President Aquino addressed a conference of journalists meeting in Tagaytay City last Friday and—judging by the news headlines the following day—spent his time not scolding the media. This was news, because only the previous week the President had choice words for the Kapisanan ng Mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas. At the 9th Media Nation conference, Mr. Aquino chose to limit himself to only two points. The points were substantive; unfortunately, he failed to speak directly to one issue consuming journalists across the country.
The President first spoke about “the need for consistent standards in media”—and, really, how can anyone argue with that? “Like any profession imbued with public interest, at the heart of skepticism or even hostility [to the media, Mr. Aquino explained] lies the question of conflicts of interest.” We can follow his argument, because it is one that many in the working media have already raised. The media profession will benefit as a whole if, say, gift policies were not so much standardized (that would be an impossible and frankly unnecessary task) but rather aligned. In the broadcast industry, for example, the caps on gifts that a journalist may legitimately receive range from P300 to P2,500.
President Aquino then spoke directly on the conference’s theme: corruption in media. He was right to begin by emphasizing the greatest point of vulnerability (his words are worth repeating in full): “The reporter bears the brunt of having to find stories, source information, and craft the reports that find their way to our countrymen. Given the hard work they do and the high standards everyone should demand of them, it becomes legitimate to ask whether their pay and benefits are commensurate to the highest standards of integrity demanded of them.”
On these “two broad areas” the President chose to highlight, we can find much to consider. To be sure, his treatment of standardization and corruption was necessarily brief; it is not only reporters and correspondents, for example, who are vulnerable to corruption, but everyone in the newsmaking chain, including editors in the newsroom and cameramen in the field.
But we expected the President to say something about the extrajudicial killings of journalists, especially given that last Friday was the third anniversary of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao, massacre. But all President Aquino said about that was contained in one paragraph, the first half of which read: “In cases of media killings, for example, we in government are demanding the apprehension of suspects and the filing of charges that stick, resulting in justice for all involved. In other cases of violence involving media, we have taken affirmative and just action.” And that, basically, was it.
While there can be no argument that the President’s focus on solid evidence-gathering and resolute prosecution is important, we cannot understand his decision not to train the spotlight on the massacre, on the very day the country needed reminding.
As head of government, the President may think some of his regular critics have co-opted the fateful anniversary for their own. But even if they have—and it is crucial to note that they have not, that media organizations around the country see the quest for justice in the Ampatuan massacre as a crucial test case of the administration’s resolve in the campaign against impunity—it is still incumbent on the President to mark the anniversary in a fitting way.
Because he is also head of state. He represents the entire nation, including the very critics he apparently does not want to have anything to do with (and, frankly, do not want him to represent them). It is that role that requires him to regularly remind us of the horrors that haunt our history; a sorry list that includes the nightmare that was martial law and the unmoderated greed that characterized the Arroyo years.
But “never again” is a battle cry that applies to the Ampatuan massacre as well; President Aquino’s failure to sound the alarm this year is a deafening, inexplicable, silence.