By Tess Bacalla
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales’s talk on the concluding night of the 16th National Convention of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) came like a breath of fresh air to the media, coming as it did on the heels of President Benigno Aquino III’s keynote speech, delivered just the day before, at the opening ceremonies of the two-day annual media forum.
“Media should be recognized for the role it plays in … comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” said the former Supreme Court Justice, quoting American writer and humorist Finley Peter Dunne.
“This brings me to the pressing concern on the issue of media accountability when journalists face contempt charges, in the course of ‘afflicting the comfortable.’”
Morales, who keynoted the 2011 Civic Journalism Community Press Awards that coincided with the forum, held April 23-24 in Manila, said, “(court) decisions must be wary of any chilling effect that would lead to abridgement of the exercise of press freedom.”
In contrast, President Aquino openly expressed his dismay with the Philippine media for its apparent proclivity to highlight negative news at the expense of positive issues that he believed should be trumpeted, not least of which are his administration’s accomplishments.
In his speech, he likened the media to crabs in a bucket that instinctively pull one another down. To the media representatives present, this was tantamount to blaming the media for some, if not most, of the country’s woes.
Citing a case in point, Aquino scored the media for bannering travel advisories and terror warnings issued by foreign embassies in the Philippines. “Tayo lang yata ang kaisa-isang bansa sa mundo na nagbabalandra ng mga negatibong travel advisory sa sariling mga pahayagan. (We seem to be the only country in the world trumpeting negative travel advisories in our own newspapers.),” he said.
The government and the media have complementary roles, he added. “You (media) are the harbingers of truth,” he said in Filipino.
Morales, too, believes that the media are “harbingers” of truth, but unlike her appointing authority, evinced no loathing for their fundamental functions.
“The reports of the press cannot be deemed to attain some sort of finality, unlike a judgment of the court. As of a given press time, an article cannot claim to bear the final word. The trade allows them to post follow-up stories, note an erratum, and feature the respective sides of two concerned parties in separate but consecutive issues or editions.
“Indeed, the granules of truth do not turn up in a single rainfall,” she said.
Thus when a columnist critical of a court errs in his or her judgment, the courts should consider only “the extent to which the criticisms were supported by facts available at the time the criticisms were published,” she said.
“It is unfair to use the judicial standard of ascertaining truth – that is, through rules of evidence, by the sworn statements and testimonies elicited by subpoena – as a measure of the journalists’ effort or ‘bona fide care’ in writing and publishing an article.”
Taking a cue from Benjamin Franklin’s famous words on the concept of a free press, Morales said: “(I)f all printers were determined not to print anything until they were sure it would convey only words of truth, there would be very little discovered.
As expected the President’s speech drew a flurry of reactions and criticism from the press.
“We … take exception to his portraiture of the Philippine media as the anecdotal crabs bent on pulling him and, to his mind, the country down,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in a statement.
“But what is truly worrisome about Mr. Aquino’s wholesale depiction of the Philippine media,” said the NUJP, “is that it is of a mindset akin to that which shut down a vibrant press in September 1972 and replaced it with mouthpieces dedicated to extolling ‘the true, the good, the beautiful’ life under a brutal dictatorship,” referring to former First Lady Imelda Marcos’s infamous dictum.
The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos muzzled the press and clamped down on other civil liberties when he placed the country under martial law in a brazen ploy to tighten his grip on power.
Unlike Aquino who cast aspersions on the media by using the crab-in-a-buckets analogy, Morales said the press’s complementary role alongside the government’s reminded her of two safari adventurers’ observations of two migratory herds traveling together – zebras and wildebeests. The zebras’ good eyesight but poor sense of smell complemented the wildebeests’ bad eyesight but good sense of smell. “By traveling together, both are less vulnerable to predators,” she said.
“The Ombudsman and the media, in their respective spheres of work as entities discharging watchdog functions, can work hand in hand in upholding the public interest and keeping government resources, systems and personnel less vulnerable to corruption.”
Dishing It Out and Taking It In
The contrasting stands of the two public officials, Aquino and Morales, on the functions and performance of the press – one unabashedly critical, the other appreciative –provided occasion for thoughtful reflection on the media and what ails it – in keeping with this year’s theme of the annual PPI forum: “Media Accountability and Public Engagement.”
The hostage-taking drama that tragically unfolded at the Rizal Park two years ago “marked a particularly low point in the recent history of media self-regulation,” said Luis Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, in his brief presentation during the forum.
“If that incident demonstrated anything, it is that self-regulation is failing, and that there is an urgent need to examine its state, determine the reasons for its weaknesses, and put in place the means to strengthen it,” he said.
But accountability is not something the public must demand of the media, said Vergel Santos, PPI’s vice chair and chairman of the editorial board of BusinessWorld.
“It’s a sense so fundamental to our profession it requires no provoking in order to make it work. It’s a self-working initiative that operates on the burden of responsibility that every journalist bears with every word he sets down.”
Jake Makasaet, chairperson of the PPI Board, said media self-examination “is long overdue.
“We have been dishing it out on anybody, the President of the Republic not excluded.
Unfortunately, we have no appreciation of the duty that we should be able to take some.”
Not even the controversial libel law in the Philippines has restrained the media from exercising their freedom to the hilt, he said. “How about our responsibility, which is a necessary companion of rights or freedom?”
In the ensuing discussions during the just concluded forum, talk turned to libel, long the subject of a raging debate between sectors (notably media) calling for, and those opposed to, its decriminalization.
Teodoro said the proposed decriminalization of libel presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the media. It requires them “to raise their capacity for self-regulation beyond its current level of deficiency,” he said. The public, for its part, must understand “the values, methods and ethical and professional standards of the press so that it can effectively monitor and curb media abuse. But this seems to be a long shot.
“The performance of the media shows that self-regulation is failing. But we have no other choice except to make it work.”