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Vulnerable journalists and angry revolutionaries

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Do journalists, generally speaking, earn higher salaries than civil servants? The pattern of views I heard at the Media Nation conference over the weekend, which dwelt on corruption in the media, suggests that the reality is dramatically different—especially in the provinces.

In fact, almost everyone at the conference agreed that “local” journalists (a label, by the way, that many of those working in provincial newspapers or radio stations despise as insufferably Manila-centric) are more vulnerable to corruption. A large part of the reason is their economic situation.

It should be self-evident, of course, that economic need alone does not explain the prevalence of corruption, in media or in other sectors. The knowing reader or viewer can easily name a handful of already wealthy media personalities for whom corruption is (or looks to be) a way of life.

But if the testimony of veteran media professionals is any guide, need can drive the desperate to extremes.

Only a few journalists from the provinces were able to take part in the conference: one intrepid community journalist from Mindanao and several correspondents based in Luzon. The Media Nation organizers were not able this time around to raise enough funds to cover still-prohibitive airfare costs for participants from the Visayas and Mindanao. (That last year’s conference was held in Cebu helped attendance then too.)

But despite their absence—or perhaps because of it, because many of the delegates were acutely conscious that something vital was missing—the plight of provincial correspondents and especially of community journalists was frequently at or near the center of discussion.

The few who did make it did not fail to remind everyone else about what it is that they and their kind really face in the field: Many correspondents work without a written contract. Many reporters do PR work, especially for those who can afford to hire them: namely, politicians. Many newspaper owners in the provinces do double duty, as reporter and sales executive, just to make ends meet. Many radio block-timers resort to so-called package deals. And many work without the assurances that government employees in very many government agencies already take for granted: a steady salary, a structured scheme of bonuses, a system of health and insurance benefits.

The kind of anecdotes shared at the conference was telling: In the last election, for example, a journalist-turned-campaign-press-officer was shocked to find journalists in a particular town, both legitimate and illegitimate, quite literally hound a candidate for doles. In one incident, the candidate had to hide from the pressing horde in a toilet, and even there the hungry hands followed him.

In a city in northern Luzon, it is not uncommon to see a reporter bring his girlfriend to a press conference once or twice and then, some time later, to find that girlfriend bringing her own tape recorder and notebook to another news conference: Without training, without vetting, indeed even without an outlet to write for, the girlfriend had become a reporter.

But here’s the thing. These anecdotes aside, the stark reality that journalists in the provinces suffer through reaches all the way to the national capital too.

The sad fact is, the compensation-and-benefits arrangements available at established and profitable publications like the Inquirer and BusinessWorld or in the giant networks like ABS-CBN, GMA and TV5 are the exception, not the rule. (And even then problems remain.)

So, no. Generally speaking, journalists are not better paid than civil servants.

* * *

After the conference, I and others from the Inquirer were able to interview Lech Walesa—the mustachioed union organizer who famously co-founded the Solidarity movement in Gdansk, won a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 40 and helped hasten the end of communist rule in both Central and Eastern Europe. The second president of Poland served as the closing keynote speaker.

When it was my turn, I used my time with the self-described “last revolutionary” and devout Catholic to talk popes and cardinals.

I was especially intrigued by his relationship with Pope John Paul II. “Of course I was very, very close,” Walesa said. “We could understand each other without a word.”

“If not for him, we would not end the era of communism in Europe,” he said, speaking through his interpreter, Jozef Sarach, a Polish national who has been living in the Philippines the last 27 years. “He told us not to be afraid. The rest we have done.”

About Pope Benedict XVI, the great John Paul’s German successor, he said: “A new pope, who is for this era. But we have to learn how to listen to him.”

And when I asked him if he had a message for the new cardinal archbishop of Manila, his first words were: “I want to give my bow.” He said he looked to the new cardinal for answers to pressing problems of both Church and country: “I hope he will find the solutions.” And he offered a word of advice: “Today, our faith has to be brave … but [must] also notice the problems outside the faith.”

His hair and his famous moustache having turned pure white, Walesa today looks positively avuncular—the benign, wisecracking relative at family gatherings. The image goes well with his natural gift for down-to-earth metaphors: democracy is either all or nothing; it’s like pregnancy, “you can’t be a little pregnant.” Or his approach to problem-solving: as in weightlifting, you need to start with smaller weights.

I must say, though, that the best question thrown at him came from GMA’s Jessica Soho: You were an angry young man then, “are you still angry?”

“I am still angry,” he said. There is still so much injustice in the world.

(jnery@inquirer.com.ph/johnnery.wordpress.com)

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