11:12 PM August 15th, 2013

August 15th, 2013 11:12 PM

Senate Bill 380, filed by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada last month, carries the burden of a weighty title: “An Act providing a Magna Carta for journalists.” But instead of a great charter establishing greater freedoms in the practice of journalism, SB 380 is a dangerous document that threatens the freedoms journalists already have.

Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that Estrada himself is fully committed to “promoting the welfare and protection of journalism in the country,” as his Explanatory Note tells us; even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that Estrada’s bill does genuinely seek to “ensure a living wage [and] an atmosphere conducive to productive journalism work, reiterate [the] value of ethics, provide for development programs that will deepen the practice of their profession, and promote the defense and protection of freedom and human rights of journalists and their organizations,” as the same Note asserts—even if we grant all that, SB 380 remains a problematic text with a deeply insidious subtext.

In the first place, the provisions of the bill do not in fact meet the high standards and lofty objectives set forth in the Explanatory Note. To give only one of many possible examples: The bill as written cannot “ensure a living wage,” because all it does, in a short, token section, is recommend that in “the determination of the salary of journalist [sic], the following factor [sic] shall, inter alia, be considered”—and then proceeds to simply list three motherhood factors, including “imperatives of economic and social development.” The legal force of this provision, if the bill becomes law, is exactly equivalent to that of a generic wish list.

Secondly, the token provisions (there’s another one, for example, mandating the law’s inclusion in the “school curriculum on journalism”) only serve to highlight the bill’s true emphases: the sections with more than the cursory one or two paragraphs.

In this light, the real interest of the bill lies in accreditation (Section 5), ethics (7) and security (8). Let us focus on the first.

Section 5 begins thus: “There shall be created a Philippine Council for Journalists (PCJ) that will serve as the development center for journalism and at the same time act as a self-regulatory body for journalists and the journalism profession.”

None of the eight organizations deemed to be members of this council is a public-sector entity; by what right the bill gathers eight associations (such as the Philippine Press Institute and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines) and imposes public duties on them is not explained.

The proposed Council’s main responsibility is to accredit journalists, through what the bill calls the Professional Journalist Examination. (The two other functions of the Council are related: to keep a database of all accredited journalists, and to conduct seminars as a prerequisite for accreditation.)

But the bill follows a two-tier classification: accredited and nonaccredited journalists. In other words, the bill allows nonaccredited journalists to continue to practice. The bill’s defenders (although to be sure we have not yet heard anyone come forward) will point to this as proof that the proposed licensing examination is not draconian or undemocratic. No. It is only designed to make money.

Remarkably, there is no funding provision anywhere in the bill; this means that the proposed Council’s responsibility to accredit becomes an opportunity to make a profit. The new overlords can force already underpaid journalists to pay for the qualifying examinations, the official accreditation card, the required seminars, even the exemption interviews. This is the kind of opportunity that will attract media mercenaries.

But the real issue is: Why the emphasis on accreditation? A citizen does not need a license to exercise the freedoms of speech and the press guaranteed in the Constitution. The notion that accreditation, through a government-imposed system of licensing involving private journalists’ associations themselves, will end up “promoting the welfare and protection of journalism in the country” is as outrageous as it is insidious.

There is no argument that journalism as a profession sometimes fails its strictest standards or falls short of its highest aspirations. But as has been proven time and again in other democracies, the road to quality journalism does not depend on a detour, with a tollgate, through the government.

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