Executive Director, CMFR
THE STATE OF PHILIPPINE PRESS FREEDOM
CMFR’S ASSESSMENT of press freedom in 2021 has found little that is hopeful, and thus, little that is new.
The state of press freedom depends much on the state of the nation. The collapse of the economy, the rise of hunger and poverty have all contributed to the national situation in a state of crisis. The prospects of recover looms as an overwhelming challenge; a process which will have to move forward on several levels through closely coordinated efforts. The demands on journalism will be tremendous; requiring a level of discourse reflecting the various issues to be considered.
There are signs that suggest that media would have to be among the critical concerns to be discussed; as are issues that relate to the recovery of Philippine democracy.
It is appropriate to use the language that has dominated the news in the last two years; the vocabulary of illness and disease. Indeed, it is as though a virus had also infected the socio-political organs, but it is not so much a new contamination. The weaknesses suggest congenital conditions which had been left to fester unattended for too long.
Recent decades have suggested the fragility of developing democracies in the ASEAN region. Countries that had embraced elections and democratic institutions had been quick to revert to militarism. Political leaders have seized the electoral exercise and gained control, proving themselves illiberal as well as corrupt. Authoritarianism which has had a long history in Southeast Asian countries has once again reared its ugly force. Recent history has shown that recovery from such eras of control are fitful and marred by deep setbacks.
The conduct of democratic institutions, the failure to uphold purpose and function of checks and balances are among the more visible conditions of the state of crisis. A major casualty has been the freedom of the press, as its vigilance as “watchdog” of power seemed to have been affected by political forces.
Pandemic conditions enhanced authoritarian tendencies, as the control of disease heightened the paramount role of state power in managing disease. Governments attacked mainstream media, and used extensive propaganda to make people believe journalists were paid purveyors of “disinformation.” The pandemic had legitimized the heightened securitization, surveillance, and other restrictive measures to control people’s activities and to criminalize legitimate criticism.
Unfortunately, the propaganda gained because it built on the institutional weaknesses of press conduct and were effective in deepening the public dissatisfaction over the business of news.
Journalists realized that social media had begun to erode their position as gatekeepers, and their importance in the business of news. But there has been little evidence of efforts to change the way they have done things.
Stories have remained tethered to news conventions which were developed in a different world when such criteria made sense. People were believed to be naturally curious about the prominent, the official, the out of ordinary, crime, calamity, and conflict.
But in the completely transformed media landscape, journalism needed to set itself apart for the values only the practice could provide to its users — the reliability of the news reported and the relevance of the news to people’s concerns.
Neither have newsrooms examined how news help to grow citizenship, the responsibilities attached to selecting those who will represent them in their governance. News and information that voters need make the selection process more meaningful. The press, its independence and freedom from government are the elements that make journalism different from everything else.
The natural curiosity about the rich and famous, the trivia built around celebrity, and the importance of officials in the scheme of things can be served but not as the primary purpose of journalism. Journalism should be focused primarily on information and news, the establishment of a framework of analyzing and understanding the meaning of developments so that elections are not the divisive and disruptive events that they have come to be in democracies around the world.
The need for reliable information has been highlighted by the crisis as are freedom of information, pluralism, and human rights — all heralded by the waves of democratization in the past.
The pandemic occasions a pause, a review, an examination of purpose. Recovery involves not just business as usual. The inequalities that have burdened Philippine society may have further divided Filipinos, who have yet to overcome the differences imposed by language, ethnicity, culture, class, and religion.
News used to be a unifying experience. Now, news has the opposite effect given the dispersal of information on new platforms designed to gather following rather than making sense.
Journalists must raise news cycles to accommodate more of the people who have felt disconnected if not entirely marginalized by the news. Prominence after all can have meaning only when it is held only by a select few. News based primarily on this convention excludes the majority.
Clearly, the recovery of journalism must clarify its values for its practitioners. Journalists need to start a conversation about how to recover lost ground and maybe begin to do something completely different, to make journalism useful again.