Ethics, the Culture of Impunity, and Democracy by Luis V. Teodoro

DELIVERED DURING THE NUJP FORUM COMMEMORATING WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY, MAY 3, 2011

LET ME start by quoting CMFR’s statement which we issued in commemoration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day: “The Philippine media situation has resisted change despite the change of administration in July 2010,” which in several vital respects is true. Before Mr. Aquino assumed the Presidency and still during the unlamented Arroyo regime, three journalists were killed for their work within one month–on June 14, 16 and 19, 2010. Six more have since been killed during the ten months that the Aquino government has been in power. Three of the killings from July 1, 2010 to May 2, 2011 were work related, for a total of nine journalists killed from May 3, 2010 to May 2, 2011, among whom six were killed for their work.

These figures compare with three incidents of journalists killed, of which two were work- related, in 2001, the first year of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s protracted watch. In 2002, broadcaster and print journalist Edgar Damalerio was killed in Pagadian City. The killing brought to the attention of the world press freedom watch groups—and incidentally, also to that of the Philippine national press in Manila, which up to that time had been in a state of denial—the reality that in this country with “the freest press in Asia,” journalists were being targeted for assassination, earning for it a Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) label as “the most murderous place in the world to practice journalism.” Damalerio was one of “only” two journalists killed for their work that year. In 2003, seven more incidents of work-related killings of journalists occurred. That number spiked to 15, of which eight journalists were killed for their work, in 2004.

The continuing killings indicate that the culture of lawlessness and impunity that has made violence not only against journalists but other sectors as well so common, persists, just like the hunger that Mr. Aquino was so surprised to learn recently now haunts even more Filipinos. While that is bad news in itself, equally bad is the virtual standstill of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, in which the hearings on the petition for bail of the principal accused are still ongoing, in addition to its being bogged down in the technical quagmire of the Philippine justice system.

But the bad news is not limited to the apparent persistence of impunity despite Mr. Aquino’s own pledge last year not only to respect press freedom but also to put an end to the killings—and despite an August 2010 meeting between his communications group and the Secretary of Justice on the one hand and the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines on the other, during which the Aquino government committed itself to taking the concrete steps needed to stop the killings.

Neither is the bad news limited to the apparent persistence of impunity and the glacial progress of the Ampatuan Massacre trial. Part of the bad news is the apparently long half life, to borrow a term from nuclear physics, of those professional and ethical problems that during the last year or so have been so egregious as to earn the scorn of that part of the public that’s more or less media and politically literate. To quote once more from the CMFR statement, “plagiarism (in the year just past) was a nagging problem, together with sensationalism, lack of fairness and balance, the absence of contextual information, biased reporting, and corruption,” and these problems applied equally to the news media as well as the entertainment media, and to reporting and commentary, whether in the op ed or other pages or sections of Philippine media organizations.

I won’t go into the cases of unethical practice that surprised and even shocked some—I hope many—of us during the year just past, with which I am sure most of you are familiar. Let me say instead that there is a connection between the persistence of the culture of impunity and the levels of ethical and professional malpractice in the Philippine media. I am not saying that those killed were unethical or unprofessional, as some in both academia and practice insist, although a few may indeed fall into that category. I am saying that unprofessional and unethical performance has over the years predisposed readers, viewers and listeners to look at the media, except in relatively rare instances, as of no consequence to their lives and those matters that concern them.

In many of our communities, where most of the killings have taken place, radio, for example, is very seldom more than background noise both because of the sheer volume as well as worthlessness of what passes for commentary, which is usually merged seamlessly with what passes for news. For its emphasis on celebrity news and some of the most idiotic and mindless variety shows on this side of the Pacific, television has become a medium not to be taken seriously, good for a laugh now and then, but not really a medium you can trust for information, let alone interpretation and analysis. For all its vaunted sobriety, print, meanwhile, too often fails to provide the context vital to the public’s understanding of the complex events and issues that confront this country, not to mention the rest of planet earth.

It is hardly surprising that when journalists in the country of our sorrows are killed there is not the kind of outrage that one would expect over the deaths of men and women charged with the crucial task of providing information, analysis and interpretation on matters of public concern. The journalists killed in this country because of their work are casualties of their own profession’s failure to be an institution worthy of Constitutional protection. That protection is premised on the value of free expression and a free press to the processes of democratization, and the journalists killed in this country are the collateral damage in the conflicts that endure in these parts because of a weak justice system and the existence of centers of warlord power. If journalists were as a rule more ethical and more professional, they would be doing a better reporting and explaining the social, political and natural environment to the Filipino public, and as a result would be so valued in the communities that they would be protected by the people themselves and their loss universally lamented.

But that is not happening. Together with the weaknesses of the justice system and the consequent privatization of police, military and paramilitary units which assure them that their prosecution will be unlikely if not impossible, the absence of widespread public outrage is a crucial factor in the encouragement, in fact the boldness, of the killers of journalists in doing their work. Public pressure, our experience in this country shows, can move even the creaky justice system, or even provoke promises of action at the highest levels of government. The Filipino people after all have even managed to remove two Presidents from power. That something even remotely similar–let’s say in the form of a demonstration in which there are more ordinary citizens than media workers–has so far not been forthcoming from the communities as far as the killing of journalists is concerned is one more factor in the making and persistence of the culture of impunity.

The responsibilities of the media in a democracy, or in those countries that would be democracies, hardly need elaboration. But they do need to be restated for the edification of those practitioners who have either forgotten them, or haven’t even the foggiest as to what they are. Those responsibilities are both simple as well as complex. They are as simple as that of reporting what happened, but are as complex as doing so without causing harm and without further dividing a country already splintered into warring factions. We must also remind ourselves that those responsibilities cannot be adequately discharged under the conditions of professional and ethical practice dominant in the Philippine press and media, and that we have to renew our commitment to the defense of press freedom through, among other means, and again in the words of the CMFR statement, “continuing self-examination, self-criticism and reform,” both for our own sake as well as that of the Filipino people, who’re hungry for information but seldom get it. (Instead they are deluged with reports on Royal Weddings and other royal trivia.) Ethics, in short, has to do not only with journalists’ lives, welfare and safety, but also with the lives of the people, and the survival of whatever remains of democracy in this country.

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