More than a labor issue

THE PRACTICE of not paying reporters or broadcasters salaries, although already a creeping reality in the decades that followed the dismantling of the Marcos dictatorship, is spreading not only in the community press but even among metro Manila-based media organizations.

Instead of paying for their work, some media organizations leave it to the initiative of those they hire to generate their own wages by using their status as members of the media. Widely known in the Philippine media community is the retort by some media decisions makers that being hired by the media organization is enough; demanding a salary is too much.  It’s a common response to legitimate expectations that a reporter or broadcaster should be paid for his or her work.

Although fraught with ethical and professional pitfalls, soliciting advertising and collecting commissions from them is the least problematic of the means some practitioners use to make money as a consequence. It’s a sometime desperate recourse among financially harassed practitioners that some media organizations even encourage. Soliciting and accepting the usual envelopes, extortion, and soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for coverage favorable to the donor are among the other means some practitioners are only too familiar with.

Devised by media owners and other decision-makers to save money, the practice is premised on a low opinion of the press and of media practice. It assumes that the power the news media endows on practitioners can, and even should be, legitimately used for personal interests while working to the advantage of the employer.

The practice has caught the attention of media advocacy and journalists’ groups as a labor issue because it is in violation of Philippine labor laws. The Philippine Labor Code mandates the payment of appropriate wages for work done, and even forbids the employer from paying the wages of an employee “by means of promissory notes, vouchers, coupons, tokens, tickets, chits, or any object other than legal tender, even when expressly requested by the employee.” (Chapter III, Art. 102. Forms of payment)

As a consequence of its being a labor issue, however, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP, the Philippine Broadcasters Association—the self-regulatory media organization for broadcasting) seems to have adopted a hands-off policy. While saying that KBP cannot interfere in labor issues, a representative of the organization also argued during a recent roundtable discussion among media advocacy and journalists’ groups that requiring broadcast organizations in the communities to observe Philippine labor laws  might lead to these organizations’ shutting down because some of them simply cannot afford to pay legally- mandated wages.

But the practice involves not only the right of employees to fair salaries. It also has an impact on the news media capacity to discharge the basic, socially necessary duty of providing the public the information, analysis and opinion it needs to make sense of events, issues, government policies and other relevant developments. It should be obvious that soliciting and accepting bribes, and even being paid commissions for advertising, at least predispose, if they do not actually compel, the media practitioner to report favorably on his or her patron, and/or to put down the latter’s rivals or opponents through the media.

The argument that compelling media organizations to pay their staff legally-mandated wages instead of expecting them to raise the money they and their families need to survive could lead to these organizations’ shutting down is difficult to defend. Quite apart from its looking at the media as a purely commercial undertaking in behalf of which even the non-payment of salaries is legitimized to assure the survival of the organization, it also ignores the media’s fundamental responsibility to the public. If  practitioners are compelled to report, analyze or comment on a subject or subjects in a predetermined way, of what use to the public is that media organization’s continued existence? Its only function would then be solely in behalf of private interest—as a means of profit-making or power-brokering on the part of its owner.

Obviously a media organization established without regard for the rights and welfare of its own employees, in addition to being in violation of the law, can hardly be expected to function in behalf of public interest, thus subtracting rather than adding to the sum of public understanding of matters relevant to it. Such a media organization’s shutting down might in fact be in furtherance of enhancing the public’s right to accurate and fair information, analysis and commentary.

By reducing the number of voices in society that serve no socially redeeming purpose, the consequence could be less confusion among the public by leaving the field to the more responsible media entities and practitioners. One less media organization spreading disinformation and reporting publicly relevant events unfairly could paradoxically mean a better informed citizenry.