Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gatekeepers


Whether you were in Tagaytay or in Mendiola last weekend, or simply hunched in front of the computer absorbed in your newsroom’s daily grind, you would agree that these are significant times for journalists in the Philippines.

In Tagaytay, dozens of representatives of various media organizations looked inwards and tackled the issue of corruption in the industry during Media Nation 9.

President Benigno Aquino III was guest of honor in the conference, where he urged media organizations to adopt consistent standards.  He said he remembered the harmful effects of state-controlled media which turned a noble profession into a propaganda machine.

(This of course is our same President who admonishes media to refrain from too much “negative” reporting and concentrate on the good news, and who instead of reiterating his commitment to putting in place a Freedom of Information Law, did not mention it altogether.  He did, however, talk about enabling aggrieved parties to seek redress when they feel they have been wronged by the media.)

Mr. Aquino also reminded those present that mainstream media are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information; the emergence of social media and citizen journalism has changed the landscape, thus compounding the challenges.

Former Polish President Lech Walesa, in closing the conference, told Philippine journalists to “provoke discussions on how this new era will evolve.”

The present picture that emerges is not at all pretty. In fact, it is quite shocking.  In a post-Media Nation piece entitled “Media Secrets” published by Rappler, Maritess Danguilan Vitug writes that journalists themselves estimate that at least 85 percent of us are corrupt. The number comes up to as high as 90 percent during election season.

“They culled this figure from computations of PR people and media operatives, those who work below the radar screen to bribe us, and anecdotes from the field,” she adds.

And as technology has evolved, so have the methods of corrupting members of the media: cash-stuffed envelopes are outmoded and obvious.  The offers have included real property, mutual fund investments, large amounts of cash deposited to a bank account.

Danguilan-Vitug says that while some organizations have come up with codes of ethical conduct and sanctioned their erring members, the complaint and the action are not shared with the public. And since there is no accountability, the dismissed journalists then just transfer to other organizations.

Indeed, even if one belonged to the 15 percent, a shadow remains over the profession. This is a concern of 100 percent of media members.

***

But not everybody decided to go up to breezy Tagaytay for industry introspection.  Some equally passionate journalists decided instead to march to Mediola and carry cardboard coffins (154 in all, representing the number of media members killed in the country since 1986) to demand justice for victims of impunity.  November 23, after all, was the third anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre. It was also the second commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity.

Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, wrote an essay called “Why We Chose Mendiola Over Tagaytay” which was shared many times on Facebook—and on other sites as well, I imagine.

The Maguindanao Massacre claimed 58 lives—32 of which were from the media, most of them part of the community press.

Batario says that community journalists are often “portrayed as easy prey for blandishments of many kinds or willing participants in rent-seeking and rent-giving. Or that they are paid hacks of politicians and are bereft of any ethical norm or standard. This may be partly true but realities on the ground present a different picture and context of the vulnerabilities [they] face.”

The discussion on media corruption would have given community journalists the opportunity “to tell their story and provide fresh insight” in addressing the challenges posed by what has been called the elephant in the room.

But many of these journalists—in no way part of Big Media—could not participate because of logistical shortcomings. “This puts into question the meeting’s priorities in terms of hearing a plurality of media voices especially from the community press, members of whom are often targets of violence. Because of corruption? Who knows?  Only they can tell.”

Batario hopes that the complex issues of impunity and corruption would be better understood, just as he hopes for justice for all victims of the massacre.  He shows us a side that our Manila- (or urban-) centric mindsets do not easily give us.

We are expected to advance causes, dissect issues and propose sweeping solutions during infrequent events like the Media Nation conference or the anniversary of an infamous massacre.  But we are also called to acknowledge that how we do our jobs from day to day, how we deal with our principals and colleagues and sources and audiences and the public in general, and how we make our work our ambassador, are what shape us as individuals and as an industry.

Forget about how things have always been done. Focus on why things are the way they are, and how we could make them into what they should be.

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