An endangered press
In a moment of pique, former president Fidel V. Ramos confessed to his audience, many of whom were journalists, that sometimes while reading the newspapers and finding negative stories in them, he “felt like committing suicide.” But at other times, he added, angered by what he read, he “felt like committing homicide.”
Fortunately, the former president was only joking (or was he?). And don’t you miss the days when the “Father of the Nation” could crack a witticism and we could still laugh about it?
Not joking a bit, though, was Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the American republic, who declared: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
These days, Jefferson’s preference sounds like a distant if not impossible dream. This is especially true for newspapers in this corner of the world. For it isn’t just newspapers but all forms of communications purveying the news that are now increasingly endangered.
Even as the rest of the globe observed “World Press Freedom Day” last May 3, a nearly three-decade-old community paper in Baguio announced that it was closing shop. SunStar Baguio, with 16 staff, was the only daily community newspaper serving not just the country’s “summer capital” but Northern Luzon as well. With its shuttering, a substantial part of the country loses a voice and a faithful chronicler of events relevant to the people living in the region and to the nation, too.
The slow death of community journalism in the Philippines continues unabated, along with the crisis besetting bigger publications and local journalism as a whole.
The pandemic has grievously affected the business of newspapering, as it has most other fields. While speedy, complete, and comprehensive information is critical in a public health crisis, the same crisis comes as local and national newspapers face dwindling revenues, reduced circulation, and consequently more job cuts, if not outright closures. Herbie Gomez, editor in chief of Mindanao Gold Star Daily, noted in an August 2020 Rappler report that “The pandemic is hurting journalism here and elsewhere.” There is underreporting of the reach and gravity of COVID-19, for instance, with coverage of its spread and impact carried out only spottily.
The Philippine Press Institute, a private organization promoting the interests of the publishing industry, counts at least 11 newspapers that have ceased printing temporarily and have shifted to the digital realm. These publications cover the archipelago from Northern Luzon to Mindanao, while national dailies are increasingly turning to digital versions to recover the revenue they have lost. But not all areas enjoy access to the internet and other digital platforms, while the lack or absence of responsible gatekeepers allows the seepage (some say dominance) of fake news and deceptive coverage.
On top of the economic crisis besetting journalism, in the Philippines, the situation is made worse by the general air of hostility and repression from government. These could be said to be the most dangerous times to be a Filipino journalist. According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, 19 media practitioners have died under four years of the Duterte regime. “There are more attacks and threats that have shown how indeed we’ve become more vulnerable to those who don’t want the media and the press to play the role they are assigned by the Constitution,” warned Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus in November last year. Indeed, shortly after winning the elections, President Duterte issued a not-so-veiled warning that “corrupt” journalists are “not exempted from assassinations.”
Other attacks have been carried out, including the denial of a franchise to ABS-CBN, leading to the closure of the country’s biggest radio-television network. Even campus journalists are being red-tagged by authorities.
All these do not bode well for the future of not just journalism, but of Philippine democracy itself, the economy included. An international study finds that “attacks on press freedom—such as jailing journalists, raiding their homes, shutting down printing presses, and using libel laws to thwart reporters—have measurable effects on economic growth… Countries that recorded a decrease in press freedom also experienced a 1 to 2 percent drop in real gross domestic product growth.” Put another way, it’s not only democratic polity and an independent press that thrive in sunlight; vital commerce and economic stability also require an environment of freedom and fresh air.
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