Vultures Of The Beat

by Juan L. Mercado

This one is for Ripley’s ”Believe It Or Not”. Over 400 so-called “media representatives” are crammed, within the  Customs beat, columnist  Boo Chanco snaps. Four weekly tabloids exclusively cover customs. “Isn’t it obvious?  Most of those  people claiming to represent media are anything but?”

Set the figures in context. That’s about seven times foreign and local reporters accredited by Malacanang. The “Customs press corps” – if that is what it is —   equals the 408 newspapers (32 are dailies) in the provinces.

Confer with publishers of major papers and network managers to help sift out those who moonlight as fixers, mint-new  Customs Comimissioner Ruffy Biazon was advised.

If Biazon keeps his nose clean, he should not be afraid of those who flaunt oversize “Press” credentials, even if they threaten him.  Chanco said. (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.

In 1693, the dictionary logged in the word “journalist”. 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. Many broadcast journalists, enriched this craft.  

But  “fixer” for customs shakedown has never defined who is a journalist. And it in the Customs beat and elsewhere, that  we stumble across a unique Philippine creation — and problem: the “block-timers”.  

Radio stations, in Europe or the US, don’t have ”block-timers”. Neither do Asean countries, like Thailand or Malaysia. They claim to be journalists.

In reality, they’re “walk-in customers”. At any of the 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.

Print media indicates what is “paid ad,” It is published  distinct from editorial matter.  Block-timers rarely indicate who picks up the tab for their programs. But those praised-–or shellacked-–give a fair idea of 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 (KBP) as programs with little accountability proliferates in a country that works by the revised “Golden Rule”: “He who has the gold, rules.”

A CMFR study found lack of such ethical sense and training. 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,  That sizes up the Customs beat. “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. Eight Hong Kong tourists died.  And the Philippines today still copes with diplomatic spillover, as China presses for reparations.  Fines were imposed on major networks.

“A mere slap on the wrist,” fumed Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Maybe. But this was a 180-degree turn for KBP from the Chavez versus National Telecommunications case  of  Feb. 2008. In an enbanc decision, the Supreme Court, lashed KBP for playing along, with the Macapagal-Arroyo regime’s gags on the “Hello Garci” tapes.

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

Perhaps, KBP can take a hard look at the farce of 400 Customs reporters and ask: How much electronic gunslinging is done, if any, by blocktimers on KBP member stations. That would reinforce the reform measures it  already adopted.

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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