No Other Side

by Juan L. Mercado

World Press Freedom Day saw us roped into a Radio Veritas broadcast. The historical context was striking.
The Marcos dictatorship, in 1986, blew up Radio Veritas generators.

That gagged Veritas broadcasts as People Power loomed. But truth rises on the third day. Jesuit Father James Reuter got an underground radio station on the air. June Keithley’s broadcasts guided people into Edsa.

Where do we stand 23 years later? Are we better off? Will we do better tomorrow? Just what is it that journalists do?

Rites like WPF Day help us rediscover basics. Journalism is not for fat cats or complacent lapdogs.  We err if we devalue these rites to “navel gazing.”

The press reports events like boxer Manny Paquiao demolishing Ricky Hatton in 359 seconds. Journalists ferret harsh facts, like the P729 million fertilizer scam and rigged bidding for World Bank road projects.

They challenge the status quo, including the Arroyo’s regime’s tolerance for extra-judicial killings.

“At its best, the press is a servant and guardian of institutions,” Walter Lippman wrote. “At its worst, it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own end.”

The ante for excellence, in journalism, is jacked up in “constrained democracies” like the Philippines. Institutions rebuilt from the Marcos’ scorched earth policy, and shaky regimes that followed, remain frail.

Head-count of journalists murdered, in the line of duty, is now 78 –- up from 32 in 1991, Center for Media Freedom’s Melinda de Jesus told Philippine Press Institute’s assembly.  Since 1986, only four have been brought to court. All masterminds remain free.

Victims Nesino Toling (Ozamiz), Alberto Berbon (Cavite) Edgar Damalerio (Pagadian) and Marlene Esperat (Bukidnon) were — in the classic lead written by New York Times Barry Bearak — “guilty of committing journalism.”

“These reflect a culture of violence that made the gun a status symbol and assassination a small but thriving industry”, de Jesus added. In this environment, law agencies are part of the problem, CMFR studies conclude there was no state policy to silence a critical press. Nor was there a conspiracy to go after more critical journalists.

“Motives were mixed, the perpetrators are various.

In transition from dictatorship to democracy, forces of violence previously monopolized by the state — private armies, paramilitary groups, insurgent cadres, criminal groups —  operated in a larger environment of lawlessness.  They targeted the visible and vocal in a larger press community.

“Out here on the edge,” media finds itself reporting on Lippman’s exploiters of social upheavals: They besiege brittle agencies from Congress, courts, the military, local governments to the Commission on Elections. They’d also gag by mandatory right-of-reply measures.

Thus, the press track ex-president Joseph Estrada, convicted for plunder, re-seeking power, the First Gentleman’s fingerprints on issues as in the ZTE broadband scandal to Ombudsman’s subservience.

Media must sift facts from allegation, spin from argument. But opinion seeps into news columns as reporters morph into advocates. This erodes credibility.

“Media people, especially TV newscasters moonlight in the office of candidates,” former election commissioner Christian Monsod told PPI’s assembly.. “(They get) bonuses for every mention of their names in the news.  There was only one corrupt newspaperman in the Comelec beat —   a senior reporter who early in my stint, asked outright for a monthly allowance to ensure front page treatment..”

Indeed, “our membership lists remain porous,” Cebu Daily News said. We’ve still to flush out hao shiaos who flash press cards or walk-in blocktime microphones.”

The crassest example is today’s National Press Club, Malaya editor Jake Macasaet adds. Most “members” come from unheard of publications.

ASEAN members are also hobbled. Government directly or indirectly owns media in Malaysia, International Press Institute notes. Singapore has licensing curbs. Thailand clamps on lese majeste laws. And Burma is a recycled Marcos regime.

Technology has recast the craft. Cell phones, blogs, twitter, facebook now spray information like a firehose,  Richard Posner writes in “Bad News.” They’ve whittled traditional face-to-face oversight that editors exercised over reporters.

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria and 16 other countries use sophisticated systems to censor Internet content, “Reporters Without Borders’ states”. Some Western democracies filter child pornography, etc.

Iranian and Chinese computer expert use free downloads of various software as escape hatch.  Their programs allowed Internet users to evade government firewalls, New York Times reports. Through e-mail and file-sharing, more than 400,000 Iranians surf the uncensored Web. “Internet has become a stage for state control — and rebellion against it.”.

We write or broadcast so “the world knows what’s happening in what would otherwise be dark recesses of people behaving at their worst,” say the Guardian’s Peter Preston.

Some do this task brilliantly. Many just get by. Others are incompetent.  A few sell out and should be fired.  “We’re prisoners of a necessary cause.

And you must be on the side of (freedom) because there’s no other side to be on.”

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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