Why journalists matter | Inquirer Opinion
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Why journalists matter

Percival Mabasa, known by his broadcast name Percy Lapid, assassinated at age 63, was on a hot streak. His “Percy Lapid Fire” online broadcast program at dwBL 1242 and YouTube quickly became a habit for many Filipinos who wanted sparkling scoops and interpretations of political events in the country. Created only in May 2019, it quickly raised a viewership of 132 million as it took on Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and their close associates.

Lapid did not fail his audience. Sitting in a studio with the usual oversized broadcast microphone partly covering his face, an audiovisual control panel at his fingertips, and a laptop to the side, he would dish out the latest political events and give scathing commentaries. He gave the issues a thorough 360-degree perspective, peppering his talk with nicknames he has for his live targets—e.g., “Digongnyo” for Duterte—his favorite target.

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There is something about broadcasters that gets the goat of onion-skinned, unscrupulous, corrupt, and inept politicians, criminals, businessmen, and other anti-social types. Duterte, perhaps, expresses the feelings of politicians at the receiving end of what they consider “undeserved” blasts from broadcasters. On May 31, 2016, the then newly elected president said in a press conference that journalists are legitimate targets of assassination “if you’re a son of a bitch.” He cited broadcaster Jun Pala, who was assassinated in Davao City when Duterte was mayor, as someone who “deserved it.”

It must be in the way broadcasters can use the spoken language like a scalpel, digging into the rotten core of an issue. They have a way of using innuendo and colorful codenames and clues for their targets and their shenanigans.

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Writers at least will be able to review their text and moderate themselves. The sharper their pens, the more alert are their editors in saving the whole media organization from libel suits. But broadcasters can only be warned or censured at the end of a program, when they have already unloaded their daily supply of lethal verbal daggers and brickbats.

From a nation-building perspective, the assassination of a prominent broadcaster brings the public to a higher level of political awareness. It is an altogether consuming collective enterprise as people crave answers—“Who was the mastermind?” “Why?” In this age of social media, that gives the broadcaster a new wind, as people voraciously consume his last known broadcasts to get a sense of what was worth being killed for. It is an opportune time for educating the public on things they take for granted. When someone dies a political death, people sense it is also somehow about the people and pay attention.

But why do journalists and broadcasters matter? As Walter Cronkite said in 2005, reflecting on the weak state of political and civic education in the United States, “We are not intelligent enough, we’re not educated well enough to perform the necessary act of selecting our leaders for the future. We’ve got to improve that situation, and it’s going to be, to a large degree, up to us in television and radio, in broadcasting, to get that job done. If we fail at that, our democracy, our Republic, is, I think, in serious danger.” Journalists and broadcasters matter because they are instrumental in educating the public about those sensitive and critical issues, kept from public view, on which the well-being of the people and the nation depend.

Lapid throws a spotlight on the whole set of Filipino broadcasters who have helped shape the political consciousness of many Filipinos. Now we know that 197 journalists have been killed since 1986 according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Journalists who die are athletes in a relay. They raise awareness about issues by risking their lives. It is not their intention that their advocacies and the issues co-terminate with them. They mean for other citizens to take up the issue and run forward with it.

We need more Percy Lapids for as we mark the 100th day in office of the Marcos Jr. administration, we need people to remind them that while we may not be able to show proof of development emerging in the first 100 days, we certainly are able to show indicators of impending catastrophes to our democracy, our development, and our sense of nationhood.

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