By Luis V. Teodoro
THE REFORM of the government media system mostly consisting of radio and television networks has been tried at least once. But an announcement of the government intention to do so also came much later, after three administrations– the Ramos, Estrada and Arroyo regimes– had come and gone.
After the EDSA civilian-military mutiny of 1986 which removed Ferdinand Marcos from power, then newly-named Philippine Information Agency (PIA) head Benjamin Lozare proposed the transformation of the system from a primarily public relations instrument of government into a public information network. Perhaps because they thought it ill-timed since the new administration was under threat from a series of coup attempts by the remnants of the Marcos terror regime, the officials of the Corazon Aquino administration rejected that initiative.
But in 2010, shortly after the election of Benigno Aquino III, the communication officials of the new administration announced plans to transform the system into precisely what Lozare had been proposing: to make it into an authentic source of information about governance and issues of public concern in the manner of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) rather than remaining as the public relations arm of whatever administration was in power.
Unfortunately, the plan did not go beyond that announcement and tentative and eventually fruitless meetings with communication academics and media advocacy groups including the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
The government media system as subsequent administrations have inherited it is primarily a creation of the Marcos regime, which reorganized and expanded the relatively small pre-martial law government system into a complex bureaucracy under the Ministry of Public Information. The intention was to disseminate only the most positive reports about the regime to the exclusion of information contrary to its claims of progress, economic stability, and public support. It was in keeping with the regime demand that the media be the partners rather than the monitors and adversaries of government.
The Marcos regime described what the media, whether public or private, were doing as public information. But the reality was that what was being fed the public was propaganda, as that term has come to mean in the post-World War II period as the selective use of information, as well as of outright lies (disinformation), appeals to the emotions, and the constant repetition of contrary claims even if the facts contravened allegations of positive developments.
“Post-truth” is the current term for the latter, and the regime was even then quite successful at it. Many Filipinos today still think that the country was both prosperous and at peace during the Marcos dictatorship, and as a result are hankering for something similar. The key to the system was its use of information favorable to the regime and–known to students of propaganda as “card-stacking”– the exclusion of information that could challenge government claims.
Airing or printing diverse views would therefore be the antidote to the State media system as a propaganda and public relations machine as it has been handed down to the six administrations after that of Marcos.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s suggestion in his remarks during the March 10 launch of PTV4’s Cordillera hub in Baguio City that communist and secessionist Muslim groups air their grievances over the government’s PTV4 channel–if serious and if taken seriously–would thus be a significant departure from the exclusive use of that network and other government media solely for the political advantage of whatever administration is in power.
His remarks implicitly acknowledged that the views and grievances of some groups and entire communities seldom find expression in either the government-owned or the corporate, privately-owned media, which thereby consign them to the margins of public discourse. In 2000, for example, a CMFR study found that in only one interview were Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) goals reported, out of several thousand print and broadcast reports. At the height of the controversy that followed the 2015 Mamasapano incident, CMFR also found that MILF sources were only rarely interviewed even by government media.
During the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and related events, neither corporate media organizations nor government radio and television stations had bothered to even mention, much less provide the details of, the NDFP 12-point program of government on which its proposals for social, economic and political reforms are likely to be based. Not even government reform proposals were noted in the media. And yet getting these and other issues into the public sphere for discussion and comment could significantly raise the levels of public discourse.
Much will depend on whether the Duterte regime will commit the effort and the money necessary for the reform of State media. Giving groups and even entire communities that have been marginalized by the media the opportunity to express their grievances, views and programs over the government media system would be a significant step in transforming it into a vehicle of public information from its purely public relations orientation. But it will require more than Duterte’s announcement to that effect to institutionalize it.
Duterte said that the BBC could be the model for a government media system that would reflect the diversity of views on public matters that has been missing in the system, and jokingly urged the PTV4 personnel present to copy the BBC model. But assuring a diversity of sources and views over the State media system will require not only an independent, sustainable source of funding. Equally necessary is the retraining of system staff, away from its accustomed public relations orientation to rigorous adherence to the ethical and professional standards of journalism, which among others mandate multi-sourcing and providing context to the news. (The latter two are among the most commonly ignored journalism values even in the news reports of privately-owned newspapers, radio stations, and television networks.)
Duterte did say that he would not use State media for his and his administration’s personal and political ends, and declared that he would give the system “some freedom” to truthfully report events and issues of public concern. As well-intentioned as he may be, however, for reforms in the State media system to take hold it will be necessary to convince Congress to pass a law that will provide the system a source of funding independent of Congress itself and of any administration now and in the future.
With independent funding sources assured and their personnel retrained, State media can become competitive with privately-owned media in terms of reach and influence, in contrast to their currently limited impact on public discourse because of their widely-perceived bias for government and government officials.
But is Duterte serious about introducing the diversity of views crucial to the making of a truly independent public media system by bringing to Congressional attention the need to do so? If he is, will the majority members of Congress then have the vision and the commitment to the enhancement of democratic discourse, to which an authentic system of public information can contribute, transcend their interest in the certainty of positive media coverage the system now assures them?
Was Duterte announcing State policy, or expressing off-hand views his spokespersons will later have to interpret and clarify?
No such clarification or interpretation has so far emanated from Palace sources. But neither has there been any indication that serious and meaningful initiatives, such as a study on the value of a public information system to better governance and democratization and how to put it in place, and, eventually, a draft bill for Congressional discussion, will follow Duterte’s remarks.