IT’S been suggested by some friends and readers that we, in the media, should wait until the Duterte presidency unfolds in glory or infamy before subjecting it to serious analysis and criticism.
I take such counsel with skepticism because it is fundamentally irresponsible. Do we wait until the government is overrun by communists and cronies before saying a word about it? Do we wait until Duterte is already in China negotiating the South China Sea dispute before warning of its consequences? Do we wait until the first executions and vigilante assassinations before saying a word? And do we wait until Duterte has completely obliterated media coverage of his presidency, before saying that the policy is self-defeating?
I belong to the school of journalists who believe that part of media’s role is to warn of dangers before they happen, that we must assess where our ship of state is headed and warn of icebergs along the way, lest our ship crash on one and sink into the deep like the RMS Titanic.
Most sweeping media reforms
The changes and reforms announced by incoming President Duterte and his communications team are some of the most sweeping ever attempted by a President of the Republic.
They include the following:
1. The banning of private media from covering Duterte’s activities in Davao City and future activities in Malacañang.
2. The replacement of the big networks by the People’s Television Network (GTV-4), re-fashioned as a Filipino version of the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC).
3. The replacement of national dailies by a government tabloid newspaper
4. The total cancellation of presidential news conferences as a matter of policy.
Not since President Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed Martial Law in Sept. 1972 has a President ever implemented such major changes in government-media relations.
At heart, they appear to reflect Mr. Duterte’s distrust of the media, his naïve belief that the media have no service to offer unless they talk about the President.
I must say that the idea of strengthening public broadcasting and establishing a Philippine version of the BBC could be a worthy reform. Anything that will compel the media giants to improve their current shabby service (of both entertainment and public affairs) is welcome.
But the bigger picture is troubling for the press and for the nation.
Setting the table for farce and travesty
If pursued to their logical conclusion, the eccentric media policies of incoming President Duterte set the table for a farce and travesty of media’s role in society. He could dramatize the media’s irrelevance and uselessness if he launches two initiatives:
Duterte will regularly conduct an interview of himself on government television; and
Duterte will write his own column in a government newspaper.
It is possible that some or many people will enjoy the spectacle of DU30 talking to himself and writing down his thoughts and opinions, especially if he peppers these with his signature cursing and vulgarities.
But before our new President embarks on this fateful course, he should be given fair warning that he risks turning into parody and farce the presidency of our republic. He will invite comparison to the mad and eccentric monarchs and chiefs of state in history.
When I mentioned the idea of Duterte interviewing himself in a chat with media colleagues, one veteran journalist said that President Cory already tried that during her presidency. She never held a news conference. She only delivered her periodic Ulat sa Bayan (Report to the Nation) to convey what was in her mind or what she had been doing. She was perfectly happy with herself.
Two media provisions in Bill of Rights
Many sometimes forget this, but there are, in fact, two rights pertaining to the media in the Bill of Rights (Article III) enshrined in the Constitution:
Article III, Section 4: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of people to assemble, and petition the government for the redress of grievances.
2. Article III, Section 7: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
Section 7 is why the proposed Freedom of Information Act is regarded as vital to our constitutional system.
In an explanatory note on the Bill of Rights, Constitutional Commission member and author Jose N. Nolledo wrote in his book, The Constitution Explained (National Book Store, 1987):
“A bill of rights is to a large extent declaratory of fundamental principles and of the basic rights of citizenship. It has been said that the rights protected by the bill of rights are those that inheres in the great and essential principles of liberty and free government.”
Do we journalists fear being upstaged by Duterte as his own interviewer and as a columnist? Speaking for myself, I say, No, not really.
H e will only be as entertaining and laughable as the daily antics on “Eat Bulaga.” The public will quickly tire of it.
What you see is who you are
This thing, you see, works both ways. Neither the President nor the media can perform their jobs without the assistance of the other. The President must be able to communicate with the public through the media. And the media must have the President’s cooperation for them to provide an accurate assessment of what’s happening to our ship of state.
In the end, the media serve as a sounding board for the President; and they become a mirror for the President to see himself. What you see in the mirror is who you are.