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Assuring journalists' safety and independence | CMFR

Assuring journalists’ safety and independence

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Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR)
Statement for World Press Freedom Day (May 3, 2015)

Freedom House noted the deterioration of media conditions in 2014 to the lowest point in more than 10 years. Its Freedom of the Press 2015 listed the restrictions imposed by governments, militants, criminals as well as media owners. Released in time for the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the document should provoke Filipinos to think on the media environment that prevails in the country today.

The abundance of newspapers and magazines, the proliferation of radio news and chit-chat as well as the robust activity of social media can be misleading. While the country sustains one of the strongest legal frameworks for the protection of the press and journalists, the situation joins opposing realities. At no other time have news personalities been projected into the arenas of power and influence. But in many places, journalists are subject to attacks and threats, endangered by the conditions and culture of impunity.

The continuing killing of journalists and media workers is still the main threat to media freedom and the autonomy of journalists in the Philippines. It diminishes the capacity of the press community to gather, process and disseminate the reports, commentaries and analyses that the public needs to understand and act on the most vital issues of our time. The lack of job security for many journalists is felt not only in the small media organizations of the community press but also in larger organizations which are presumed to be free of financial problems. On the side of the press, journalists must be sensitive to the public disenchantment expressed in numerous forums, reflecting doubts about the credibility of news and the very integrity of the news enterprise.

Perhaps, the observance of World Press Freedom Day should involve a more substantive level of thought and action. The issues of the press call for national attention which hopefully will encourage the formulation of remedies for the good of the press and the public.

In 1989, just a few years after the liberation of the press from the long standing  Marcos dictatorship, the organizers of what would become the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility, released a report which observed: “Press freedom involves not only those working in the media, but the public, the people themselves who are served by the media. The readers, listeners and viewers who receive information are part of the cycle of public communication.” In the last 26 years, we have seen the enlargement of the role of the press in setting the political agenda through the manipulation of news. We have seen the dissemination of disinformation and propaganda through the news. It has come to this, because most readers accept what they read without critical evaluation; or are too indifferent or too busy to be bothered.

The contradictions reflected in the conditions affecting the press are part of a long learning curve in democratic development. Our institutions are weak, state power is either corrupted or distracted by other urgent issues. Unfortunately, these excuses serve the purposes of those who have benefitted from the status quo, a press they can manipulate, a press they can buy, threaten and attack with impunity.

Journalistic independence is the necessary condition for practitioners to discharge their public duty. The reality of the killing of journalists betrays our claim to be among the freeest press communities in the world. Our legal framework to protect the press has not halted the closure of radio stations, politically motivated libel and the harassment and murder of journalists. All these attacks and threats effectively reduce the number of critical voices necessary in meaningful public discourse. This fear is sharper among the community press who work in the provinces, where journalist murders can evade necessary notice of national agencies, resulting also in a lack of public awareness.

The Philippines has for years occupied a leading place in the impunity watch lists of several press freedom groups, among them the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), Article 19, and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). The Philippines was also recently named, in the World Impunity Index of the Impunity and Justice Research Center of the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (University of the Americas Puebla—UDLAP) of Mexico as the country with the worst record among 59 countries in prosecuting and penalizing wrongdoers.

So far, only one journalist has been killed for his work in 2015. But the same context of impunity remains, the conditions that together prevent the prosecution of hundreds of killers of journalists and media workers and the masterminds behind them. Only 15 out of the cases of 147 journalists killed since 1986 have been partly resolved with the conviction of the gunmen. No mastermind has so far been prosecuted, with the exception of the alleged principals in the November 23, 2010 Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre, whose trial is ongoing. On its sixth year, it has so far granted bail to 42 of the accused individuals, including several principals, a disheartening development for advocates of press freedom and journalist safety around the world.

The retrenchment of some 200 media workers by one of the major networks demonstrates the lack of job security. But uncertainty of salaries for many journalists working for smaller news organizations darkens the prospects of genuine press freedom. Where is the security when reporters are asked to seek advertisers so they can be paid from these sourced revenues? What is the chance for independent journalism to thrive in such a situation?

The commercial character of the Philippine media system weakens the claim for autonomy of the most profitable media companies. They have subjected themselves to the goal of making money rather than the objective of providing news as a public service. Journalists working in these successful companies are hardly expected to complain. Given the abundant salaries and benefits they enjoy, who would be willing to point out that the news schedule is taken up by celebrity news and trivia, or the curtailment of time given to significant developments that require more time to report. But news for profit takes many forms. Paid-for journalism is the most sinister as it is perhaps the most difficult to detect.

Threats from government has for decades been the main focus of press freedom campaigns. Attracting less attention is the damage caused by the pronounced emphasis on the commercial character of the media as money-making enterprises, a global trend that should be a matter of the gravest concern.

Press and media independence, their capacity to provide the public the information it needs, and the safety of journalists are joined in the Philippines. The state has the responsibility of assuring the safety of all citizens. But the media community has the equal responsibility of enhancing its own independence and assuring its own safety. Media advocates have highlighted the need for ethics and responsibility in press practice as a way of ensuring the value of their service, one that will earn public support and vigilant defense. It is time for ordinary Filipinos to share this burden of responsibility by becoming themselves more critical in their use of news.

The celebration of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd this year should be another occasion for journalists and media workers, civil society organizations and public officials to take pause and review the state of the press in the country. As with all matters in a developing democracy, ordinary Filipinos are called upon to do their share to halt the decline of press freedom and independence and to demand as well the quality press that citizens deserve.