Denmark’s Ambassador to the Philippines said he “reads” the media, but has apparently been misreading them. He said “some media” are “systematically negative” in their reporting on the government, but his subsequent statements sounded as if he was describing most, or even all of them.
If anything can be said about the news media today, it is that they are too often deliberately positive when it comes to reporting on the present regime. But in his message to the “Multi-Stakeholder Consultation on Crafting the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists” last Nov. 7, Ambassador Jan Top Christensen said the Philippine media have not acknowledged such “progressive developments” as President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order mandating public access to information held by government agencies under the Office of the President; the Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act; the campaign against illegal drugs; and the creation of the Presidential Task Force on Media Safety (PTFOMS).
Christensen blamed this alleged negativism on “lack of ethical standards [and] lack of professionalism,” and assured his audience of journalists, communication academics, UNESCO officials, and members of media advocacy and publishers’ groups that his opinion is based on his “read [ing] many different media everyday.”
Apparently the ambassador is unfamiliar with the many threats to journalists, about which the speakers after him were, in contrast, so eminently aware. And neither, it seems, has he been reading a widely circulated Manila broadsheet whose editorial policy has always been supportive of whatever regime is in power, including, and most specially, the present one. One of this newspaper’s more recent offenses against the truth was its urging its readers to remember how Ferdinand Marcos “saved and transformed our country” by declaring martial law on Sept. 21, 1972.
Neither, it seems, has Christensen been reading another that’s in the running for the Most Badly Edited Newspaper of the Decade Award, which, in furtherance of its mindless support for the same regime, uses its news columns as opinion vehicles and is every day in violation of such basic journalism canons as truth-telling, fairness, and even correct grammar.
There is a third rag in contention for the same category, primarily because of its so-called columnists, one of whom is the unashamed and long-time mouthpiece of Duterte ally Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in whose behalf he knowingly spreads false information, and invites State repression of regime critics.
It is these “positive” newspapers that most qualify for criticism for being ethically and professionally challenged. It is completely wrong to describe those other media organizations that are not in the same shoddy league as “systematically negative,” by which term Ambassador Christensen probably meant those he perceives to be critical of the Duterte regime.
Despite their supposedly critical stance, these newspapers, TV networks, and online news sites nevertheless religiously report Mr. Duterte’s tirades, his threats to block their franchise renewal applications, and even the regime’s attempts to suppress them through various “legal” and underhanded means. Neither do they ever fail to quote whatever nonsense past and present presidential spokespersons say, as well the daily absurdities and evasions of the Philippine National Police (PNP). Some even cover the early campaign sorties of the regime’s candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Every one of them also reported the “progressive” developments Christensen mentioned, among them Mr. Duterte’s freedom of information (FOI) EO, with, in fact, a great deal of enthusiasm — until they discovered that it has not made getting information even from Malacañang itself any easier, and that despite the EO, an FOI law is still needed for the sake of government transparency and the regime’s own claims that it is against corruption.
These media organizations did the same thing in the case of TRAIN. They dutifully quoted the assurances of government economic managers that it will not boost the inflation rate and that it would help bring the country out of its present Third World status. If they can be faulted for anything, it is for the rarity of the follow-up reports and analyses the media audiences need to understand why, in the wake of TRAIN, the prices of such necessities as food have gone sky-high together with the unemployment rate.
The creation of PTFOMS was similarly widely reported, among other reasons because of the continuing killing of journalists (158 since 1986, 14 of which occurred during the past two years of the Duterte regime). So were its activities chronicled by much of the media, among them its executive director’s demanding that a community newspaper take down a report that wasn’t to his liking, and its proposal for government licensing of journalists. It again proposed licensing during the Nov. 7 consultation — by which time, however, Ambassador Christensen had left, and could no longer appreciate how “progressive” the creation of PTFOMS has been.
As for the anti-drug campaign, every PNP, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Malacañang spokesperson and Duterte act, statement, plan and justification for it has been so amply reported that its immense cost in lives (estimated by human rights groups at 24,000 and rising) is increasingly being regarded by media readers and viewers as necessary and even normal.
There is of course also the smuggling through of billions of pesos worth of drugs for which no one has been held responsible, and which all the media except the three “positive” newspapers headlined, simply because it met all the criteria of newsworthiness. Does Christensen think it shouldn’t have been that well reported?
If he does, he should be assured by the fact that thanks to the present regime, even some of the more responsible media organizations, in their attempt to not be seen as solely “negative,” have practically abdicated the journalistic duty of providing their audiences the context and meaning of the news in these dangerous times.
Most of them — there are exceptions — have succumbed to merely quoting what this or that source said without interpretation and discernment. It is in this sense that Christensen’s criticism may apply. In their fear that they will be seen as biased and partisan — and harassed even further by the regime and its online trolls — many of these media organizations are failing to meet the primary ethical responsibility of truth-telling as well as the imperative of adhering to the professional standard of providing their audiences reports that are of significance to their lives. What some of them are doing is not journalism, but what the journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger calls stenography.
What was so deeply ironic about Christensen’s message was that the Nov. 7 consultation organized by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) was supported by the European Union and Denmark’s own Foreign Ministry in recognition of the dangers journalists in the Philippines are facing today, which include not only being insulted, cursed and barred from coverage, but also threatened, harassed, and even murdered.
But a further and even worse irony is that by echoing Mr. Duterte’s and his fellow bullyboys’ tirades against the media, Ambassador Christensen was helping validate the regime’s attacks on the press and media as indispensable sources of the information citizens need in this alleged democracy. That as an ambassador he has to be in the good graces of a regime widely known for its antipathy to the slightest criticism doesn’t excuse his buying into the fairy tale horrors it has been passing off as truth to intimidate and silence those sectors of the Philippine press who take the responsibilities of their craft seriously.
An apology will not be enough, but would be a good start.
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.