‘Opening media to foreign ownership not easy’

Source: The Philippine Star

The idea of opening the Philippine media to foreign ownership may sound good in theory but in practice it would come only at the cost of a fiercely nationalist and constitutional debate.

At the same time as being divisive, there are questions too over whether there would be that much overseas interest in a very competitive industry.

“I honestly can’t see it happening,” said Luis Teodoro, journalism professor at the University of the Philippines (UP). “Even if the Constitution is changed I doubt we would be inundated with foreign buyers… apart from television, where is the value?”

The government recently announced it would consider opening the media to foreign ownership, which was banned in 1986 by then President Corazon Aquino in a popular nationalist gesture after the overthrow of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Marcos had declared martial law in September 1972 and proceeded to destroy what many had considered to be the freest press in Asia over the next 14 years.

There are now dozens of English-language and Filipino newspapers in Manila – but none has a circulation over 400,000 – while there are about 50 radio stations and six television networks, three owned or controlled by the state.

With so many companies competing for readers and viewers, some argue that ownership is not the real issue.

“The ownership of the media in this country is not a national issue. The media is market oriented whether it is in the Philippines or anywhere else in the world for that matter,” said Sheila Coronel, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

“It doesn’t matter who owns it because it is aiming for the same audience at the end of the day… the mass market.

“Quality has been sacrificed in all sections of the media… and that is not unique to the Philippines. Around the world you are seeing the dumbing down of newspapers, television and radio (to secure) market share,” Coronel said.

For Teodoro Benigno, one of the country’s more prominent columnists, allowing foreign ownership its tantamount to selling out the country.

“No foreigner should be allowed to dictate … what news is good or bad for the Philippines. Only we Filipinos should decide that. The moment we give in, we surrender our last precious heritage, whatever is left of the freedom of the press,” Benigno wrote recently in The Star.

The proposals to open media ownership were outlined in a draft of the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan 2004-2010, which was recently published by the National Economic and Development Authority.

According to the plan, the protectionist provisions of the Constitution are to be removed to liberalize ownership of media, telecommunications and digital infrastructure facilities.

Amending the Constitution would require an elected constitutional convention or the legislature convening in a special session to introduce changes to the country’s basic law.

Socio-economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri said of the plan that “is a good idea because once media operators come to the Philippines… then the Philippines could be a center for media distribution throughout the world because we have very good media people here”.

“We can become a global media player,” he said.

According to UP’s Teodoro, however, “any move to open the media to foreign ownership would be divisive. Not only on nationalist lines but also on constitutional lines as well.

“The issue about ownership was inserted into the Constitution in 1986 to protect the media from foreign ownership in the belief that local owners would help foster nationalism … it didn’t happen.”

Julius Fortuna, writing in the Manila Times noted: “It is too late to dream of making Manila the hub of foreign-owned newspapers because this position has now been assumed by Hong Kong and Singapore.” – AFP