Press and Impunity in the Philippines

Keely Herring, JHU:

In the Philippines there exists a dichotomy between the democratic press freedom rights articulated in the country’s 1987 Constitution, and the reality, which is mostly that of distorted news, and dead journalists, whose murderers frequently go entirely unpunished. The perpetuation of this reality is mostly at the hands of a few powerful, elite, Filipino families that exercise control over local and provincial regions. They control almost all press outlets and produce stories driven and tainted by personal commercial and political motives. Publications are further sullied by a proclivity for sensationalism, or yellow journalism, as it has been historically called, to boost circulation. As is the case in the Philippines, a private unregulated, and pluralistic press does not necessarily equate to a free (or good) press.

The negative cascading effects of press ownership distributed amongst a concentrated group of powerful Filipino families are rooted in the nation’s sordid history, and demonstrated by several significant failures of the press that have resulted in fatal consequences.

The democratic political system, and corresponding constitutional freedom of expression rights, that exist in the Philippines today are fundamentally rooted in the American system. The United States established control of the Philippines in 1898, and maintained its hold over the archipelago until 1946. What remains is a governmental system and constitution that largely resemble that of the United States. Filipino citizens initially had limited freedoms under US colonization, but following independence in 1946, the nation embraced freedom of expression to its full extent, eventually, meriting the reputation as the “freest in Southeast Asia and perhaps in the Third World.”

Barely 30 years later, Ferdinand Marcos was elected the country’s new president, and freedom of expression was once again restricted. Marcos declared Martial law, and redistributed the notoriously broad and free press amongst his allies and relatives, thus stifling any and all governmental critique in the media. Repression of the press remained until the election of Corazon Aquino in 1986. Following this transition, a new constitution was passed in 1987, within which freedom of express was restored. This constitution has remained in effect to present day.

Both prior to and following Marcos rule, press was largely controlled by the landowning elite empowered during the Spanish and American colonization. Though entirely private, the press was very heterogeneous, and continues to be today. Newspaper/media ownership was “composed of “local political dynasties,” that fueled frequent “disagreement on ideology or issues,” and made for “pluralism” in the press.

Although pluralistic dialogue in the press is certainly a cornerstone of any self-proclaimed democracy, the case of elite ownership in the Philippines has its own set of detrimental implications that continue to plague the nation’s press on several complex levels. The legacy of private, unregulated, and very pluralistic press persists, and it is the one of the fundamental reasons for the impunity and inaccuracy that exist in Filipino press and media. Private interests, combined with the ability to advance these interests using media to sway public opinion, inevitably leads to dramatized, and often unreliable, coverage of news stories.

On a primarily superficial level, commercial interest of publication/news channel owners are manifested in the stories they choose to cover, and how they choose to cover them. News is vastly sensationalized; the stories that are most widely circulated are those pertaining to “gossip, violence, and scandal,” in order to attract a large reader and viewership. Attraction to scandal is by no means unique to the Filipino population, but the degree to which the Filipino press will go to cover news stories sometimes exceeds universal boundaries of ethicality and professionalism.

One example of such breach of boundaries is media treatment of the hostage crisis that occurred in Manila on August 23, 2010, when a tourist bus was taken over by a former city police officer named Rolando Mendoza. The police forces and Mendoza negotiated throughout the day, which resulted in the release of several of the hostages on board. However, negotiations are believed to have gone sour after Mendoza saw footage of “Manila police officers taking Mr. Mendoza’s brother from the scene earlier in the day” on a screen inside the tourist bus. President Benigno Aquino attributed the failed negotiations to Mendoza seeing, and being agitated by, the broadcast images, and then ultimately deciding to kill the remaining eight hostages. Several journalists faced charges for complicity in the murders as a result of their broadcast coverage of and interference with the hostage crisis. The decision to film the hostage crisis live was undoubtedly driven by desire for high network viewership/readership (and, incidentally, high profits) that can inevitably be obtained during coverage of a violent and tense situation akin to a hostage crisis. Commercial interests drove the overreaching news coverage, and ultimately outweighed the Filipino media’s consideration for the precariousness of the negotiations between the hostage taker and the police.

Sensationalism is also apparent on a widespread degree of content on a typical day-to-day level as well.  Stories covered can be peculiar, the topics can be completely irrelevant to any sort of productive dialogue, and sometimes the information is blatantly inaccurate. In September 2015, ABS-CBN, one of the largest and most popular news sites in the Philippines, published an article that quoted University of Philippines-Los Baños students chanting about Filipino Vice President Jejomar Binay in a negative way. ABS-CBN reported that the students were yelling “trapo” meaning “traditional politician,” when they were actually shouting “sample” in an effort to get the Vice President to “show a sample of his dance moves.” The inaccuracy of the channel’s reporting is demonstrated by the immediate movement initiated by the student’s to mobilize in an online Twitter movement against the article. Students’ pointed out the journalistic failures in the article, along with the hashtag “#ABSCBNSaySorryToUPLB.” One said in a Twitter post “just so you know that sensationalism should really be a taboo. Just look for its consequences.” Another wrote “accuracy and credibility are needed in the field of journalism. You feed people information. You must feed them right.” Now, Internet usage in the Philippines is much more widely used, and as demonstrated above, can serve as a medium to for counter journalism. Journalists who blatantly misrepresent stories will occasionally be held accountable by the population through immediate Internet backlash.

In addition to tailoring the content produced by their press outlet to cater to their commercial and political interests, these wealthy, press-controlling, Filipino families are frequently the puppeteers behind the violence against the journalists who oppose or undermine them. Unlike other countries that are notoriously dangerous for journalists, threat and fear of violence in the Philippines comes not from the state, but rather the powerful and prominent families with vested commercial and political interests.

The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the “Philippines remains the only country within the top five impunity offenders not engulfed by conflict and acute political instability.” It ranks fourth on the CPJ Impunity Index, citing 44 murders that have occurred since September 2005 “with complete impunity.” As of May 2015, “less than 50% of the work-related journalist killings have reached the courts,” and only 15 of them have resulted in a conviction since 1986, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). The reasons for such a high level of fatal violence against journalists with so little justice boils down to threatened commercial and political interests of high-level local figures in the media, and a slow justice system that enables the unjust violence to continue.

Broadly speaking, this violence and impunity against journalists occurs at a local level, when there are political or commercial contestations between two or more “local power holders.” One such of example of feuding turned violent is outlined by the SEAPA. In June 2010, journalist, Nestor Bedolido, was “shot six times” in Digos City, which is the provincial capital of Davao del Sur. Bedolido had worked at several news publications in the area, among them the Digos Times, Mt. Apo Current, and Kastigador. While at the Kastigador, Beodolido frequently wrote incendiary articles about the then incumbent governor, Douglas Cagas, presumably fueled by insider information he gathered while previously working for the Digos Times, a publication owned by Cagas. Cagas’ rival, Claude Batista, was rumored to have been behind Beodolido’s negative portrayal of Cagas in the media, though no proof of compensation between the two was found. Beodolido became the media voice against Cagas, and sandwiched himself between an already hostile familial rivalry in the region. Despite reassurances that he had nothing to do with Beodolido’s death, many believe Cagas is responsible. The case of Beodolido’s death exemplifies the acute dangers confronting journalists at the local level of media. Additionally, it demonstrates the impunity in cases of media killings: neither Cagas nor anyone else complicit was found, tried or convicted for Beodolido’s death.

Although national Filipino culture is democratic, local politicians tend to operate by their own rules, and the centralized justice system and governmental resources are unable, or unwilling, to combat this type of predatory and corrupt behavior. In other cases, these journalists are capitalizing on the power and influence they know they wield. Because media has significant influence on public opinion, and journalists know that local hierarchy needs and wants to advance interests,  “they act as attack dogs for local politicians against their opponents.” Many local journalists have actively undertaken the practice of self-censorship because they know the potential risks of taking certain stances, regardless of if the content is true or not. Though it is in the best interest of journalists to protect themselves, this only further taints the quality and reliability of stories.

The Philippines boasts eight national newspapers, 408 community daily, monthly, and tabloid newspapers, 539 radio stations, and 63 television stations. Despite having this bulk of media sources, access to quality and reliable information continues to “remain elusive” in the Philippines. Journalists are killed with impunity; stories are tainted and manipulated by local power holders seeking to advance commercial and political interests. Media in the Philippines is too free: journalists are free to report on anything, and often take liberties with sensationalism, and the local leaders are free to eliminate those who counter their interests with little to no threat of persecution. Though the Philippines inherited the American style of journalism, it has done so without implementing the American justice system necessary to protect the media. In many ways, this “too free” media is a manifestation of the “damaged culture” and corruption that persist in the nation.


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