“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
– Bill of Rights – Article III, Section 4
“The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
– Bill of Rights – Article III, Section 7
That the protection of media and information is enshrined in the very constitution of the Philippines speaks of their importance in building and preserving our democratic way of life. Democracy comes from the Greek word “demos” and “kratos” which means “rule of the people.” In a democracy, the people become the source of power and legitimacy for government leaders (best demonstrated by the process of election).
Political leaders are held accountable for their words, actions, and decisions as public officials. But the workings of the government can be complex, and the role of a free and independent press is to closely monitor the government and constantly keep the people informed. Therefore, the press is traditionally referred to as the “fourth estate.” It is the branch of power representing the people. Media act as the people’s watchdogs and “visualizers.” Social media has also given people direct ways to petition the government.
The government is prohibited from restricting the freedom of the press, but it has put in place some legal boundaries to this right. Among them are laws that impose penalties for libel or slander. For decades, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines have been calling for the decriminalization of libel, citing instances when the law was used to intimidate, harass, and jail journalists reporting on the misconduct of public officials.
In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council has called Philippine libel laws “excessive and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in which the Philippines is a signatory” (CMFR, 2012). As of 2014, some eleven bills have been filed to decriminalize libel, though one has yet to pass. In 2016, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Freedom of Information Order in lieu of an FOI Bill that had been stalled in the legislative branch for years.
The biggest threat to press freedom in the Philippines is violence against journalists. A 2015 report by the UN Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked our country as the third most dangerous country for journalists, topped only by Iraq and Syria. The CPJ has also called the Maguindanao Massacre (also known as the Ampatuan Massacre), which happened on November 23, 2009, “the single deadliest event for journalists in history” where 34 of the 58 killed were journalists. Since 1992, there have been 78 verified cases of Filipino journalists killed in the line of duty, most of them print and radio journalists in the regions. 62% of these victims covered politics and 42% covered corruption. This is cause for concern not only because it undermines the freedom of the press but also because it proves that our democratic ideals are still far from being achieved.
Emerging Threats: Post-truth and Alternative Facts
Washington-based think tank Freedom House classifies Philippine media as “partly free” and the Internet in the Philippines as “free.” This puts us among countries where the Internet is not censored but where falsehoods are deliberately spread online to undermine the public’s ability to make informed decisions. The Oxford Dictionary declared “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year because of the rise of public opinions based on personal and political convictions that reject and disregard facts. Post-truths, dubbed “alternative facts” by the infamous Counselor to the US President Kellyanne Conway, are incorrect/inaccurate statements that pose a threat to an informed community when amplified through social media, fake news websites, and trolls hiding behind multiple bogus accounts.
On June 2015, the New York Times magazine published an investigative piece which uncovered how the Russian government may have been the first to use troll agencies to tamper with the information people get online. Now, there are allegations that similar tactics may have been employed at the recent US and Philippine elections.
Traditional media, particularly the press, are also affected by the dangers presented by social media. A day after his January 20, 2017 inauguration, President Trump said that he has a “running war with media,” while soon after, Philippines’ Malacañang Press Corps released this statement:
“We are disturbed and appalled by the propensity of the officials of this administration to blame the media whenever the inflammatory statements of the president stir controversy or draw flak. This trend should stop as it would not contribute to the elevation of the level of public discourse.”
Restrictive laws and verbal or online attacks against news media are often justified by accusations of impartiality (“biased”) or spreading “negativity.” These restrictive laws have also been used to silence journalists reporting on government anomalies. Journalists are risking their lives doing what they are meant to do–to give relevant and meaningful information which can help the public make informed decisions. We only need to look at how the tyrants of the past cracked down on journalists and the media to know how dangerous it is when the public’s right to information is suppressed by the government.
Basic Journalistic Principles and Practices
Freedom of the press means freedom from interference by the government. It is in the best interest of a democratic government to have an informed people because ultimately, they are the ones who hold the power. But media should not be free from scrutiny from the people whose interests they must protect. Just as government officials are beholden to the people, media in a democracy must exist to serve the people. Media and information literacy is important because it enables the public to evaluate/ assess the information given to them and to recognize erroneous, false, or problematic ways of delivering information.
In the absence of government regulation, media organizations and media workers work under the principle of self-regulation. Below are the basic journalistic standards and principles:
1. Fair and Balanced Reporting
This includes attribution and data triangulation, topics which were discussed in Module 1. Neutrality does not mean that a journalist is prohibited from having an opinion; rather, it means that the methods used in reporting a news story must be objective. Great efforts must be made to pursue, verify, and present the different facts and angles of a story.
2. Editorial Independence
According to Lapeña, this is defined as the concept that editors should have full authority over the content of the publication. How completely this is practiced is the topic of many discussions on media, but what is most important is that editorial independence is a long-standing ideal that media organizations, practitioners, and owners strive for.
In the local scene, while you may notice that the top two networks would not report about the stars and programs of their rival station, hard news stories are almost always carried by both networks, and it will be considered a breach of journalism ethics for owners to prevent their reporters and editors from covering a story for purely personal reasons.
3. Plurality and Diversity
Media must serve all people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, language, or culture. Information must not allow only one or a few groups to dominate over the rest. Part of the responsibilities of media is to encourage members of different ethnic, racial, religious, and sold social groups to participate in nation-building.