The press in Philippine society

ONE OF the unique characteristics of the Philippine media situation is the readiness of media organizations and individuals to defend their rights as media practitioners as well as press freedom in general. The class suit media advocacy groups, journalists’ organizations and media professionals filed in 2006 against Jose Miguel Arroyo in response to his use of the criminal libel law to harass the press is one indication of this capacity for self-defense. Another is the press community’s near-unanimous opposition to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

But the most telling indicator of the state of the press and media in the Philippines is the continuing killing of journalists, 140 of whom have been killed since 1986. The year 2009 was the worst, with 32 killed during the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23 in Maguindanao Province.

The killing of journalists is continuing today in an atmosphere of government’s near indifference, and, in some cases, outright police and military hostility to journalists and media organizations.

Some journalists critical of mining and illegal logging, who write and comment on corruption and human rights violations in the communities, are in military Orders of Battle. The trial of the suspected masterminds and killers in the Ampatuan Massacre is practically at a standstill, mired in the technical complexities of the Philippine court system. All have served to encourage the killings, which since 2010 when the present administration came to power have totaled 22. The killings have become the main, though not the only gauge of the state of press freedom in the Philippines.

The protection the Constitution extends to press freedom is premised on the assumption that the press has a social duty to discharge to merit that protection. Indeed the Constitution would not otherwise emphasize that no law may be passed abridging press freedom specifically, in addition to a prohibition against the abridgment of free expression in general.

But what exactly is the responsibility of the press to society?

The coverage of the disasters that in the last five years have devastated many areas of the Philippines is instructive. The media have been relentless in providing information during floods, landslides, earthquakes and typhoons, but content analysis of the reporting over the major networks and broadsheets reveals deficiencies in contextualization and backgrounding, and limited information sourcing.

These deficiencies are at least partly due to the media’s limited sourcing of information. The limitation is most probably due to some reporters’ and editors’ being unaware of disaster preparedness and policy issues, which in turn is a result of the day to day media focus on politics and scandals, about which the Philippine press has often been criticized. But this limited capacity is no less unacceptable and almost criminal. Accurate and relevant information is crucial during disasters.

Providing information is the fundamental expression of media responsibility. However, it must be emphasized that the discharge of that responsibility requires adherence to established professional and ethical standards, which include fairness and humaneness, factual and contextual accuracy, relevance and impartiality. Discharging the media’s responsibility to society—that of providing information, interpretation and analysis of events as well as issues—must itself be done responsibly for the sake of an informed and knowledge-empowered public, and this is where the ethical and professional standards apply.

Those standards are inextricably linked. Journalists are expected to adhere to the ethical values of truth telling, autonomy, justice, humaneness and stewardship. These ethical principles find expression in such editorial standards as accuracy, fairness and balance, relevance and impartiality. Current ethical issues in Philippine journalism are indeed professional issues as well in the sense that unethical behavior results in unprofessional performance, or to put it more positively, ethical behavior helps assure professional practice.

Every ethical lapse has implications on professional standards, whether those lapses are corruption, sensationalism, invasion of privacy, pack journalism, stereotyping, or deception.

What the press does—providing information as well as analysis, interpretation as well as insight into public issues—is critical to the health and welfare of societies because they impact on the way societies are run and on the lives of communities and individuals. While it does not prevent the press from acting on public issues as an institution that is no less responsible than others for the well being of the victims of those ills to which Philippine society seems specially prey to, the fullest expression of its social responsibility lies in its cultivating the capacity to deliver the news and to interpret it accurately, fairly, without bias, and without causing undue harm. This is the ideal state and  fundamental responsibility of the Philippine press and media, the path to the realization of which has been strewn with many pitfalls as well as blessed by some success.