Media and journalism issues

[Newspoint] Who qualifies as press?

Vergel O. Santos

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[Newspoint] Who qualifies as press?

Alyssa Arizabal

Simply, SMNI has proved too close-minded, too reckless, even vulgar, and too presumptuous to qualify for press practice

A debate is going on about who qualifies as press and for press freedom. 

The operating presumption, of course, is that we are a democracy. And precisely because that presumption seems more honored in the breach than in the observance, the debate is confused. The issue, if not misunderstood, is manipulated; it is clouded and complicated purposely by those who have no qualms about going beyond bounds to protect and promote their own interests.

The triggering case might seem at first too outlying to have any bearing on national life. Indeed, you might ask: What power can a single and yet provincial-based broadcast franchisee possess that makes it capable of upending the life of the entire nation? 

Well, this one franchisee has doubtless managed to seize such a place in the national scheme of things as to enable it to upend many a reputation and life. That is SMNI (Sonshine Media Network International).

A sectarian network, SMNI had risen to power with the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president, in 2016, and went on to wield greater and greater power during the six years of his iron-hand rule. The partnership between President Duterte and SMNI Pastor Apollo Quiboloy is portrayed, after all, as one between disciple and master.

Duterte had bounded to the presidency from the Davao City mayoralty in a feat of fraudulent, populist self-promotion, a rather clever trick actually – his quick-fix promises and autocratic bent resonated with the vast desperate poor and some ever-covetous rich who saw a potential patron in him. On his part, Quiboloy, “Son of God” by self-proclamation, claims a following of six million, an incredible number given that his pastorate is concentrated in Davao, whose population does not even come close to two million.

Though Duterte has been long done as president, he and Quiboloy are apparently not quite free of the habit of power. Duterte now has his own show on SMNI, still making public pronouncements, while, on its own, SMNI carries on with its rampage of hurling all sorts of wild accusations, apart from the customary red-tagging.

Sanctioned, finally, by the National Telecommunications Commission with the suspension of two of its shows, one of them that of Duterte’s, and threatened by the House with franchise revocation – the Senate is yet to decide whether to concur with the House – SMNI is claiming that its freedom as a press network has been violated. 

But first claims first. Does SMNI qualify as press, thus eligible for the freedom it claims to possess as a matter of constitutional right?

No express answer to that question – or to the question, Who qualifies as press? – can be found in law, but philosophy, principle, and tradition combine to provide an unmistakable context in which the free press is to be taken as a democratic institution. 

Meant as people’s watchdog on the powers that be, on government chiefly, the press takes the embodiment of two freedoms – of speech and of expression – that all citizens individually possess but are unable to exercise in such an organized and strategic way as to be efficacious. That’s why they need a surrogate institution like the press. 

The press does not really need a congressional franchise to perform its role – the franchise is only for the news networks that choose to do it on the air and therefore need to get on the radio band, a limited platform managed by the state. Anyway, the basic mandate inherent in press freedom is for the press to take the side opposite government, and on that count SMNI definitely does not qualify as press. If it now stands opposite the ruling power it is only for self-preservation. And even if it stood with any consistency on the proper side, it wouldn’t cut it still by the professional standards that govern press practice. 

Everything the press dispenses, whether news or opinion, must proceed from facts or have at least gone through the prescribed process of verification. That process consists of layer upon layer of checks and calls for certain levels of knowledgeability and craft skills among the press practitioners, so that if still something went amiss it could be looked upon with some understanding. 

Simply, SMNI has proved too close-minded, too reckless, even vulgar, and too presumptuous to qualify for press practice. In fact, its patron’s claim to godhood and implicitly to omniscience should by itself have signaled that SMNI belongs to a league altogether apart from the press. Being an all-too-human institution, the press needs to exert a conscientious effort to know enough for a fact before publishing or broadcasting anything. 

Thus ineligible for the freedom it claims to possess, and to have been violated, SMNI will have to continue shopping for a suitable freedom to get out of the trouble it has found itself in. –

1 comment

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  1. ET

    I agree with writer Vergel Santos, that SMNI is “ineligible for the freedom it claims to possess.” SMNI certainly does not qualify to claim that its press freedom is being violated because it is the violator of such freedom. It did not practice journalism for the People but “journalism” for the powerful few – the appointed Son of God, the Duterte father-daughter tandem, and its political dynasty. The freedom that “SMNI will have to continue shopping for a suitable freedom to get out of the trouble it has found itself in” is the Freedom to Oppress Press Freedom. Unfortunately, it has abused its Freedom to Oppress Press Freedom by directly confronting the stronger Marcos-Romualdez Political Dynasty.

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