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There’s the Rub

Physician, heal thyself

This time around, it’s the journalists.

Two broadcast journalists in particular have been named by Nabcor (National Agribusiness Corp.) whistle-blowers, Rhodora Mendoza and Vicente Cacal, as having gotten payoffs from the pork funds a tribe of lawmakers poured into Janet Napoles’ nongovernment organizations (NGOs). They are Erwin Tulfo, a TV5 host, and Carmelo del Prado Magdurulang, a GMA7 radio commentator. Tulfo, according to the whistle-blowers, got a check for P245,535 on March 10, 2009, while Magdurulang got three checks totaling the same amount in 2009. All the checks were cashed in the Ortigas branch of UCPB.

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Mendoza and Cacal actually named a third journalist as a beneficiary of the Nabcor scam, and a much bigger one—he got P2 million from it. But they did not have the documents to prove it, they knew it only from talk at the office about who was supposed to get it. This payoff took the form of cash, which they themselves did not deliver, and indeed which was delivered only to a bagman. Which is the only reason this journalist has remained unnamed in reports.

Tulfo and Magdurulang have denied it, and their defenders have directed their ire at the Inquirer, not least for equating “advertising expenses,” which was how Nabcor justified the expenditure, with “payoff.” But at the very least, how else call “advertising” money given to a journalist by a company, public or private? You’re a journalist, you’re not supposed to advertise anything. You’re only supposed to tell the truth as best you can.

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At the very most, a check is not easy to get away from. Tulfo says, “Somebody could be using my name, I want to investigate who cashed the check.” He’s perfectly free to do so, but that need not preclude the authorities from investigating it themselves. Surely it can’t be too hard to ascertain the truth of it with banking laws having been liberalized to prevent laundering.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima specifically proposes to do it. Where the justice department finds cause, she says, it will charge the journalists who profited from the pork scams along with the public officials. “If you’re a member of the media, you’re a private individual, you’re not a public official. But if it concerns public funds and you are in the company of public officials, you are part of it. You can be charged with such offenses as direct bribery and malversation of public funds.”

I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I’m hoping the third journalist will get named as well and other whistle-blowers will step forward to provide evidence against him. It’s not entirely true that transactions of this sort where they are carried out with sophistication or where there is no clear-cut documentation are untraceable. There are people who approve them, there are people who deliver the payoffs, there are people—the direct recipient or the intermediary—who receive them. Where there are people, there are witnesses. Subpoenaing them, where they do not step out voluntarily—and we presume Mendoza and Cacal know them—should help do the trick.

The accused and their defenders say the reporting of Mendoza’s and Cacal’s accusation is irresponsible and puts journalism in a bad light. That’s silly, and merely attempts to conscript other journalists, honest and corrupt alike, into circling wagons around their beleaguered colleagues to defend their favorite profession. Journalism is not under attack, individual journalists are. In fact what puts journalism in a bad light is not journalists—or at least people in media, it burns the mouth to call them journalists—being accused of corruption, it is the lack of it.

I myself wouldn’t mind a whole tribe of media practitioners being dragged to court for this. If you’re a fairly honest reporter or editor or commentator, someone who tries to make both ends meet on the modest, if not meager, pay that journalism affords, you’d get very pissed off having to breathe same air as those who sell their profession to the highest bidder and parade their ill-gotten wealth before the world in cars, properties, and lavish eating places to impress the impressionable with their apparent success and bigness and importance. You conduct a lifestyle check on people with suspicious incomes and a lot of media practitioners will fall like leaves in autumn.

Arguably, the sums involved here, except in the case of the unnamed media person who got P2 million, are relatively small—paltry even, relative to the millions the bigger media players routinely get for their “advertising” services. The news that two broadcast journalists, one of them fairly well-known, tripped on P245,535 has not shocked the media community, it has vastly amused it. That they should trip moreover by way of checks has sent it into howls of laughter: How lo-tech can you get?

But if that’s what it will take to draw the media into a Lenten introspection about the extent to which they have turned their temple into a merchant’s bazaar, the house of prayer into a den of thieves, then I’m all for it. Or since media’s capacity for introspection in that respect is limited—it’s never been a question of ascertaining the corruption in its ranks, it’s always been a question of wanting to do something about it—if this is what it takes to put the fear of God or Leila de Lima in the hearts of the wayward, then I’m all for it.

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If journalists—by definition, the more reputable ones, the more honest ones—are to allow themselves to be conscripted into anything, it might as well be into approval or praise of those who flail at the merchants, of those who mean to cleanse their house. People who take on righteous tones in crucifying erring cops and public officials had best be prepared to live reasonably righteous lives.

I myself don’t mind people telling us: Physician, heal thyself.

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