Democracy and the Media

By : Suriani Mappong

GETTING USED to freedom is not easy. Just ask the media in the Philippines and Indonesia. Both countries used to be under authoritarian rulers who had their peoples in their iron grip for decades. In both countries, however, rediscovered liberties have not exactly been liberating, and the overeager and sometimes irresponsible media have been blamed for helping weaken the constitutional basis of the freedoms they now enjoy. Ironically, in the Philippines and in Indonesia, some brave members of the otherwise silenced press had been crucial in keeping the dreams of democracy alive during the dark days of dictatorship.

Compared to Indonesia, the Philippines had a headstart of more than 10 years in getting reacquainted with democracy. Today, save for laws guarding against libel and sedition, there are no official regulations that control the Philippine media. In fact, the country’s 1987 constitution even ensures protection of the freedom of the press. Yet although the Philippine media have often been described as noisy, rowdy, and rambunctious, many Filipino journalists confess that press freedom remains under threat there, and that the media’s independence can still be compromised. Almost two decades after the fall of strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and the subsequent restoration of democracy, the Philippine press finds itself not quite the watchdog of society that it is supposed to be, with its ability to give the public the information it needs at times undermined.

Corruption is one factor contributing to this. Among the rank and file, media insiders say, there are reporters and columnists who can be bought. There also those in the PR industry who insist that every press conference must have some distribution of envelopes containing money among the media. The result are stories that are more PR than fact, their length even determined by how much money was exchanged.

Officially, these practices are frowned upon, and some newspapers have been known to ease out employees found to be on the take. But they persist partly because of the low wages in the industry. According to the Philippine Journalism Review, the entry-level salaries of reporters in the major broadsheets range from P4,500 to P7,000 (about US$83 to US$130) a month – the same as that of drivers employed by middle-class families. Comments a reporter-turned-political handler: “So when a politician comes along offering you double, triple or even quadruple your salary, and maybe even throws in a car, how can you refuse?”

Indeed, such offers come especially during election time. The PJR says that in the run-up to the polls, the sums set aside by politicians “for the media” range from P10,000 (US$185) a month per reporter to P50,000 (US$926) per editor.

To be sure, though, journalists who choose not to compromise their principles still outnumber their corrupt colleagues. That does not mean, however, that these journalists are free of dilemmas over how and what they can report.

The media business
Even Ben Rodriguez, editor in chief of the Manila Bulletin, says the media find it difficult to avoid pressure from politicians and from business conglomerates. The politicians lean on the businessmen-owners of the media company to get the kind of coverage they want. Corporations can also withhold their advertising pesos from newspapers that report on issues that have a negative impact on their businesses. In some instances, they do so on the behest of government officials whom they want to please or at least avoid upsetting. During his abbreviated term, for instance, President Joseph Ejercito Estrada was suspected of having orchestrated an advertising boycott of the popular Philippine Daily Inquirer, which he believed to be too fond of running negative stories about him.

It has not helped that many media owners themselves have other businesses and are therefore vulnerable to political pressure. One of the starkest examples of this again comes from the Estrada era, during which the family that owned the Manila Times came under heavy pressure after the paper ran a story about an anomalous government contract. Estrada even filed a multimillion-peso libel suit against the Manila Times publisher, editors, and reporters, for a subhead that had called him the deal’s “unwitting ninong (godfather).” The Times owner, the Gokongweis, had businesses that ranged from food and textile manufacturing, to hotels and commercial and residential real estate, to transportation. To stave off any “government interference” in these businesses, the family was reportedly forced to sell the Times to an Estrada crony.

Why big businessmen go into the media in the first place is itself interesting – and telling. While one of the Gokongweis said in an interview that they had naively thought they would make a profit with the Times (they didn’t), many Filipino tycoons invest in media firms without expecting a return of investment. At least not directly. In a country where there is intense competition for business opportunities, owning a newspaper – or even a small radio station for that matter — is like having an ace over one’s rivals. At the very least, it gives the owner the means to influence not only public opinion but government policy as well. The owner can also choose to dictate the content of the paper in accordance to his personal and business interests. Far from sticking to the journalistic ideal of objective reporting, a newspaper under such circumstances can only be expected to run stories that are palpably partisan.

Compounding the situation is the fierce competition among the media companies. This does have an upside to it: in order attract a wider audience, both print and broadcast media have been more willing to experiment in terms of subjects to cover. Thus, they sometimes run stories on issues that otherwise may have been left by the wayside.

The downside, though, includes shoddy reporting because of the desire for a scoop, and the emphasis on the sensational and the scandalous (i.e. sex and violence) instead of substance. Inaccuracies and inanities abound, while sober discussions of important issues are few and far between.

Indonesia’s turn
Most of these are now probably beginning to sound familiar to members of the media in Indonesia, where the military-backed, 32-year rule of President Soeharto came to a sudden end in 1998, a mere four years ago. Just like in the Philippines, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the post-Soeharto constitution. One of its articles even stipulates a sentence for a “maximum of two years or Rp500 million fine for anyone preventing the freedom of the press.” This freedom, however, is now in danger of being limited through legislation because of what some officials say have been serious transgressions by the press. Unfortunately, just like in the Philippines, some members of the Indonesian media have succumbed to corruption, while there are newspapers that are nothing but mere mouthpieces of business and political bosses. The thrill of not having to apply for licenses has also goaded hundreds to set up their own publications – only to close these soon after they have achieved their short-term objective of attacking a political opponent or business rival.

The Indonesia media can perhaps take a cue from Sheila Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, who offers some suggestions on how the press conditions in her country can become better: democratize media ownership, improve the welfare of journalists, upgrade journalistic skills, and set up a self-regulating mechanism to correct the excesses of the press. These, says Coronel, can restore the credibility and self-respect of journalists, as well as enhance the freedom of the press.

In truth, the answer to the media’s dilemmas in a fledgling democracy is obviously not to remuzzle the press, but to strengthen its investigative instincts, hone its skills, and reiterate its responsibility to the public.

At the same time, there is a need for a critical and vocal public to keep the press’s excesses in check. Writes Melinda Quntos de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Philippines, in the 1999 book News in Distress: “As has been pointed out time and again, the media reflect the reality out there. The media hold up a mirror to what society is about, its virtues as well as its vices. The improvement of the press in the Philippines is related to the quality of its readers and in the willingness of the readers to be engaged as active consumers of the press and as engaged participants in the political process.”

She adds, “Filipinos used to say when Marcos went about unchallenged that the people get the government they deserve. The same can be said of the press. In a democracy, there is no free lunch.”