected chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). She served as chair until 2006 and as a director from 2006 to 2008.

** (I was doing research on the murders of journalists in the Philippines for an article requested by the International Federation of Journalists, and stumbled on this 2004 paper delivered by during the 4th National Congress of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines [NUJP] in 2004. I am sharing this because events this last year, including an upsurge in union activities by media workers, ram home an uncomfortable truth — that some things, many things, have not changed. Among these the murders of colleagues, the unjust economic and work conditions in media and other factors that threaten press freedom — and freedom of expression in the Philippines.

**

The Philippine Press, caught up in globalization’s swift technological and organization changes, confronts a major challenge to preserve its identity and keep open its doors for the many voices that make up our society. Meanwhile, individual journalists and small media entities struggle to keep at bay the dangers of corruption and cooptation in the face of economic hardships, even as mammoth media corporations ignore ethical considerations in the fierce competition for ratings and revenues.

We often hear that self-serving claim, “there is Press Freedom in the Philippines,” uttered mostly by those who do not work at the frontlines of our industry. In a profession that rests on the oft-impossible quest for the “Truth,” it is time to unmask this lie.

Deaths

Where is Press Freedom when Philippine media ties with Colombia as the world’s most dangerous place to work as a journalist? (*Author’s note: This year, a decade later, we are ranked third, behind Iraq and Somalia.)

In 2002, three journalists were murdered: Benjaline Hernandez in Arakan Valley, Cotabato; Edgar Demalerio of DXKP public radio and the Zamboanga Scribe newspaper in Pagadian City; and San Pablo City TV news presenter and magazine publisher Sonny Alcantara.

In 2003, the number of slain journalists grew to seven:

  • John Villanueva, reporter at the radio station dzGB-AM, Legapzi City – April 28;
  • Apolinario Pobeda, host of the Nosi Balasi radio talk show on station DWTI-AM, Lucena City — May 17;
  • Bonifacio Gregorio, a journalist with the local weekly Dyaryo Banat in La Paz, Tarlac –July 8;
  • Noel Villarante, of radio station DZJV in Sta. Cruz, Laguna – August 19;
  • Rico Ramirez, of radio station DXSF in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur – August 20
  • Jun Pala, of radio station DXGO in Davao City – September 6;
  • Nelson Nadura, of radion station DYME in Masbata City – December 2

This year, Rowell Enrinal, of DZRC in Legazpi City, was killed on February 11

As the Committee for the Protection of Journalists notes, we are witnessing “the routine assassination of journalists.”

With the violence experienced by Filipino journalists, it would not an exaggeration to claim we are in a state of war.

The word violence conjures physical harm – killings, of which there have been too much of lately – 51 since 1986 in the combined list of the NUJP and the Center for Press Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and 73 from the Bulatlat.com count; beatings and other forms of torture; arrests and detention.

There are other, less physical, forms of harassment: public harangues; threats, whether veiled or overt; surveillance of movements and communications, news blackouts; denial of access to information; prior restraint on coverage; and criminal libel charges. All these do violence, not only to journalists, but to media as a whole – and Philippine society in general.

from http://i.imgur.com/QCpwl6a.jpg
from http://i.imgur.com/QCpwl6a.jpg

We have also witnessed major broadcast networks practicing self-censorship or, more accurately, imposing censorship on independent entities that they host. A government television station also nixed a submitted taped of a talk show, because of what it felt were anti-government statements uttered by some of the guests.

On the opposite side, we have reporters chafing against employers’ attempts to make them attack dogs against political or corporate rivals. We have journalists desperately buying time and fighting furiously to keep their reports independent, despite employers’ efforts to bully them into publishing half-baked, clearly slanted stories. These are not easy things to do when the possible consequence is the loss on one’s job.

Violence, indeed, takes all forms. And when media is oppressed, when it is literally under fire, it is society itself that is besieged. It was not too long ago that Filipinos lived this truth. It is not too much to ask that we do not forget.

Hypocrisy

Fear, too, plays a major role in two other serious problems facing Philippine media: corruption and poverty.

Daily, we hear public officials, business leaders, civic groups, and even our own colleagues bemoan the state of media in the Philippines. It is overly sensational, critics say. It is irresponsible. It wallows in filth and garbage, and ignores the many good things this country has to offer. It is one-sided, biased. It is rotten and corrupt to its core.

The tongue lashing, the litany of our perceived failures, highlight the traditional roles vested on us: Watchdog, a medium for the many voices that exist in this multi-ethnic society, champion of the oppressed, chronicler of history in the making.

In the cacophony of voices that demand tribute from media, it is all too easy to lose our way. It is also all too easy to get mad, become self-righteous, turn defensive, or, faced with a gun muzzle on one hand and a bundle of cash on the other, take the easy way out.

Media does not exist in a vacuum. While it can – and should lead in charting change – it is also, to a great extent, a reflection of the host society. This is not meant to excuse corruption or dismiss the prevailing state of poverty among many journalists, but to provide some context.

There is hypocrisy among some sectors that purport to advance the cause of ethical journalism. For many of the same bodies that moan the lack of ethics in media, many of the same groups that demand stringent standards of behavior among journalists, are strangely silent – even dismissive – of the very factors that fuel corruption within our ranks.

A journalist should not receive favors from sources. A journalist should pay his own way, buy his own coffee, and not partake of free lunches and free rides. Amen, I see nothing wrong with those proscriptions. But when a media entity that imposes these rules on its workers, fails to pay them on time, or worse, does not pay them at all, what is that but hypocrisy? And when the industry groups under which this media entity falls, say that they are not mandated to tackle economic issues – only ethics – this, too, is hypocrisy.

Jobs, but no income

The NUJP aims to publish a new fact-finding report on economic conditions in Philippine media. For now, let me cite a few findings:

At least one national daily delayed payment of correspondents’ fees for as long as nine months. Let me stress that many of these provincial correspondents provided the headlines on the front page for months on end.

Many dailies do not reimburse their correspondents’ travel and communications expense. When you are paid P100 to P150 a story, and have to spring for bus rides to isolated hamlets, not to mention the cost of fax transmission or email, how much is left for one’s living? When these dailies do pay up, a reporter is already heavily in debt.

A lot of broadcast stations, both within and outside the KBP fold, have a large stable of unpaid “talents” tasked to provide news coverage. Some broadcast stations have cut loose their affiliates, insisting that the local journalists fend for themselves in terms of ads and other revenue. If this is not a direct conflict of interest, then I do not know the meaning of the phrase.

You remember Polly Pobeda, the Lucena broadcaster slain last summer? I attended his wake. His colleagues were profuse with praise for his cheer despite several months’ delay in their salaries. They condemned Polly’s murder, and acknowledge the conditions they worked in… they just did not see that it reflected a crime almost a pernicious, a situation that was the equivalent of slow death. This state of affairs is replicated across the nation. You’ve heard this mocking line: “May trabaho ka na, naghahanap ka pa ng sweldo?” That’s not just a joke. That is the reality many journalists face daily.

Each journalist tries to muddle on as best he or she can. And muddle is exactly what we do.

Imagine this scene:

A journalist rails against “envelopmental journalism,” the practice of giving cash to guarantee positive news slants. The same journalist lambastes colleagues who moonlight as handlers for politicians and powerful corporate entities. His chief beef: they skim off part of the loot.

And imagine this scene:

A journalist complains against broadcast station management’s election-season, “no fee-no coverage” order, one that apparently includes legitimate news. Reporters’ hands are tied, he cries out. He claims his coverage duties include several that involve “under the table campaign fees” to the news director or the station general manager. That, too, is his biggest beef, the fact that bosses don’t “share the joy.”

These are not apocryphal tales. I personally listened to these plaints during two huddles with media practitioners in as many weeks.

Twice, too, I had to break in and clarify: Were they outraged over the fact that bribes were proffered and received, or were they outraged at losing their share of these bribes?

After a painful pause, both journalists acknowledged the latter and segued to laments over the economic injustices heaped on media practitioners. Other colleagues later pointed out that turning down envelops would mean being ostracized by peers.

Chicken-and-egg situation

These journalists were hardly hardened, unrepentant veterans. By their lights, they were idealistic and seeking help in changing the current realities of Philippine media.

In another part of the country, even more innocent journalists shared how they tried to keep to the straight and narrow. These two journalists also vented their ire against the “payola” system and said they routinely turned down envelops.

Then one said the almost non-existent pay in rural broadcast news reportage forced her to “moonlight” – though clearly this second job represented bread and butter. It wasn’t just any job. She was secretary to the city chief of police. Incidentally, she also covered the police beat.

Her other colleague had earlier apologized for being late. She, too, had gone hunting for a second job. She got it – as an analyst in the regional Army intelligence group. By the way, she covered defense and insurgency and civil unrest.

I asked both about the possibility of conflict of interest.

There was none, said the secretary to the police chief. If there was a controversy, she merely left colleagues to do the coverage and got herself out of the fray.

The military analyst, too, couldn’t see the irony. After all, she worked with classified documents so she would not be writing of these.

It would have been hilarious had it not underscored the grave ethical dilemmas faced by Filipino journalists today. The saddest thing is, all four journalists are NUJP members or applying for membership.

We are caught in a chicken-and-egg situation. Yes, many of us sincerely believe that poverty is no excuse for corruption. Yet more and more of us are increasingly bereft of wriggle room in escaping intense peer pressure to succumb to the easy way out, especially when the prize for courage and integrity in these isles comes in the form of a hail of bullets, a slew of libel suits, abduction, or harassment and incessant surveillance.

Let us think of this when we talk of press freedom. As the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) notes, there can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions or corruption, poverty or fear.

Unfortunately for us in the NUJP, there is no way to neatly segregate these woes; they are all interrelated, each strengthening the other in laying siege on Philippine media.

We can yak and yak until we turn blue. Encounters like the ones mentioned above reduce me to silence, and prod me to examine premises and directions.

Ranks divided

True, poverty is no excuse for corruption. True, some of the most corrupt journalists may be the industry’s highest paid.

What pains most is this: That those among us who command respect by virtue of skill, integrity, brilliance have largely turned their backs on those who need most their help.

Fear pervades our daily coverage of the news, especially in the provinces where, traditionally, socio-economic inequities, injustice and human rights violations prevail.

But fear, too, is what every journalist confronts when called upon to fight for his or her economic rights. Workers in Bombo Tacloban had just formed a union when they found themselves out on the streets. In many newspapers and broadcast stations, journalists will tell you that the standard reply to requests for compensation or improved wages, is “di maghanap ka ng ibang amo.”

In varying degrees, similar stories are shared in newsrooms all over the country. Of course, there are community papers and broadcast stations that manage to survive, even thrive, while paying staff humane compensation. But these are exceptions, not the norm.

Do I have the answer to this dilemma? No. I simply do not know where to start unraveling this mess. We at the NUJP are focusing much energy and passion on these issues, and admittedly, are still groping in the dark.

And as we do, media faces a debate over the recent killings of journalists. Jun Pala, for one, continued to fan controversy with his death. In death, Pala – who used to say that journalists, leftist journalists anyway, were fair game for killing –succeeded in dividing the ranks of those who struggled against the mindset he perpetrated.

AMPATUAN NEWI understand the despair and anger over corruption and abuse in media. But there can be no justification for killing journalists, notwithstanding the considerable power – or the illusion of it – the press wields in this country. We start drawing lines, and we shall soon find ourselves hapless in the face of warring economic and political groups.

Let us not confuse the issues. Against the violence that stalks the Philippine press, we must be united.

If we want to rid the profession of corruption in its various forms, silence in the face of violence is not the answer. If anything, an atmosphere of fear can only make it easier to fall into the trap of corruption. Pala took the yak-yak route. Others would take the path of silence. Either way, that makes a mockery of this so-called “free” press.

No free ride

We want to clean Philippine media? Then, by all means, let us form pressure groups, from the workplaces, to regional and national levels, and seek the support of our main client, the public.

Face it, our major media organizations, all purporting to uphold the cause of ethics, have been one big boys’ club where corruption is concerned. When put to the test, and there have been many, we are too quick to cite professional courtesy, which we are all too quick to junk when faced with circulation or ratings battles.

Even now, print and broadcast journalists nationwide struggle to keep faith with professional ethics even as their employers – the same folk who regularly like to pontificate on ethics – issue election-related orders that clearly violate the Press’ mandate to serve the people’s right to know.

Many broadcast networks have imposed a blanket “no-fee-no-coverage” policy. As a result, only those candidates with deep pockets enjoy publicity. Reporters are banned from covering and reporting on candidates who do not pay fees, either on a piecemeal basis or per campaign package.

At the same time, those spared these constraints find themselves deluged by all sorts of offers that, directly or indirectly, act as bribes and sweeteners.

NUJP members themselves have direct experience with this kind of blandishments. We were recently approached with a Malacañang offer to submit the names of our children – including new college graduates – for inclusion into the list of beneficiaries of the government’s education aid program. There is nothing wrong with journalists’ offspring availing of government aid. But the circumstances, a rush offer towards the homestretch of the election campaign, and the lack of clear guidelines naturally raised suspicion of a PR move at the expense of taxpayers. Why, in the first place, would graduates qualify for educational aid? Where, in the education aid program, does the government offer to shoulder living allowances for graduates during their job-hunting phase? The offer was coached in a way that seemed all takers would be approved.

There’s no such thing as a free ride. Ethical, courageous journalism is not a godsend from heaven. You fight for it daily in the newsroom, on the beat. Nor will our economic due fall like manna from heaven. For this, too, we shall have to slug it out.

We cannot stand aloof on some high ground and take pride in our righteousness, and sniff when muck and gore flood the lowlands. That is not struggle; that is escapism. Down, where the currents rage, is where the battle field lies. The only way to teach others the art of resistance is by wading through the mud and reaching out to some rather grubby hands.

Let us not forget, we are workers. Manggagawa. We allow ourselves to be treated like peons, we shall soon be thinking like peons. We’ll stand silent while our masters dance on our graves. Posted by Bulatlat.com

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