The problem is real—which paradoxically explains why an initiative like the “covenant against media corruption,” signed on Tuesday by representatives of political parties, civil society groups and media organizations (the Inquirer among them), is the first of its kind. But is the pact for real? That is to say, will it help solve the problem of corruption in the media, or at least lead to durable solutions?
No one can seriously dispute the covenant’s premise, simply and clearly stated at the outset—that we face “a painful and persistent truth: Media corruption damages our society, especially during elections.”
What does the pact seek to do? It attempts to bind both the political parties that will take part in the May 2013 elections, and the media organizations that will cover them, to three commitments. First, that “the parties and their candidates … will not offer journalists and other media practitioners and their principals any payment or form of compensation for favors.” Second, that “the media signatories … will neither accept nor solicit any such payment or form of compensation for favors.” And third, that both the politicians and the journalists also commit “to reporting instances of corruption in the media.”
A tall order, and (as many have already pointed out, in the day or so since the news of the signing went out) easier said than done. But in fact, an initiative like this has never been “said” before. There are no previous pacts against media corruption during election season. Many factors—including an industry-wide reticence to talk about itself, a tradition of depending on individual organizations to thresh out corruption-related problems, a culture that puts a premium on world-weary realism over starry-eyed idealism—have helped delay the emergence of an initiative like the covenant.
In other words: While the doing is immeasurably more difficult, the “saying” had its own difficulties.
On the level of the symbolic, then, the fact that some of the largest media organizations in the country, including the three biggest TV networks, have embraced the pact together with representatives of some of the largest political alliances, with civil society advocates standing in as witnesses, is already potent with significance.
The signing adds an additional pressure point, as it were, on the conduct of both the media organizations and the political parties. Like a presidential candidate’s campaign promises, it can be used by the public, or indeed by anyone, to hold the signatories to account.
To be sure, the best check against corruption remains an institutional culture that is robustly anticorruption. In the case of the media, it is the dominant culture of the newsroom that determines whether journalists on the beat and in the field and editors and producers at the desk are rewarded for working with integrity and professionalism or penalized for risking the newsroom’s very credibility through unethical or illegal conduct.
The covenant does not do away with each organization’s rule book on handling corrupt conduct. Rather, it recognizes that, as in government and as in business, the struggle against corruption can only succeed when an organization’s efforts are supplemented by industry-wide or sectoral action.
This means that, on the level of the practical, much arduous work lies ahead. The signatories, led by the organizers of the Media Nation forum, have their work cut out in spreading the word and getting as many additional signatories as possible. And both the media organizations and the political parties have the difficult task of “operationalizing” the covenant. Thus far, only one political party has committed to disseminating copies of the covenant by a certain date. Journalists are asking questions about implementation. And political candidates who have gallantly signed the pact, like senatorial candidate Teddy Casiño, are wondering whether they will pay the price for signing.
But at least a step, a small one, has been taken. The pact itself was careful to note its own limits. “This Covenant is just a single step in a larger process to root out corruption, itself a complex problem. But solutions begin with the acknowledgement and discussion of the problem.”