Viewpoint

A journalism of hackers?

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“Gigi” in today’s headlines is not the love-struck girl (Leslie Caron) serenaded by Maurice Chevalier in the 1958 MGM musical. Jessica “Gigi” Reyes is—or was?—chief of staff of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. She cosigns checks and whips straying subordinates into line. She also rides shotgun for JPE. “Hypocrites,” she dubbed senators who assailed her boss’ P1.6 million “Christmas” doles to 18 friendly legislators. Others closer to the scene will discuss “Ma’am Gigi” in days ahead.

May we focus here on an equally relevant issue tossed up by the Supreme Court’s deliberation on the Cybercrime Prevention Law. “Hacktivists defaced government websites. Among the sites hit were the National Telecommunications Commission, Bangko Sentral to a Camarines local government. That’s vandalism, not cybercrime,” says Louis Casambre of the Department of Science and Technology. Since there is little accountability, more hacking is ahead.

The first interperson link on the Internet occurred in 1971. Facsimile followed shortly thereafter. Filipinos were first to wage “People Power” with cell phones—against President Joseph Estrada’s soused regime. Filipinos heft over 78 million cell phones today. Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” and  Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolt” harnessed this new technology. Twitter, Facebook, iPads, etc. stoke the still uncertain “Arab Spring.”

All can have their say on cyberspace expressway. Many do without crosschecking. “Everyone is entitled to his opinion,” the late Sen. Pat Moynihan groused. “But not everyone can have his set of facts.” Electronics whittled away the face-to-face oversight editors exercised. There are a few gatekeepers left. Here is the “Global Village” that Marshall McLuhan foresaw.

In New Delhi, “hacktivists” defaced Information Minister Kapil Sibal’s webpage by disparaging his mental abilities. Sibal championed laws that his critics said muzzle social media. A Filipino driver earlier groused, on TV, about the lack of warnings in flooded areas.

Cyberbullies pummeled him. “Constitutional safeguards against defamatory speech became useless,” fumed Inquirer’s Raul Pangalangan. “Anonymous posts … can unleash our worst selves.”

“Is blogging journalism?” asks Seattle Times’ Paul Andrews. The “Web generation made valuable contributions,” Salam Pax from inside Baghdad blogged eyewitness accounts during the war. But the majority are personal websites: a kid chatting up another. Surf Google and you get established journalism sites. Bloggers do little independent verification. Weblogs sometimes are ahead of news reports and nudge news sourcing. “For now on they are a valuable adjunct to—but not substitute for—quality journalism.”

The less obvious question is blogging’s impact on protections against libel and defamation, writes Stuart Benjamin of Duke University Law School. (This is seen in) journalist shield laws and possible reporter’s privilege. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court required “actual malice,” if (a false) statement is about a public official and negligence if about a private figure. Court opinions do not limit these protections to journalists, or to media more generally.

“Do the freedoms extolled in the Supreme Court opinions have the same resonance when everyone and his brother can publish false information to the world at the push of a button? I’m not sure. Both the costs and benefits of the protections for false statements seem to have increased in the blogging era, and it is not obvious to me which have increased more,” Benjamin also notes. (Under the Sotto Law or Republic Act No. 53, Filipino print journalists cannot be arm-twisted to reveal sources of  information. Radio and TV are not covered to date. Are bloggers equally vulnerable?)

Many bloggers bog down in chat or, punditry. “A new journalism of assertion ignores the discipline of authentication,” writes Tom Rosenstiel in “Elements of Journalism.” His coauthor Bill Kovach of Harvard University adds: “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification. That holds for a network TV news division or a lone citizen blogging …. At work is a new culture of impatient journalism not dedicated to establishing whether a story is true …. The cost to society is high…”

“The new Information Age must empower citizens to shape their communities based on verified information,” Kovach says. “Distribution, organization, and sources of our work must change …. As citizens become more proactive, journalism must not continue to see them as a passive audience. Instead, it should help equip them for that role. Unless journalists develop tools to do this, we will abdicate the role we once held—to provide the raw material of self-government. Only if we accompany citizens as they move into cyberspace will we be able to justify the hope placed in the press.”

Writes Peter Dahlgren of Stockholm University: Classical journalism is waning. But it is not about to disappear. It will accommodate itself to newer as yet unsolidified forms …. The traditional storytelling function, which helped provide perspective, will persevere. But it will be complemented by larger flows of socially relevant nonjournalistic electronic information … New forms of specialized infojournalism hybrids may emerge.

Will “cybergraphers” replace journalists?

“Do not lose sight of the basic sociology of these developments,” Dahlgren cautions: Cyberspace will remain a privilege of a small segment of insider netizens and powerful institutions. Majority will remain outsiders. “If we can readily discount cybereuphoria, the challenge remains how we will avoid digital dystopia.”

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E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com

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