Vinegar Shopper Or Journalist?

by Juan L. Mercado

Pinabili lang ng suka sa  kanto, pagbalik  journalist na” (“Told to buy vinegar at the corner store, he trotted back a journalist.”) That put-down reflects a key concern of “Crimes  and Unpunishment: The Killing of Filipino Journalists.” Unesco and Asian Institute of Journalism launched the book December.

It underpins weeding out of bogus journalists from the Bureau of Customs beat: 408, under the Arroyo administration, to 96 today.The  “Customs press corps” then equaled 408 provincial newspapers (32 are dailies). That was about seven times foreign and local reporters accredited to  Malacanang. Commissioner Ruffy Biazon pledged to continue to weeding out hao-siaos —  fly-by-night journalists who doubled as fixers or p.r. agents.

“Isn’t it obvious?”, columnist Boo Chanco snapped.  “Most of those people claiming to represent media are anything but?” Chanco counseled the then mint-new  Commissioner Biazon:  Keep your nose clean. Then, confront those who flaunt oversize “Press” credentials, even if they threaten you. (Isn’t the correct word “blackmail?)

“Most are from tabloids that have no circulation. Past Customs officials tolerated this outsized number of reporters” because they hid dirt.” Instead, confer with publishers of major papers and network managers to help sift out those who moonlight as fixers.“

“At the new customs port in Sasa, Davao, “Friday boys” are known as warik-warik. They “list media men for funding,” Jun Ledesma of Sun Star Davao wrote. I “was also told some can even facilitate release of shipments.”

Is a vinegar shopper a journalist? In 1693, the dictionary logged in the word “journalist” for the first time. This meant “a writer or editor for a news medium.” Or “a writer who aims at a mass audience.”

Since then radio and TV came on stream. The Internet burst into the scene in the mid-1980s. The “[a]dvent of the new and social media has seen emergence of so-called citizen journalists.”

But “fixer” for customs shakedowns has been never been among a journalist’s task.  And it is in the  Customs and politics, that we stumble across a unique Philippine creation — and problem aside from notorious tabloid writers: the “block-timers”.

Radio stations, abroad, don’t have ”block-timers” then. Neither do Asean countries, like Thailand or Malaysia.   They claim to be journalists. In reality, they’re “walk-in customers”. At any of 952 radio stations that the National Telecommunications Commission oversees,  with a shaky hand, they plunk down cash for airtime.

With no questions asked, they broadcast –what? News and comment, they claim. Character assassination or praise, for a price, their critics counter. 

They  “give us the opinion of the uneducated that brings us in touch with the ignorance of the community”, Oscar Wilde once wrote.  The 2013 political campaign sees blocktimer abuse scrape new depths.

Print media indicates  what is “paid ad”. This is published distinct from editorial matter.  Block-timers clam up on who picks up their program tabs. But  those praised-–or shellacked-–give a fair idea of who pays. Stations wash their hands, by saying: “the program does not reflect the management’s view”. Basta.

“Block timing is (also) a primary fund-generator for provincial radio stations,” Melinda de Jesus of Committee on Media Freedom and Responsibility noted  earlier. This proved to be the emerging problem for Kapisanan Ng Mga  Brodkasters as programs with little accountability proliferate in a country that works by the revised “Golden Rule”: “He who has the gold, rules.”

A CMFR study found lack of training and, even more significant, ethical sense. Some 25 percent finished high school while 13 percent “had no record of educational attainment.” There’s little, by way of training on objectivity, balance, fairness–and avoidance of conflict of interest, as journalism code of ethics provide.

Most “block timers” operate in a moral wasteland, where facts are few and comments have a price tag. “Where the carcass is, there the vultures gather.”  Electronic gunslinging is abuse. “Power without responsibility has been the prerogative of the harlot through the ages,” Irish statesman Stanley Baldwin wrote.

KBP found fault with the no-rules-hold coverage in the Luneta hostage crisis.  Fines were imposed on major networks. “A mere slap on the wrist,” fumed the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Perhaps. 

But this was a  180-degree turn for KBP from the Chavez versus National Telecommunications case of Feb. 2008. In that en banc decision, the Supreme Court, lashed KBP for playing footsie, with the Macapagal-Arroyo regime’s gags on the “Hello Garci” tapes.

KBP’s Radio Code now prohibits open-ended contracts for “block-timers.”  Identifying sponsors of block time programs will increase transparency. But implementation of existing measures-–from certification that the “block timer” adheres to KBP’s code to monthly reports–has been spotty.

Indeed “our membership lists remain porous,” observed a Cebu Press Freedom Week editorial. “We’ve still to flush out hao-shiaos who flaunt press cards or block time microphones.”


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