Now that President-elect Rody Duterte has let the cat out of the bag and called out the Philippine media for the rampant corruption that is happening within their ranks, we need to look further into this practice – not because we want to take sides in this debate – rather, as the guardians of our civil liberties, the media must be held to a standard higher than the one we hold all the other institutions of society by.
The Truth About Media Corruption in the Philippines
The irony of the Philippine media is that it is one of the free-est in the world in being able to express its opinions, and at the same time it also has among the highest number of media practitioners killed while supposedly pursuing their job.
These conflicting realities – a free and independent media able to talk about any matter under the sun and a culture of violence that has resulted in hundreds of their number killed – is almost impossible to understand using western models of the role of media in society.
Conventional wisdom says that media is the fourth estate, the guardian of the people’s welfare against the abuses of those in power, an incorruptible pillar of truth, justice, and integrity. Under this ideal concept, the tools of repression (i.e. the rampant media killings) cannot co-exist with the almost limitless freedom of expression enjoyed by the Philippine media. Either one is free or not.
In order to better understand this phenomenon, one has to look deeper into the roots and role of the Philippine media in the society. In many cases, media companies are run as a business first and an advocate of truth a far second. In these instances, bottom lines carry more weight in the boardroom than by-lines and the policy of “bank balance news, pay-first views” becomes the norm more than the exception.
From top to bottom corruption is rampant in the media industry, but none more so than in the unregulated community radio stations that proliferate throughout the Philippine countryside. In many of these outfits, any person can walk in, buy airtime for a few thousand pesos a month, and basically broadcast whatever they want.
While on the surface this may appear to be the very model of democracy and freedom of expression, the lack of regulation and even the most rudimentary training on journalistic ethics has turned these radio stations from a platform to expose wrongdoing into a tool for blackmail and extortion.
The way these “block-time” broadcasters practice “journalism” resembles a mafia shakedown more than anything else. Typically they would start by picking a target – a local government official or a businessman – and launch an attack against some alleged wrongdoing (real or otherwise) that they have committed. This continues for a time until either the victim sends an emissary to the broadcaster or the broadcaster himself visits the victim with a proposal to air his side of the issue. This method of double-dealing is what is colloquially known as ACDC or Attack-and-Collect, Defend-and-Collect journalism.
Sadly, this is also the root cause of many of the the killings of media practitioners in the Philippines. In a country were pride and social standing is paramount, an attack on a person’s integrity – particularly on such a public scale – often constitutes a killing offense. While this can never justify a murder, it does go a long way in explaining how these crimes come to be.
From this perspective, much of the blame should be placed squarely on the media industry itself for failing to clean up its own ranks of scalawags and crooks. By insisting on painting all media killings as an attack on press freedom, they are failing to address the real and rampant illegal activities of those criminals who are hiding under the convenient mantle of “media.” Not only does this oversight protect the guilty, it also demonizes the victims, and endangers the legitimate journalists.