[OPINION] What does it even mean to be free?
One evening last January brought back old feelings and memories. It was also an awkward moment, when journalists raised their arms, carried placards, chanted slogans, and became the news – beamed live on primetime TV.
In that rally for press freedom, activists and students’ groups joined journalists from various Philippine media organizations to protest government attacks against the media, specifically what happened that month – the Securities and Exchange Commission’s closure order against Rappler, which we have appealed in court.
It seemed like the old days, we told ourselves, when media groups would band together to protest the killing of journalists, attacks by public officials, or the layoff of media hires.
Yet, these are not the old days.
I became a reporter more than 3 decades ago, when press freedom (or its absence) meant many things but was clearly black and white. The freedom to cover public officials and their activities unhampered. The freedom to scrutinize them without fear of retaliatory attacks. The freedom to expose a private company’s wrongdoing, even if that company was your advertiser. The freedom to ask, to verify, to probe, without fear of being padlocked or branded fake.
It’s easy to tell ourselves now that we journalists are sitting on old problems.
It’s easy to embrace this fallacy that we are dealing with the same public.
As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day this Thursday, May 3, we try to take stock not only of our freedom to tell stories and speak truth to power, but also of our new world that we assume appreciates such freedom.
What does press freedom even mean in a networked public space that enables anonymity and masks accountability? Journalism as we know it thrives in the opposite – where reporters put their names on the line and public officials do not easily get away with their lies and peccadillos.
What does press freedom even mean to a generation that has come to learn that they can be their own authority or, not preferring that, can google their own authority? Journalism as we know it privileges us to make judgment calls for the reader or viewer – which news deserves their attention, which stories they ought to immerse in, which opinions should matter.
We had the freedom to choose for them. They, in turn, enjoyed the option of choosing which newspaper to read, which pages to skip, which channels to watch or listen to.
But what does it even mean to be free when platforms and algorithms now make these choices for the journalist and for the reader?
Do not fret, say the purists among us. Credibility eventually wins the day.
Indeed, journalism as we know it banked on that. You want to build a name? Build credibility, one that’s earned over time and through the fire of getting the facts right, verifying claims and accusations, and standing one’s ground in the face of pressure.
Yet who needs to do all that in this networked age? Thinking Pinoy certainly did not build a mass following on the bank of credibility. He has none of that, as he earns his keep spreading lies, hate and propaganda.
The cynic would ask: in a world that rewards cheerleading, swarm thinking, and anonymity, who needs credibility?
And how can press freedom thrive in a terrain that facilitates – with lightning speed – state harassment of its critics and the propagation of its preferred truths?
Back in the day, one would dismiss news as government propaganda when it was aired on government-run airwaves or published by government-controlled media.
Today, who knows what propaganda is when it’s even more ubiquitous than Kris Aquino’s latest rants?
Who knows when governments are playing fair or playing rough, when they legislate laws ostensibly to fight fake news but in reality use them to silence dissent? (READ: Malaysia convicts first person under fake news law)
Why would journalists – but not the architects of disinformation – enjoy the freedom of speech? The answer is obvious to us, but is it to others? When these architects operate in the same labor economy that we all belong to, what can stop them from claiming the same space that we used to dominate?
What is fueling hostility and animosity toward journalists, aside from political leaders and authoritarian regimes? (READ: RSF Index 2018: Hatred of journalism threatens democracies)
These are questions we constantly ask ourselves as we come to grips with new norms that have been shaped by technology and as we try to serve a public that is changing in the way it seeks to view – and deal with – the world.
I raise these questions not to demean the people and companies that thrive in this new environment, but precisely to force me to better understand it.
And I raise these questions today, as we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, in hopes that things do not move too fast while we’re still struggling with the answers. I hope that we do not wake up one day in a world where everything has been completely redefined in a space too polluted for reason to survive, and in a country whose stories we could no longer tell the way we knew how to.
The press freedom that we struggle to keep today demands that we find ways to make sense of these vast and fast changes, that we do more, and that we do better. That we do not deny that the old is being rewritten, and that the new is being constantly reborn. So help us God. – Rappler.com