Every August 30th is henceforth National Press Freedom Day as decreed by Republic Act 11699. The Act was passed last April by the very same Congress that in 2020 denied the renewal of ABS-CBN network’s franchise and shut down its free TV and radio services. No other word describes that better than censorship, both as a form of prior restraint (it was a warning to other media organizations) and subsequent punishment (the network was penalized for not reporting according to government preferences).
RA 11699 was signed into law by the same President who orchestrated that anti-democratic enterprise, and who, up to the very last weeks of his term, used the powers of his office against any journalist and media organization that dared exercise the freedom it celebrates.
The series of attacks and harassments against Rappler and its reporters continued until June this year, with the cancellation of that online news organization’s certificate of registration. On the heels of it came the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) blocking access not only to the websites of two alternative media organizations but also those of several advocacy groups’ as well, on the orders of then President Rodrigo Duterte’s National Security Adviser.
Much of the broadcast media let National Press Freedom Day pass this year except for briefly mentioning it, if at all, in their news programs. But despite the irony of its being declared by a regime whose hostility to press freedom approximated that of the Marcos Sr. dictatorship’s, it should have been an occasion for a modicum of self-examination.
Although no longer described as “the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism,” the Philippines is still in the US-based press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Impunity Index because of the continuing killing of journalists. There are also the harassments, the whimsical libel suits, the physical attacks, and banning of journalists from covering public events that taken together made the practice of journalism, already burdened by a legion of problems, more difficult and even more dangerous during the Duterte regime.
Some may argue that these are all in the past, a new administration having come to power last July. But there is no denying that not only did the past regime’s attacks on press freedom demonstrate that, despite Constitutional protection, there are any number of means by which free expression and press freedom can be abridged and even curtailed. They are also potential models for replication by any regime that is equally hostile to both freedoms.
The responsibility of defending press freedom has fallen on the media advocacy groups and journalists’ unions, as well as that part of the press community aware of how vital is the truth-telling function of a free press to democratic governance. But public support is as crucial in that undertaking, and can even help enhance the exercise of that right.
The latter can happen only if the mass of the citizenry understands and appreciates how crucial a free press is to their lives and to their Constitutional right to know. The press not only has to provide the information they need in terms of the who, what, where, when, why and how; it also has to explain and interpret the meaning of issues and events of public interest.
Unfortunately, it seems that one can count on the fingers of one hand the examples of the latter kind of journalism. As rare as those models of best practice have been over the past 12 months, they have included investigative and explanatory reports, interviews, and interpretive accounts in both corporate and alternative media on such issues as the “red-tagging” of groups and individuals, the killing of dissenters and critics of government, the issues during the last elections, and the damaging legacies of the Duterte regime, among others.
There is no lack of reports on what is happening on the economic, education, and health fronts, or on what this or that politician or government official said. But the interpretation of events and issues has mostly been left to some broadsheets’ opinion pages, in addition to the writings of the handful of journalists alluded to earlier.
Even the provision of plain information has been particularly erratic on television, much of which, despite the lessons of the last six years, is still a “vast wasteland” of mindless entertainment and trivia.
Unlike newspapers and magazines, radio and television can provide information in real time: right at the moment, or shortly after, something happens, and both can also forewarn their audiences about future events.
Television is the most accessible, and hence most credible, mass medium in the Philippines. Some 75% of Filipinos wanted the ABS-CBN franchise renewed because its free television and radio services were providing them the advanced information they needed when typhoons, floods, and other calamities were about to strike their communities. This was in addition to its reporting on such other issues of public concern as the “drug war”-related killings that decimated thousands and widowed and orphaned entire families. Despite the denial of its franchise renewal application, by using cable, the internet and other communication platforms, ABS-CBN could have done worse than to provide what its mass audience was missing.
But the Duterte regime’s assault on ABS-CBN seems to have succeeded in instilling in the leading networks reservations over whether doing so is in their best interests. ABS-CBN’s News Channel (ANC) is still providing in-depth analysis of public issues, but its early morning news program, intended for employees and workers — it runs Monday to Friday — is still mostly about entertainment, crime, and trivia.
Rather than reports on what is happening in the real world, what a breadwinner preparing to leave for work will get from that program is a hodge-podge of the three hosts’ talking about what they did in the weekend, a litany of who are tuned in to the program and where, and the sordid details of a petty crime or a traffic accident even as the country is under threat from a typhoon, and what the employee who has to go to work wants to know is whether he should take the day off because torrential rains are likely to flood his community.
Our breadwinner is forced to tune in to a competing channel in his search for relevant information, but is deluged by a tidal wave of advertising. Although some of its reporting has been outstanding, the third channel’s early news program is as commercial-choked as the second’s, and like its two co-stations, is also reporting who’s dating whom as news.
The inevitable consequence of this trivia-as-news programming is mass disaffection with broadcast media and the consequent rise of social media as sources of the disinformation responsible for the decline of meaningful informed discourse in the public sphere. In this country and in much of the world, Facebook and its ilk have made democratization so much more problematic.
As the handful of models of journalistic excellence have been demonstrating, the press can do much better, if its practitioners were as committed to truth-telling and had the will and the imagination to prevail over the efforts to silence them. But what is even worse than silence is the mis-use of the powers of the media which keeps the public unaware of what is going on.
Much of television, it seems, has succumbed to State coercion despite the end of the Duterte despotism. There are exceptions, but they are so very, very few.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).