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The President and the press


THE National Press Club president, Antonio Antonio, said: “As I speak, 54 journalists have been slain while in the line of duty, or in the line of fire, and not one of these cases has been solved to the pleasure of widows and orphans. I don’t wish it but after this show, some newsmen may just become targets of those who cannot take criticism, and are just too eager to exercise prior restraint.”

President Arroyo said: “What I ask the press is a modicum of fairness, a nudge in the angle of the news, an ounce of objectivity in the run of opinion to reflect the big picture—and of a nation coping with a crisis and winning the battle against poverty, of a people valiantly fighting for change and beating the odds.”

He was speaking of an injustice. She was asking for fairness. They seemed to be talking across each other’s shoulders, but that is natural in the continuing dialogue between the presidency and the media. The occasion was the NPC’s Gridiron Dinner Monday night.

The dinner’s highlight was the Gridiron Skit, which sticks poisoned needles into the President, her Cabinet, the Congress and the judiciary, but especially into the commander in chief. The skit was written to raise guffaws and Mrs. Arroyo would have had the last laugh. But she did not show up for the dinner, the first time she has missed the skit since she became President.

Her absence was a commentary on her relations with the media. The President and some of her advisers have had their run-ins with the press, and apologies had been tendered. But their relations have not been as adversarial as described. The Palace press corps is seen as soft on its questions at press conferences. Assessments of her first 100 days in office have been kind. It is the opinion and editorial writers who hold her administration to the fire.

In her remarks the President said she stood “foursquare behind a free and independent press. I will be the first to be disappointed by a cloying press and a press with no backbone. But the government and the press can also be partners in pushing those reforms needed to change society.”

We agree with her. The press need not focus on sensationalism and crime to sell papers. There is more to journalism than reporting the bad news. We believe there is a readership for positive and inspirational stories from the provinces and the regions, the “small victories” she referred to her speech.

The government also has a duty to be honest about its affairs. Unless national security is at stake, it should allow the media full access to information. The public interest is served when the press reports freely on decision- and policymaking process in government.

It is also a mature government that accepts criticisms with grace—and with self-deprecating humor. This was the point of the Gridiron skit that the club staged Monday night—a chance to allow the amateur actors/newsmen to parody officialdom and deflate the excesses of the bureaucracy with irreverence.

The spectacle of the highest officials laughing at jokes at their expense is not only refreshing but reassuring. As long as our administrators are able to take the barbs of the Gridiron and laugh at themselves, this nation is in good shape.

Chen’s offer

In his National Day speech, President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan offered to hold talks with China “on the basis of the 1992 meeting in Hong Kong.”

He was referring to the first and only high-level encounter between the representatives of both sides. The outcome of that meeting was an agreement in principle on the concept of “One China” without any agreement on what exactly it meant.

It’s not clear in President Chen’s speech if his offer included the preparatory meetings at which the idea of an eventual political integration was brought up. Beijing is likely to be receptive if this were the case.

What moved President Chen to make this offer?

There are two possibilities. The first could be the parliamentary election in December. President Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party and its coalition parties are eager to secure a majority by wooing moderate voters who are against or ambivalent about independence.

The second is perhaps to repair relations with Washington. The rare rebuke by President Bush of Taipei’s provocative statements was not lost on President Chen. The US State Department quickly welcomed the conciliatory tone of President Chen’s National Day speech.

We hope that this gesture will also be welcomed by China. President Hu Jintao now has an historic opportunity to lift the threat of an invasion, if Taiwan did not knuckle under.

But judging from the reports and editorials in the official press, the hard-liners are still ascendant. China Daily, for example, called President Chen “too insincere” to be believed.

This is where US diplomacy could play a very critical balancing role. In the same way that the US succeeded in moderating President Chen’s rhetoric, the State Department could encourage Beijing to take up Chen’s offer—however ambiguous it might be.

Easing cross-straits tensions is important not only for Taiwan and China but for both the region and the world.

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Today’s Front Page February 29, 2020

Today’s Front Page February 29, 2020