The Real Threat to Press Freedom

Let us talk about Press Freedom with some sobriety.

The Securities and Exchange Commission in the Philippines recently revoked the license of Rappler Holdings to operate as a mass media corporate entity, citing the presence of Omidyar Network and North Base Media among its shareholders as being in violation of Constitutional provisions against foreign ownership of media. In response, Rappler organized a very vocal movement to decry the ‘attack on press freedom.’ A war of words has since ensued between those whose concern is press freedom and those who think the real issue is foreign ownership.

Of course I have publicly associated myself with the latter camp.

But okay, let us talk about Press Freedom.

One of the myths perpetuated by the Philippine press is that of ‘media impartiality,’ the romanticized image of the investigative journalist pursuing the truth for its own sake. ‘Panig sa katotohanan, panig sa bayan,’ as ABS-CBN’s news motto goes.

But this is both an exercise in vanity and a betrayal of naivety, if not duplicity. Truth-telling is a matter of power and interest rather than objective disclosure, Foucault established that for decades now, there is no such thing as an impartial public conveyor of truth. What we choose to tell and to not tell betrays our biases.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact it takes us (rather paradoxically) much closer to the truth – in healthy Fourth Estates like the British Press, media bias is accepted as fact, and there is an even distribution across the political spectrum among the papers in Fleet Street. None of them are pretending to be only wedded to the impartial truth, what is revealing is what a particular paper is saying.

Because journalism ideally is not a science, it is free speech, it is the telling of facts to prove a point – it is discourse, if you want the technical jargon. It is the pursuit not of truth as it is, but of the ideal as it is envisioned, a matter of principles rather than of documentation, an existentialist pursuit of the Platonic ideal if you will.

And that being said, yes, I agree, the Philippines Press is under threat. Or rather, it has long been under threat.

Because the real enemy of a healthy mass media is when the principles that should motivate its speakers play second fiddle – are perhaps even weaponized – by interests.

Interests? There are a multitude of them.

But the most serious is the commercial. Our press is much less about public service and more about ratings. It doesn’t matter if the truth is useless or damaging, if it sells let’s air it. That’s why we get zero coverage on the national press of police kidnappings in Mindanao by the NPA (who cares about Mindanao?), but we get national reports on Kris Aquino’s son slipping in a swimming pool. That is why local press outlets can report a murder or a suicide as just some scandal for the masses to relish on. That is why reporters will ask the bereaved families of fire victims how they are feeling, a howling mother makes good television. Philippine journalism is just another form of entertainment.

There are of course more sinister interests. I suspect Rappler is betraying one, that of political powers using the myth of ‘media impartiality’ to reinforce the image of tyranny on the government they are criticizing (I do not believe Rappler is guilty. Not yet. I believe in the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. But I strongly suspect they are, and I only want the courts to decide on the matter.) But whether those interests are there or not is subject for much debate, and there is plenty of that already.

The real threat to press freedom is when the press loses sight of how it should use its freedom, that is, the pursuit of principles.

The creatures of the old press must look at themselves in the mirror, be honest with themselves (for we can only really be honest with ourselves), and ask if they are still worth defending.

Our Fourth Estate is metamorphosing, moulting its old pretenses to become a more mature mass media. The monolithic media is showing its cracks, and the resulting fragmentation of the media narrative (right now broadly grouped into the pro-Duterte, the Liberal, and the Left) will be the seeds to a more transparent journalism.

The next necessary step is tolerance, when we learn to recognize our own and one another’s biases and live with them, when we stop accusing those who disagree with us of being paid trolls or blind followers of evil, when we start talking to each other rather than preaching to our own choirs. That is still nowhere in sight, but I believe we will eventually get there.

Because that is what it means to believe in this country.

 

 

 

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An open letter to the Philippine Communists on Federalism

You are a bunch of bumbling idiots.

How can you expect the people – anyone – to support you when you can’t even be consistent on a goddamn idea.

That sounds counter-intuitive considering your decades of paroting the ‘US fascist regime’ in rallies and communiques.┬áBut the issue of Federalism foregrounds your inconstancy, your opportunism, and your stupidly.

In the early half of Duterte’s presidency, you expressed support for Federalism, even going so far as to promise to co-fund its implementation.

But as soon as your relationship with Duterte turned sour, you began rejecting Federalism too.

It is understandable – expected even – for you to change your mind on the government. But to do the same for an advocacy you only very recently embraced?

You are a cadre of idiots, the lot of you. Federalism was the only chance you had at actually managing to get power. Your pathetic attempt at recreating our own version of the Bolshevik revolution is failing, so we all know your last chance of being relevant is by soft power and recreating what the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, India did. But with your criticism of that, you have lost your right to participate in any Federal democratic exercise.

Duterte was right, you’re terrorists. And you have the hallmarks of terrorists: an ideology muddled beyond coherence by emotions, reducing you to idiots with a proclivity towards violence.