Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dissecting The Philippine Mass Media Today

Philippine Mass Media today is a hybrid of Libertarian and Authoritarian stock, inheriting incongruous qualities that render it complicated and oftentimes confusing. Philippine Media prides itself as the "freest in Asia"; the constitution-backed protection of press freedom gives it a characteristic Libertarian flavor. However, contrary to Libertarian principles, this press freedom is regulated to some extent by the government. This is where its Authoritarian personality sets in.

It is widely accepted that Libertarian governments have some degree of control over their Mass Media. But such controls, in the form of laws and other such policies, are formulated with the thrusts on responsibility and over-all public welfare, and not in order to cow the so-called "Fourth Estate." This Libertarian definition is twisted by Authoritarian technocrats of the Martial Law period in the person of then Information Minister Francisco S. Tatad, by saying:

The liberty of the press never has been absolute. It has always yielded to higher considerations. It has always balanced against other community interests such as the security of the State, the right and duty of the State to provide for the well-being of its citizens, the maintenance of decency and public order, the protection of reputation and the need for fair trial proceedings, among others. ("The Right to Know," The Times Journal, August 26, 1978).

His explication on the inherent need for government regulation of the media in a Parliamentary Democracy (the Philippines assumed a Parliamentary form of government during Martial Law), is one of the many paradoxes in a society wielding the democratic Bill of Rights on one hand and authoritarian State supremacy on the other. In short, the convoluted definition of control (causing it to take on an authoritarian tone) over the media is, in essence, political propaganda. It is to be noted that in Libertarian theory, the power lies ultimately on the people and the state is a mere venue on which "man can develop his potentialities and enjoy a maximum of happiness" (Maslog, 1989). To the Authoritarian theorist, whose contentions run parallel to the martial law technocrats', "the state is the 'ethical spirit… Will… Mind… the state, being and end in itself, is provided with the maximum of rights over against the individual citizens, whose highest duty is to be members of the state" (George Hegel quoted by Maslog, 1989).

This clash of principles between the government and the media fuels their unebbing animosity for each other. The state contends that without restrictions, media have the ability to threaten the truthful dissemination of information and that this irresponsibility, coupled with unrestricted liberty, will inevitably threaten the State's security. The media rebut that when government institutionalizes controls over them, it has the capacity to manipulate these regulations to cow and threaten them; that the government will exploit every creative means it can to muzzle the Fourth Estate.

With these overlapping yet contradictory qualities of the Philippine Media, it is inevitable that many will question the nature of these controls. Are these regulations instituted merely as safeguards to the Bill of Rights or are they an attempt at authoritarian regulation which goal is to attain conformity from the otherwise predominantly leftist press? Simply, are these controls formulated ultimately to cow the Fourth Estate? Is this institution of government restriction a precursor to the return of authoritarian control over the media?

This paper assesses the complicated and confusing tapestry that is Philippine Mass Media, delving into and dissecting its two personalities-Libertarian and Authoritarian-and how they are manifested within the system. The discussion will be divided into two subtitles: "Political Role" and "Social Role." In the process, this author necessarily examines the political and social landscapes that are the backdrop of the ironies in Philippine Media.

Assessing Philippine Mass Media
Media has a tripartite role in society: Political, Economic and Social. Its political role includes its duty as an information disseminator, its responsibility in creating and reflecting public opinion and its function as watchdog on government.

Political Role
Philippine Media assumes a libertarian stance in its role of disseminating information. Foreign news, information and entertainment programs have a rather unregulated entry into the mainstream of Philippine Media. Likewise, editorials harsh on the government and other such unflattering and sensitive articles are given the right to publication or airtime. However, this seemingly untrammeled liberty exists with a dark speck. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Enrique Fernando, quoted by Paredes (1986), "the greatest threat to press freedom is national security." This, paired with the afore-quoted words of Francisco Tatad, undeniably glisten with an authoritarian sheen as they give the impression that the State's security precedes individual liberty. To this author, this paints an incongruous image of a society bearing two aeges-authoritarian State supremacy on one hand and libertarian Bill of Rights on the other. The state can choose only one priority and strive to protect it.

Fearing possible seditious results, former President Corazon Aquino ordered against the airing of a DZXL interview with coup attempt leader Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan. To justify her order, she contended eloquently that Honasan sees the media as a "weapon of destabilization aimed at the institutions that protect the fundamental rights that give life to media and democracy." This bears a semblance of political propaganda, seeming to give stress on the words "media and democracy" for empathic effect when its meat speaks of the precedence of the state in the spectrum of rights. This undeniably compromises the libertarian principle of allowing all and every shade of information and opinions in a marketplace of ideas, in protection of what it deems is a higher priortity-the State and its security.

Philippine media sees itself as the champion at creating public opinion. Although the inherent control against seditious material is still in effect, several accounts on the media's creation of a definite public opinion can be observed. One instant is the public demand for the cancellation of the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the execution of incestuous rapist Leo Echegaray. The media, having fed the public of the verbosity on the Leo Echegaray story to the surfacing of daughter-victim Baby, to the proclamation of death penalty, and to the suspension of the execution via TRO, with all the sensational appendages, have brought the public into an outcry for 'death justice.' This has likewise built enough pressure on the Supreme Court and caused it to give in to the clamors of the "nation."

This, however, paints the underlying political setup of the Philippines, particularly of the judiciary, bringing to question the integrity of the highest judicial office which gave in the demands of the people without standing pat on its decision to halt the execution. Another political factor which may hint the successful lifting of the TRO is that the President himself is in favor of the death penalty that Echegaray's death comes as a guarantee to this "supreme will." It is noteworthy that the president's conviction blends seamlessly with the opinion of the "masa." Thus, given this scenario, it becomes more questionable whether this process of mobilizing public opinion (resulting to the successful lifting of the TRO) occurred as a natural Libertarian process or a process facilitated by the highest office in the land.

The watchdog function of Philippine Media is the source of problematic accounts from the practitioners. Dean Armando Malay, quoted by Paredes (1986), says that "although the regime has tolerated the publication of sensitive articles, there is always an attempt to muzzle the press." This brings to mind the "cow tactics" of the martial law regime where attempts to thwart libertarian policies are enacted in the guise of upholding the "virtuous" laws of anti-sedition and anti-subversion. This brings one to recall former President Aquino's move to deprive air time to the DZXL interview with the state's "enemy", Honasan.

The fact that such laws become the major aegis of the state to silence the otherwise "vitriolic" press in order to protect its security brings to image a media system behind the bars of manipulable legislation. Anti-sedition and anti-subversion laws have long been in effect yet the threat of another possibly pliable law looms anew: the Anti-Media Bribery Law being pushed by Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago. This bill, while promising at first sight (it may have arisen to curb the corrupt AC/DC practices of media, discussed in the following paragraph), becomes increasingly porous when examined up close. The fact that one Manila columnist admitted that "it is very easy to indict journalists for receiving gifts" is testament to this author's contention that such gifts, which may come out of wholehearted charity or with birberous intent, can easily be construed by scheming prosecutors as bribes-hence valid grounds for indictment. Media Bribery may not be used against seditious practitioners (although they will more likely be convicted of accepting "bribes" from politicians seeking their support), but the "flexibility" of this law illustrates the manipulability of established legislation.

With mounting poverty and other ills ambient in modern-day Philippine society, it is inevitable that these socio-economic factors will be mirrored in the operation of mass-media. This has led to the evolution of a different kind of media tactics-AC/DC-or the "Attack-Collect/Defend-Collect" strategy. Under this practice, a journalist (or any practitioner) comes up with material attacking a person of rank, the person attacked will give money to the journalist expecting a "retraction" of the attack. Correspondingly, the journalist will publish (or broadcast, etc.) a new article in defense of the person of rank, and approaches the latter for "gratification fees." The cycle continues and becomes a tradition, corrupting the image of the Fourth Estate, in the process pulling down the quality of reportage. The degradation of the Media worsens.

Social Role
The other end of the spectrum is Media's Social Role. This includes the role of establishing Pop Culture, the task of building a nation, and entertainment.

Popular Culture is established when media programs become ingrained into local culture. Hence, when the "Ang Dating Doon" program of GMA 7 became phenomenally popular, expressions such as "Alien!" and "Raise the Roof!" (corruptions of "Amen" and "Praise the Lord") found their way into the daily vocabulary of its patrons. Likewise, the Voltes V theme was also popularized, kindling the audiences' interest in the anime (Japanese cartoon program). This may be interpreted as some crafty commercial tactics of GMA. It is to be remembered that during Martial Law, the Voltes V series was banned from television as the analysts of the Marcos regime believed it to have seditious or rebellious qualities that purportedly affect the psychology of its patrons. Hence, fearing rebellion at a time when student activism was already rampant, the state deemed it most logical to remove all violent, rebellious programs from the air.

Apparently resulting from the "Ang Dating Doon" fever, the Voltes V mania has resurrected, and, curiously, the move to ban the airing of the series has resurfaced. It is alarming to many that such drive for control, which the country has supposedly already rid itself, still has germinated through the nation's authorities. This speaks of the omnipresence of authoritarian tendencies in the government.

The geographical makeup of the Philippines illustrates its factionalized society. Being an archipelago of more than seven thousand islands, the Filipinos are a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, geographically scattered nation. For this reason, media's role of building a common culture becomes problematic, as cultural unity is hard to establish in a nation broken up by ethno-linguistic and geographical differences. However, Philippine Media has endeavored to bring issues into the grassroots in its efforts to weave a more-or-less common culture via information. The key to oneness is information, and it is this that media strives to relay among the people, uniting them in their opinions on the different issues in the Philippines: the death penalty law, the Echegaray execution, the VFA ratification, etc.

One of the major functions of the media is entertainment. This is where the Filipinos are more engrossed. Philippine politics has morphed from a contest of the best and brightest into a stage of personality and fanfare as Philippine society is "more seduced by celebrity and fanfaronnade than the qualities of leadership" (Benigno, 1998). Not only is the element of "entertainment" felt in political reporting but likewise in the news. It is not uncommon to find front page stories touching on showbiz personalities. One example is the Philippine Daliy Inquirer headline, "Kris: I want to redeem myself as a daughter" on the breakup of former presidential daughter-actress Kris Aquino and actor Philip Salvador. A Sunday Inquirer article is titled: "Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim Tough-and Single" with the caption "is the Manila mayor looking for a wife to play first lady, and will he use his gestapo ways to restore peace and order if elected?" tackling on the prospects of getting a future First Lady. (Later he will be linked to former President Corazon Aquino.) These are accounts of sensationalism-the entertainment factor-on Philippine media, seeking to attract the consumer-audiences by causing news reportage to morph into entertainment.

Although the Philippine Press is deemed the "freest in Asia," it still bears the legacies of its authoritarian past. Hence, even if it lives the democratic promise of "freedom of the press," it is still under a semblance of control (and manipulation) by the government. The libertarian mask of the present Media system in the Philippines bears faint trimmings of the Authoritarian flair.

This Authoritarian streak stems from the element of control on the media, and the concept of State supremacy so eagerly protected by the government. The licensing of media operations and the existence of guilds to regulate the different media are the other manifestations of authoritarian regulation. To draw more clearly the existence of these principles (Libertarian and Authoritarian), one may assess how each role is carried out.

Political Role
Disseminating information-the Philippines is mainly libertarian in the dissemination of information, although there is a streak of authoritarian regulation when it comes to 'sensitive' information that tend to violate anti-sedition and anti-subversion laws. These laws mandate that no information scathing to national security shall find its way to the media.

Creating and Reflecting Opinion-the Media is libertarian on the large part, successfully mobilizing public opinion generated out of its reportage. However, the question arises whether or not this mobility factor stems from the natural libertarian process (i.e., without the interference of the state). Editorials and other rebellious material are allowed publication/broadcast so long as they do not infringe on the anti-sedition and anti-subversion laws.

Being a Watchdog on Government-there remain flaws on this function of the Philippine media as the manipulation of anti-sedition and anti-subversion laws are within easy reach for crafty politicians. This is the press' Authoritarian personality. Likewise, the AC/DC practice mars the ability of the press to accurately criticize and/or commend the government, its officials, and its programs.

Social Role
Establishing Pop Culture-the media cause the establishment of Popular Culture when the programs become entwined with the lives of the audiences. The problem stems from authoritarian controls resurfacing for the move to ban programs hurtful to the State's thrusts (public welfare, national security, etc.) Otherwise, there is enough liberty to run programs so long as they do not infringe on the policies protecting decency, reputation, and over-all public welfare.

Building a Nation-the media have succeeded in relaying information to the different sectors of society, as well as to far-flung areas in a country broken up geographically and ethno-linguistically. However, more problems still need to be addressed, especially those that touch on national culture.

Entertaining the Nation-the media have reflected people's preoccupation with media exposure (which has spilled over to the political field). Media becomes an aid to the "balkanization" (breaking into factions) as it becomes the tool of these factions in forwarding their views. The media becomes engrossed with entertainment, causing news and information to morph into entertainment (sensationalism).