press freedom

[Newspoint] The unwanted independent press

Vergel O. Santos
[Newspoint] The unwanted independent press
I dare say press freedom is the most critical freedom to a democracy, because the press is meant to inform the people – hopefully even enlighten them – about goings-on that affect their lives

When Ferdinand Marcos Jr. admitted only three organizations to the press conference he gave following his proclamation as president-elect, he provoked questions of not only fairness but public interest; after all, it is an occasion during which incoming Presidents are supposed to open themselves to probing by the press, in behalf of the public, for their governance agenda. Anyway, in Marcos’s case, nothing on that order came out of it.

But why should anyone be surprised? We’d had a foretaste of it during his campaign: he chose to talk only to the media he liked – if he was in the mood to talk at all. This time, the three he chose, all from broadcasting, are obvious favorites: two – Net 25 and SMNI – only masquerade as news media, but are actually mouthpieces for religious sects that openly endorsed his presidential candidacy; the third – GMA 7 – has itself come under a cloud in light of his sister Imee’s claim that their family owns one third of the network. And the indications are things will be worse for the free and independent press when Marcos’ justice secretary takes office.

As it is, Jesus Crispin Remulla already has had a mouthful to say about the press. It is being “weaponized by corporations” against “nation states,” he said in an interview occasioned by his selection for the Cabinet job. I don’t know what exactly he meant by that, and, when he detoured across half a millennium of history, from the years of Spanish and American colonialism to the Japanese occupation, I was even more lost. So I’ll just take issue with him on the claim he passed off as a general truth – that the press is used to advance corporatist designs.

He may actually have been right, but only shallowly. The point he missed, because it lies on deeper levels than he could reach, is the one that goes to the very heart of the democratic arrangement that circumscribes the relationship between the press and the government. That point concerns press freedom and the neutralizing and equalizing mechanisms built into that principle.

I dare say press freedom is the most critical freedom to a democracy, because the press is meant to inform the people – hopefully even enlighten them – about goings-on that affect their lives. Otherwise, the free vote, itself the one right that defines democracy, becomes a hollow right, even a dangerous one exercised uninformed.

Indeed, some of the press may end up misinforming or even willfully fooling its audiences, but that’s how democracy works: it admits good press, bad press, and all other sorts of press. But, again, so long as all press organizations remain equally free and compete on equal professional and market terms – who does the job better; who has the bigger following and therefore attracts more advertisers and makes more profit? – things even out in the end: Truth outs in the distillation of information by uncensored exposure.

If Mr. Remulla thinks this is not the case, it is his problem, not democracy’s. But if he happens to have mustered, and decide to deploy, the same malevolent power as Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s own justice secretary did, in the dictatorship of 1972-86, then he becomes our problem.

To be sure, the Remullas have been problem enough. Their dynasty’s connections reach back to the dictator. As governor of Cavite, the dynasty’s provincial preserve, Jesus Crispin’s father was among the local Marcos lieutenants forced to resign when the dictatorship was dismantled through people-power street protests. But his heirs have managed to keep a family place in politics, both local and national.

In his own time, Jesus Crispin himself is remembered as among those who led the campaign in Congress to deny ABS-CBN, the nation’s widest-reaching broadcast network, its application for franchise renewal, something normally ministerially granted. He did it apparently on a signal from President Duterte, who, alleging unfair treatment during his electoral campaign, had threatened to shut down the network once he became President.  

Now joining the succeeding President’s Cabinet, he not only picks up where his father left off with the Marcoses, but continues in the service of the Dutertes, through the outgoing President’s daughter Sara, the incoming Vice President.

One thing about Remulla is that he is too smug to join the chorus of fellow cronies pleading that their President not be prejudged by his past, but be given instead “the benefit of the doubt,” as to his capability to govern and his seriousness and fairness in doing the job. In that way, he’s only being sensible and honest, for, by what we’ve seen, not even a presidential vote makes Marcos deserve the benefit of the doubt. (Law Dean Mel Sta. Maria offers a solidly cited discussion of the issue. READ: [Just Saying] Should we give the benefit of the doubt to Marcos Jr. as incoming President?)

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was brought up, protected, indeed indulged, by an autocracy, and is now heir to, and also, along with his mother, administrator of, the plunder his parents amassed during their 14 years of conjugal dictatorship. He had had every chance in all his years in public office after the democratic restoration, as governor, congressman, and senator (1992-2016), to come clean, but he did not. Judicial rulings here and abroad have affirmed tortures and killings during his father’s martial-law presidency, declared much of his family’s wealth stolen, and ordered compensations. But Ferdinand Jr. continues to deny the thievery and other atrocities. He was, for instance, convicted of tax evasion – and, despite that, allowed to run for president, an issue that continues to fester – but refuses to pay the P203 billion he was assessed in taxes.

Now, his election ensures impunity for him, and he could not have chosen someone more reliable than Remulla for the job.

As for the press, it’s time a line was drawn between those who want to play along and those morally alert enough to sense that the times represent a half-century backslide, such that journalists are called upon to do frontier duty — to publish and be damned! – Rappler.com