Press freedom is protected by the 1987 Constitution because of the vital role of the news media in providing the information the citizenry needs in making intelligent decisions on matters of public interest. But despite Article III, Section 4, journalism is still a dangerous calling in the Philippines.
The killing of journalists and its impact on the democratization process initially alarmed only a very few media advocacy groups. And yet 164 journalists, most of them from community (provincial) newspapers and radio stations, have been deliberately targeted and killed in this country since 1986, when the restrictions on the institutions of Philippine elite democracy, among them a free press, were lifted with the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship.
The killings nevertheless happened during all the administrations that followed that of Marcos — from the Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, and Joseph Estrada regimes to those of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III. They are still happening during the Duterte regime, with 12 so far killed for their work since 2016.
It was the murder of Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur journalist Edgar Damalerio in 2002 that convinced major media organizations and advocacy groups as well as journalists’ associations of the gravity of the situation, and called the attention of international press freedom watch networks to what was happening in this “peaceful democracy.” But the Nov. 23, 2009 killing of 32 journalists and media workers who were among the 58 men and women massacred in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, made the safety of journalists a key national and global issue.
Journalists’, media advocacy and free expression groups marked this year the ninth anniversary of that foul attack on journalists — it was also the worst incident of election-related violence in the Philippines — with forums, conferences and statements, in some instances with the support of international press freedom advocacy organizations.
Among those activities was the multi-stakeholder consultation on crafting a national plan of action on journalists’ safety organized by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) and the European Union’s International Media Support (IMS) last Nov. 7.
Two conferences on the present state of the media were also held in Quezon City on Nov. 9 and in Davao City last Nov. 16-17 by Freedom for Media, Freedom for All, a coalition that has for members the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), among others.
The quest for the means that will address safety issues and hopefully reduce the instances of, if not completely end, journalists’ being killed for their reports, opinion pieces, and commentaries on public issues has included engagement with government agencies, the introduction of media literacy and safety courses in the country’s schools, and the further training of journalists in ethical and professional responsibility. All have been tried with mixed results, since, despite these measures, the killings are still going on, and so are the threats, physical assaults, and other forms of harassment from mostly State actors (local and national officials, police and military personnel).
What has not been tried as a means of reducing corruption and other ethical issues, improving coverage, as well as protecting journalists, is an industry-wide trade union. The NUJP was originally founded by the late Antonio Nieva with that in mind, but was diverted from that path by the many challenges to press freedom and free expression in the Philippines. But it can still be the union Nieva envisioned.
The disparities in wages and benefits, as well as the often uncertain provisions for safety equipment and insurance for journalists covering potentially dangerous events and areas such as armed confrontations and conflict zones, were among the concerns raised by journalists as well as media advocacy groups during the AIJC consultation.
An industry-wide journalists’ union — in which every journalist, whether in print, broadcasting, or online, must be a member as part of his or her terms of employment — could address these and other economic and safety issues.
Such a union could compel the adoption of the “equal pay for equal work” standard among all media organizations. It would correct a situation in which some journalists in the communities are not paid for their work as journalists but as solicitors for advertising contracts from which they earn commissions.
The practice not only leads to conflicts of interest, in which journalists are unable to freely and honestly report on the local politicians and officials who are the usual sources of advertising revenue in the communities. In addition, it identifies journalists with the camps of politician-advertisers, who, in too many instances, compel them to either report favorably on them or to be critical of their rivals, or both, which in turn leads to their being threatened, harassed or even killed by their patrons’ political enemies.
The union can craft the conditions of work of journalists including their being provided with safety equipment, insurance, and even hazard pay. It can assure practitioners of job security, and as a result improve their coverage of public events and issues by enhancing their independence from the political and economic interests of the media organizations in which they’re employed.
The terms of their employment can specify that they cannot be prevented from reporting newsworthy issues and events of public relevance. Because journalists would be better paid, the union would also be helping reduce corruption by making accepting bribes in exchange for favorable reporting less tempting.
Among the consequences of a better, more ethical and more professional press is public support and appreciation for the work journalists do, and therefore their being alerted on, and protected from threats by the communities they serve. In the independent exercise of their craft, for example, nothing would prevent the members of an industry-wide union from supporting policy initiatives beneficial to those communities, or combating those that are not, thus earning them the gratitude and protection of the population. That would be in contrast to the indifference with which much of the public today regards the harassment and threats many journalists experience.
But against an industry-wide journalists’ union, it has been argued that some newspapers and radio stations, particularly in the communities, cannot afford to pay just wages, or provide safety equipment and insurance, and are compelled by their financial limitations to “pay” practitioners through the commissions they make as advertising solicitors. They claim they would otherwise go out of business.
This self-serving argument in effect legitimizes in the name of economic sustainability the conflicts of interest, the corruption, and practitioners’ resulting endangerment as well as the persistence of biased, one-sided, incomplete and even inaccurate reporting.
It should be obvious that such media organizations are of no use to anyone except those who own and profit from them. Because neither the public nor journalism is made any better by their continued existence, the country, the Philippine press and the need for reliable information as a necessary input to democratic discourse would be so much the better off without them.
Industry-wide journalists’ unions have been tried and tested in Europe and other parts of the world for over a hundred years. They can help free journalists from the threats and harassments many are subjected to, and even reduce the number of journalists killed each year if not altogether end the killings. It is about time one is tried in the present Philippine context, in which journalists have to contend with one of the most hostile media environments on the planet: a country that the New York-based press freedom watch group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) once described as “the most murderous place in the world” for journalists.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.