Decoding the Context

The symbolic turnover of the presidential power from Aquino III to Duterte last June 30 has been sealed and is now marked with actuality.

While there may be some cold tensions, perhaps altercations to some, between President Duterte and the media in the past, it is essential to revisit some of the universally established indicators of press freedom from which the media draws the foundation of its democratic functions. Equally, let us reconsider how the Duterte administration can approach the issues undermining the Filipino press vis-à- vis its early commentaries on such.

The most telling indicator of press freedom in the Philippine press deals with the killings of journalists and media workers.

The killings of journalists, even due to tolerating corruption which results in unethical practices in the media, can never be justified by any cause or anyone, including the President. Alas, the killings are a living testimony to the atmosphere of fear and impunity ingrained in the media soon as it becomes critical of the powers that be. Contrary to the groundless, and possibly “taken out of context”, assertion of then incoming President Duterte that media killings persist because of the corrupt practices of some journalists, the trends in the media killing cases since 1986 state otherwise.

Based on various reports of media watchdogs, at least 141 of over 170 media killing cases were work-related (meaning, the journalist was killed due to the investigative/critical nature of his/her work) and implicated the direct and/or indirect involvement of local government officials, including the police and military personnel, in an attempt to obstruct media reporting on corruption and criminality in the bureaucracy. To date, there remains a zero conviction rate in terms of prosecuting the masterminds of any media killing cases in spite of some crystal clear evidence that point out the culprits behind the killings, as in the case of the Ampatuan-Maguindanao massacre which brutally ended the lives of 58 individuals, 32 of whom were media workers, in what is dubbed to be the most violent attack against the media in recent history.

Corruption in the media and in the entire bureaucracy has been an open secret to the Filipino public. To curb corruption in these institutions of power, the fundamental rights of its citizens must be, first and foremost, upheld and championed. In the spirit of fairness to the newly installed President, he promptly ordered the formation of the Presidential Task Force against media killings and is set to release an Executive Order for the Freedom of Information (FOI) within his first week of office. And all look forward to seeing the entirety of these policy proposals in the days ahead.

Another indicator of press freedom that will post a prodigious challenge to this administration is the legal environment, notably the laws, regulations and policies that repress the constitutional rights to free speech, free expression and free press.

The antediluvian provision on libel under the Revised Penal Code that subjects the press to legal intimidations was bolstered when Aquino III and his cohorts in Congress passed the Cybercrime Prevention Act in September 2012 which institutionalized online libel, nebulous provisions on the real-time shut down of websites or any online platforms that appear to be derogatory in the eyes of the State, among others.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in 2007 reported how the despotic Arroyo regime utilized libel to alarm the press when the First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo filed 11 libel suits against 46 editors, reporters, columnists, and newspaper publishers. In addition, critical journalists and broadcast companies were threatened with sedition charges and withdrawal of franchises, respectively, when Arroyo declared a state of emergence in February 2006.

The press freedom policy of the new administration indeed warrants public vigilance. The media community, human rights advocates and public need to assert its steadfast position to expedite the resolution of media killing cases so as to put an end to impunity, to provide economic capital to the families and children of slain journalists and to scrap existing draconian laws like the abovementioned.

The structural and internal operation of the media also serves as an indicator of press freedom. In this aspect, allow me to zero in on contractualization that mortifies the condition of the media workers, especially those immersed in the community and provincial press.

In my article Labor and Press Freedom (18 May 2016), I argued that contractualization is a horrendous indicator of a failed press freedom because it fails to capitalize on the inherent power of the media workforce to shape a critical public discourse. Equally, it frustrates the public perception of the press (another indicator of press freedom) because it could avert, if not dilute, the youth’s interest in studying journalism and communication programs which may also result in less trained media professionals in the future.

Thus, the apparent policy statement of the Duterte administration against contractualization is stimulating, at the same time, it must cut across the multifaceted and rapid development in the structure and operation of the media where the labor force of the media workers is heavily reliant upon.

Observe that the core issues highlighted above, e.g., threats, killings, repressive laws, and labor contractualization, are not different from the daily struggles of the general working class. But the fourth estate-watchdog function of the media serves as its hallmark compared to other institutions of power because, after all, it is a public-inspired institution that draws support from the sectors it vows to liberate.

If President Duterte is indeed sincere in effectuating the building block of his presidency, that is, tinud-anay nga kabag-ohan (real change), then, such change must be radical and grassroots-based. And the media, remaining uncompromising and critical, can collaborate with the undertakings of the administration to put forward a communal force that will grasp the genuine condition of the marginalized masses from the ground.

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