“Dissident” Journalists Organize: Political Crisis Spurs Attempt to Improve the Profession

By Carlos H. Conde
Philippine Journalism Review
Published: November 24, 2000

Manila – One day in November this year, Manila television station ABS-CBN lined up a potentially explosive edition. The main story was an interview by reporter Ana Marie Fuderanan with Kit Mateo, a former police officer who had crossed swords with Philippine National Police chief Panfilo Lacson in the past. Mateo had revealed accusations against Lacson. Curiously, the second story was about Mateo’s retraction of his accusations. More curiously, next in line was a live, back-to-back interview by anchor Noli de Castro with correspondent Fuderanan and Lacson.

The powerful Lacson did not take the upcoming piece sitting down, however. Before it could be broadcast, Lacson had tried to discredit the reporting, accusing Fulderanan of being corrupt. The final segment was meant to settle the issue – to give Lacson his say and to allow Fuderanan to salvage her reputation.

This confusing, but nonetheless gripping and multi-sided segment, never saw air. According to sources inside ABS-CBN, Angelo Castro, the network’s vice president for news and public affairs, decided to scrap Fulderanan’s story, as well as her live interview and Mateo’s recantation, leaving only police chief Lacson’s live feed.

The decision incensed many in the newsroom. “The reporters and editors rebelled against this. This is not allowed. We are not going to let the boss beat up on our reporter,” an insider said of the newsroom reaction. About 15 news staff stormed Castro’s office, demanding an explanation. They talked and argued and eventually agreed on a “compromise” – if Castro was to scrap Fulderanan’s story and live interview, he might as well scrap the whole segment. And that was exactly what happened. (The segment was replaced with crime stories.)

Whether agreeing to that “compromise” was a wise move is debatable. But there’s no question that many of the people in the country’s largest broadcast network are fighting back. The reaction at ABS-CBN is mirrored in other efforts throughout the industry as Philippine reporters and editors are struggling to reform the profession and fight for respectability.

Concerned journalists

Recently about 20 beat reporters from Manila’s various dailies and broadcast stations met to discuss how to fight against the growing constraints and restrictions of mainstream journalism, although in ways far less confrontational than what the ABS-CBN people did.

During that meeting concerns were raised about corruption in newsrooms, the difficulty reporters face in pushing relevant stories, the lack of role models for young journalists (which, in turn, contributes to their corruption and, in many cases, mediocrity), and the absence of assistance for journalists in trouble.

By the end of the meeting, the group had discussed ways to help their fellow reporters fight corruption and improve their craft. They realize that what they plan to do could be difficult, but the concern for the profession and the public interest was paramount in the discussion.

In many other instances, editors and reporters have met to discuss problems in the industry, especially threats to press freedom (which includes not only physical threats but corruption as well). Nowadays, hardly a month passes by without a forum or an informal meeting that tackles issues that directly affect journalism and the public’s right to know.

At the University of the Philippines recently, editors and reporters met to discuss problems in their beats and newsrooms, specifically attempts by the government to muzzle the press in the wake of the political crisis buffeting the Estrada presidency. The allegations were alarming: wire-tapping of journalists by the government or even by their fellow journalists allegedly on the payroll of police agencies; attempts by officials to discredit reporters, the move by the publisher of the Philippine Post, Benito Brizuela, not to roll out any newsprint because the paper had published the PCIJ reports on Estrada’s mansions and real-estate dealings; and the systematic corruption by officials of journalists, particularly those new in the beats. (According to a survey by the PCIJ, two out three journalists have been offered money by news sources; one of three received it.)

This interaction, of course, has produced results. In some smaller papers, editors have devised ways to try and counter the prevailing conservative mindset in the newsrooms by making sure that alternative stories and sources are discussed during editorial meetings and printed . “If one story that I thought was important and critical would not be used by the other editors, I would try to put it in my Nation pages,” says Leti Boniol, the Post’s provincial editor. (Editor’s note: This writer used to be the Post’s provincial editor; he was city editor by the time he left the paper in September.)At the Manila Times, editors would make sure that alternative voices are included in the stories, even if the headlines would often be pleasing to Malacanang’s eyes.

Moreover, these concerned journalists do not limit themselves to discussions in meetings. Many of them are using the power of the Internet to keep themselves updated of what’s going on inside the newsrooms and the beats. They use email lists to discuss their problems and concerns and to consolidate their ranks.

Some media experts have called this crop of journalists “dissident journalists.” To be sure, there is a discernible concern, that aims to check the excesses not only of government but also of media owners, publishers and editors.

What’s going on?

This change can be attributed to two things: one, corruption and repression has become rampant in the press and, two, social ferment in these times spills over to the newsroom and the beats.

To Vergel Santos, a longtime journalist and media critic, what’s happening is inevitable. Because of the corruption, repression and mediocrity in the Philippine media, “it should come to this. This is inevitable. History is like that: when it repeats itself, the signs become starker and starker. At the start, the signs could be subtle. But if you don’t learn from these signs, they become starker until they slap you in the face.”

In short, the problems in the Philippine press have become such that these just couldn’t be ignored.

Asked about what he thought of the emergence of these “dissident journalists,” Santos replies: “I think this will help the media and the nation. In fact, I’ve always advocated for media to expose one another because, for me, media should be under the same rules that they apply to other people, to news sources and news subjects and I think the sanction of exposure applied to themselves would be a great effort at cleansing the profession.”

Then there’s the matter about journalists changing as the times changes.

Satur Ocampo, who was a journalist before he became an underground leader of the communist National Democratic Front, explains: “The Philippines has a tradition of press freedom. The spirit of press freedom is strong in this country. If the country is in a period of political crisis, if there are efforts by the state to manipulate media, there’s bound to be open defiance among journalists, starting with editors, reporters, columnists and, at times, publishers. If the suppression is already encompassing, the tendency of journalists is to look for alternative means of getting out information.”

In Ocampo’s time, whatever the mainstream press was loathe to print some journalists would through alternative publications critical of the Marcos regime.

During the martial law years, Ocampo, who is no longer underground, and his wife started the clandestine Balita ng Malayang Pilipinas, which published material written by journalists in the mainstream press. (It is interesting to note that, among the things the young journalists who met in that Quezon City restaurant wanted to do was to publish, even on the Internet, works by their colleagues that had been spiked.)

“If the political crisis goes on and if the suppression continues, more and more committed and alternative journalists would emerge. They won’t be cowed. There are journalists who are true to their calling,” Ocampo says, adding that the emergence of the “dissident journalist” is “very encouraging. I have no sense of desperation because there have been calls for veterans and newcomers to uphold press freedom and be true to their service to the people.”

Sheila Coronel, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism was one of those “dissident journalists” during the Marcos dictatorship. The press, she says, “cannot be immune from the ferment that’s going on outside.”

The press reacts to what’s happening in society. These events, she says, make them examine themselves and their practice. “This is the same thing that happened to us in 1983 after the Aquino assassination. Every night people would gather at the press club and talk about how their professionalism was already on the line.”

The result of this self-examination was what Marcos would later call the “mosquito press” which contributed immensely to the dictatorship’s downfall.

The present political crisis has also heightened public political awareness and anger at perceived distortions in the media. The criticism of a politicized and angry people, Coronel says, helps the press mend its ways. “The citizens are very active in monitoring the media nowadays and are active in withdrawing support.”

She cites the case of TV, where many program have been forced to be a little more critical of the administration precisely because more and more advertisers support programs that are balanced, if not anti-Estrada. “Advertising nowadays is geared toward critical programming. Basta anti-Erap, maraming nag-a-advertise,” she says. This is so because apparently more people are now watching public-affairs programs (“Filipinos have become news junkies,” Coronel quips) and because the “business community itself is in favor of Estrada’s resignation so they are supporting these programs through advertisements.”

True enough, ABS-CBN, for example, has realized that it has to win the ratings game, it needs more public-affairs programs tackling the political crisis. In case some honcho in the network refuses to air a program that is critical of the administration, an insider says, “we would threaten them that the other networks had gotten the same story and we would be left behind.” The threat of competition brought on by a more politicized public is keeping some media outlets in line.

This, as well as the storming of Castro’s office, has brought in some changes at ABS-CBN. “Now they are using stories more liberally, although Castro would require that we always get the other side. We can live with that,” another ABS-CBN insider says. Now, the source adds, “Castro is aware that many are watching him, and that the feedback from the public cannot be underestimated.”

Ultimately, says Ocampo, the public is the best countervailing factor to the excesses or limitations of the press. “The readers and viewers can be militant. They can detect bias because they are politically sensitive. Under pressure from such a public, and their very survival at stake, media outlets will have to put up an image of fairness and objectivity and loyalty to their readers.”

This change in the beat and in the newsroom, according to Vergel Santos, is “a huge step in the process of the maturation of the media. Our maturation as journalists is interdependent with the maturation of our society. The market matures; it knows if the media is right. In the end, they would pass judgment on which paper is more truthful to journalism by buying this paper. This is what is happening with the Pinoy Times.” The fledgling Tagalog political tabloid has put out a Special Edition whose mission is expose the sins of Estrada. It became so popular that the edition has even outsold the Inquirer, its publisher, Vic Tirol, claims.

Santos, however, emphasizes that the press should also make efforts to educate the public in the workings of the press, including “what they should expect from the press.”

“In fact, they should be taught how to read a newspaper. They should know that so they would know which paper tells the truth, which is credible. The market should be taught how to read critically. The media in more mature countries are better because they have critical readers,” he says.

Inday Espina-Varona, city editor of the Times, cautions, however, that the public should not forget one thing about Philippine media – that it is primarily controlled by the elite. “People talk as if media is on a totally different plane. But the fact is, media is part of society, of the system, which is basically elitist. It’s a social thing. In the ideal world, we should have press-freedom rights but we are not in an ideal world so we have to fight for it,” she says.

Varona adds: “The reality is that the owners of media have their own interest. Any owner who tells me he doesn’t use his media is a liar. That’s a reality that we have to live with. You either fight for whatever comes out or if it becomes untenable you walk. As long as you think that you have a fighting chance, the obligation is to stay. There is no promise of a free ride here. It’s something you have to fight for.”

What can journalists do?

Coronel thinks that journalists should take advantage of the political crisis and the emergence of so-called “dissident journalists” and “reach a consensus and, maybe draw in publishers and owners. These problems cannot be solved overnight. We have to start at least talking and airing out problems. And maybe citizens groups are also helpful. The voice of the audience itself must be heard in these discussions. If you leave it up to the journalists, nothing will happen.”

On the part of the PCIJ, it can train young and committed journalists on investigative journalism especially now that investigative reports have proven helpful in exposing the regime.

For Ocampo, who is still involved in the people’s movement, nothing can beat organizing in improving the quality of media and in making sure that the press remains true to its mandate to serve the people. “This is a period when journalists are challenged to take a stand,” he says, simply because if the people’s movement is strong, journalists become more involved too. “They cannot cover up or water down reality.”

The “dissident journalists,” he adds, should make a real move to advocate press freedom and fight corruption within the media. “Fighting corruption is an important component of the struggle for press freedom because corruption erodes a journalist’s credibility,” he explains.

Organizing the media, which Ocampo swears he has dreamed of doing, should be pursued. “There is a need to tighten the organizing work, to form this core group that would anchor this movement, no matter how limited. The important thing is to resist the corruption and the threats from within.”

He says that in a society that tries to hide the truth, the honest journalist is necessarily an advocate of truth as well as an activist exercising and enhancing freedom.

Carlos H. Conde is a journalist for the online paper CyberDyaryo.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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