Understanding alternative media and their purpose

THE DUTERTE regime’s linking of longstanding news organizations to terror groups last June made clear the narrowing space for diversity and dissent. But this does not come as a surprise given the escalation of attacks and threats against the media in general. 

Hermogenes Esperon Jr., National Security Council (NSC) Advisor and Anti-Terrorism Council Vice Chairperson, sent a memorandum on June 6  to the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) ordering “Philippine Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to websites affiliated to and are supporting terrorists and terrorist organizations.”  

The NTC acted on the order and instructed ISPs to block 28 websites. This included Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, which are legitimate and alternative media organizations. 

No evidence was provided to prove the government’s claim. It is clear that  blocking access to these independent news media websites  violates the Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of the press, speech and free expression as well as the public’s right to news and information. The order also effectively removed from the public sphere alternative news and views so necessary in a democracy. There should be space and time given to the airing and expression of different, even contradictory perspectives and points of view. This strengthens the capacity of the national community to recognize and acknowledge their common ground. 

Its inclusion in the order, which listed other progressive organizations, indicates what has been noted as the government’s fear of news that differs from what the bigger news media organizations ordinarily carry. 

What is the danger in alternative media? Or perhaps, to turn the issue on its head, what is their value? 

Dominant and Alternative

Alternative media are sources that differ from established or dominant types of media (such as mainstream media or mass media) in terms of their content, production, or distribution. Alternative media and advocacy journalism are not neutral; they are purposely selective, presenting views different from those held by people in power and with means. 

Alternative media also reject those news conventions that prioritize coverage on the basis of prominence and wide interest. Moving away from these standards, these media present the lesser known, ignored and perhaps even excluded sectors from discussion by the established communities and institutions of society.   

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) noted how “most people express a desire for alternatives to the mainstream media—or at least seek to balance out their media diets.” They also cited a Pew Research Center report on Americans’ trust in political news, indicating that “the mainstream media is believed to be credible, but individual outlets must be held in equilibrium with those of a similar caliber.”

CJR interviewed Sheryl Kennedy Haydel, a scholar of historically Black colleges and university newspapers at Louisiana State, who said she believes in alternative media and hopes to “never lose that term.” She pointed out that “it’s another access point for people who feel left out of the ‘mainstream’ to have a place to learn to grow. It is vital.”

Philippine history shows us passages when the “alternative media” presented the populace with such alternative news and commentary, slowly forming a critical mass which caused change. La Solidaridad and Kalayaan pushed for reforms and radical change. And in the early 1980s, the “mosquito press” overtook the circulation of the Marcos crony press with  calls for change and the end of the Marcos regime. 

As Haydel said, alternative media must always have a place in the media landscape and access to it is a vital resource for citizens in a democracy, most especially where democratic development is threatened by authoritarian tendencies. 

Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly 

Bulatlat

For more than two decades, Bulatlat has made it clear since 2001 that it is a place where one could get news and views left out of the news agenda of more established news organizations. It has sought “to reflect the people’s views and stand on issues that affect their lives and their future.” These concerns include rights and civil liberties especially of the marginalized like workers, peasants, migrants, women, indigenous peoples, among other basic sectors. As news or commentary, its content picked up where others in the “mainstream” left off. 

Bulatlat is a nonprofit and alternative online publication that follows the rigorous editing process of journalism. Danilo Arao, UP journalism professor, is a founding member of Bulatlat, of which he is also associate editor. He was interviewed on TeleRadyo on June 22 and 23 and he said that as in mainstream media, there is a team of editors, reporters with beats, columnists and photojournalists. He said that they follow a “vetting process” that approves what is published and has earned them articles with national and international recognition.

Arao emphasized a crucial difference in the organization, saying that it is not owned by a company and enjoys  editorial independence in deciding what to publish, working “free from the trappings of commercialism, and other effects of media ownership and advertising interests.” It does not receive funds from “big companies, big capitalists, or big politicians and  communist groups.” 

He said that alternative media depend on people who work for less, and so the costs are not that high. “I can tell you on national television right now, hindi po ako sumusuweldo ‘roon.” (I am not paid there.) The funds they receive are for projects, such as publishing books. 

The practice in Bulatlat follows “the highest standard of journalism” which includes fact-checking and the necessary multiplicity of sources. But Arao admitted that they do have a bias, which is to give voice to the voiceless, a concept that is “not at all new even in western countries.” He cited journalism theoreticians in other countries who believe in “rebellious” journalism, different from  the armed struggle of communist groups.

“We’re not in it for the money, this journalism, it’s more out of commitment, it’s more out of the felt need to help in the shaping of public opinion, that’s all there is to it,” he added.

Pinoy Weekly 

A year after Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly was established in 2002 as a weekly tabloid to reach a mass audience, using the language of the masses- Filipino. But it differed in providing content from mainstream tabs of the industry. Instead of the usual “sex, scandal and crime,” Pinoy Weekly focused on developments in public and national affairs. 

Pinoy Weekly’s first editor-in-chief was Rogelio Ordoñez, veteran creative writer and journalist in the Filipino language. As a weekly publication, it broke away from breaking news and concentrated on feature reports and in-depth reporting. It also moved out of the established beats and focused on “sectoral” beats, gathering news from the people, their issues and concerns. Its other editors were veteran journalists, writers, and artists such as Bayani Abadilla, Prestoline Suyat, D’Jay Lazaro, Leo Esclanda, Neil Doloricon, and Bonifacio Ilagan.  

In June 2008, Pinoy Weekly ceased publishing its print edition because of high costs. It continues to publish special issues of its tabloid Pinoy; and maintains an online publication, Pinoy Weekly Online, which uploads content daily, using both Filipino and English to reach a wider audience.

Since 2010, Pinoy Weekly has been published by PinoyMedia Center (PMC), “a non-stock, non-profit organization dedicated to democratizing the practice of Philippine journalism through its programs on grassroots media development, information for advocacy, and public and media engagement.” PMC was officially registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and its Board of Directors includes veteran independent media practitioners, distinguished members of the academe, and award-winning artists.

Former editor Kenneth Guda, a recipient of the National Book Award for Journalism, said that “it is, indeed, a progressive publication… But more than that, Pinoy Weekly continues to publish PRINT magazines for marginalized sectors and communities — informing and enlightening readers who need the information and enlightenment now more than ever but continue to be marginalized in our information system. Not only should Pinoy Weekly be NOT censored/terror-tagged, it should be celebrated.” 

Stories behind

A quick look at the two websites reveals more people’s stories than government voices, more protests in the streets than smiling politicians. More importantly, they provide analysis from the lens of marginalized communities. 

Both media organizations focus on stories reflecting the state of human rights and civil liberties, reporting on national issues as these affect ordinary folks. They give space to the discussion of sectoral concerns, including the plight of peasants, fisherfolk, women, LGBT, etc.

During the campaign and election season, instead of focusing on the candidates and the campaign trail, their reports included the needs and concerns gathered from ordinary people who wanted to be heard by the candidates. 

Both Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly’s writers have received international and national awards for their in-depth reports. They have also received nominations for CMFR’s Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

As of writing, Bulatlat’s latest stories are on the unfair labor practices of a new security agency in UP; a review of Marcos Jr.s cabinet; and ‘#TheRealDuterteLegacy,’—an inclusive recording of the people’s stories and a grounded evaluation of Duterte’s term.

Pinoy Weekly’s latest stories are on ICC’s reopening of its investigation on Duterte’s drug war; what will happen to the disqualification cases against Marcos Jr.; and a review of foreign movies related by its writers to social realities in the Philippines. 

Not the first and last time

NSC and NTC’s effort to block access to these media outfits were not isolated incidents, but part of a pattern. During the six years of the Duterte presidency, there were more cyber libel cases, cyber-attacks, red-tagging and an escalation of measures.

Even the mainstream media were under siege. It included the denial of ABS-CBN’s application for a renewal of its franchise and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) affirming its 2018 decision to revoke the certificates of incorporation of the Rappler.

Last year, Quirium Media, a Sweden-based digital forensics non-profit organization, released a report linking a 2021 cyberattack on Bulatlat to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Philippine military. Meanwhile, state agents burned copies of Pinoy Weekly in Pandi, Bulacan in September 2019 and hit Guda and broke his camera when he was covering a protest in 2013. 

It would seem that the government finds danger not just in the alternative media, but in any news content that is critical of the government. As it was coming to its end, the Duterte regime’s order to block websites proved that Duterte and his hostility to critics may have become a dangerous habit for officials in positions of power.

Not all media are affected for sure. Journalists can be silenced and afraid. But there are also those with a certain kind of courage to swim against the tide; or to thumb noses at the establishment and its zones of comfort. It is a kind of courage that can be contagious.