Media access and the right to know

CAMILO JIMENEZ-UNSPLASH

The accreditation of bloggers that Marcos Junior’s choice for Press Secretary (she will also head the Presidential Communication Operations Office or PCOO) is planning is not new. It was also considered by her predecessor, but abandoned because of problems over which bloggers would join the Malacañang Press Corps in covering the President.

There are thousands of bloggers who report and comment on public events and issues, but only a few can be so accredited. The PCOO will of course choose only those it approves of. Like the incoming PCOO head herself, avid Marcos Junior partisans who very likely even helped him campaign will be its preference.

The exclusion of others who do not meet that “qualification” will make the accreditation of the chosen bloggers, if it does happen, one more means through which the incoming regime can control the manner and extent to which its policies and actions are reported. And that seems to be the exact intention.

In a similar vein is the planned “review” of print, broadcast, and online media representation in the coverage of the Office of the President. Exactly what that review will consist of has not been revealed, but that it is even being planned suggests that only those journalists from “friendly” media organizations could be permitted to cover Malacañang.

If implemented, both would be consistent with some journalists’ and media organizations’ experience with Marcos Junior and his Spokesperson during the campaign and after. The former did not participate in the debates and panel discussions in which other candidates were present, and instead granted only one-on-one interviews with selected broadcasting and social media anchors. For his part, the latter ignored journalists from media organizations who were asking the hard questions that neither he nor his boss could answer with some credibility.

The apparent policy is to permit only selected journalists and media organizations access to Mr. Marcos. It was also in evidence after the elections. On May 26, for example, only NET25, Sonshine (sic) Media Network International (SMNI) and GMA 7 were invited to the first Marcos Junior press conference after his proclamation as President-elect.

Both NET25 and SMNI TV had endorsed the Marcos Junior-Sara Duterte team, and were even spreading disinformation and personal attacks against Vice-President Leni Robredo, her family, and her supporters before, during, and after the May 9 elections.

The apparent discrimination in favor of the three networks was explained away as a prior commitment to grant them the interviews they had supposedly requested during the campaign period. But online news site Rappler revealed that other media organizations had been misled by an advisory that said that the so-called “BBM Media Center” where the press conference was held would be closed on that date.

More than putting the independent media at a disadvantage, however, limiting media access to information is in violation of both press freedom and the citizen’s right to know. In supposedly democratic societies like the Philippines, that right is premised on the people’s need to monitor via the media what the officials to whom they have delegated their sovereign powers are doing and to hold them accountable.

The same right has already been compromised by the disinformation many bloggers and the usual mercenaries in print and broadcast media have been spreading so successfully as to make even worse the information crisis that is so prejudicial to the making of an informed citizenry.

But in addition to these infirmities is the media network PCOO runs. Its antecedents go back to the Marcos Senior dictatorship, which created the government media and communication system that succeeding administrations have inherited. The system provided information about government, but also limited the capacity of the privately owned media organizations that were then allowed to function to monitor regime policies and activities.

The system was guided by the regime and its allies in academia’s interpretation of “development communication,” of which the idea that development requires media collaboration with government was the most prominent. In practice this meant censorship, monitoring, and even imprisoning critical journalists, and disseminating through the now defunct Ministry of Information and the agencies it controlled only the “good news” about the regime. It called it “public information,” but what the system was actually doing was developing and enhancing a positive regime image.

Some journalists dismiss public information as just another name for public relations. But it does have the function of providing the citizenry with information it has a right to know. After 1986 there were attempts to reform the government media system. But the politicians who saw it as indispensable to their need for favorable publicity that can mean more votes come election time made doing so almost impossible.

Through Executive Order No. 4, the Benigno Aquino III administration reorganized the Office of the Press Secretary and created the PCOO in 2010. EO 4 declared the need for a public information system that would inform the public what the Executive Branch is doing. But the same EO emphasized the dissemination of Presidential “achievements,” which, during both the Aquino III and Duterte administrations, led to the exclusion of “bad news” from the information the system was providing. And yet, reporting relevant issues and events — the good news as well as the bad — can enhance public understanding of the problems the country has to contend with and what policies are needed to address them.

One of the essentials of an authentic public information system is therefore its openness to a diversity of viewpoints. This is unthinkable to the managers of the government information system as it has been handed down from the Marcos dictatorship to its successors. But opening it to diverse views by making the media under its control forums for debate and discourse on public issues is the only way the system can be of real service to citizens who need information that is as complete and as accurate as possible so they can make intelligent decisions on the things that concern them.

That it can be done has been demonstrated in other jurisdictions. Frequently mentioned in academic circles is the example of the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), a public media organization that provides information not only on government but on everything newsworthy.

Ending their dependency on whatever administration is in power is what government-owned radio and TV need to make their programming as relevant and open. Since the Marcos Senior dictatorship they have essentially served as the public relations arm of current administrations rather than providing reliable information. As a scan of their performance during the last election campaign will show, this has resulted in unprofessional reporting biased in favor of administration candidates and against their opponents.

The autonomy of the government media system, to start with, can be achieved by it getting a source of funding independent of any administration. The BBC is primarily funded by an annual television license fee paid by every household and organization that records and/or receives television broadcasts. Creating a similar funding source will require legislation, the details of which the legal geniuses of the incoming administration can forge in accordance with Philippine law. Once such funding is assured, the reorientation, reorganization, and professionalization of government radio and TV should follow.

Unfortunately, if the plans of the next PCOO head are indicative of anything, it is that recognizing the independence and respecting the diversity of all the media in furtherance of the people’s right to know is not what the incoming administration has in mind, but the exact opposite.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

www.luisteodoro.com

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