“Freest press in Asia”: when freedom gets out of control

During the first three quarters of this year, the city of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) alone received a total of 27 billion US dollars worth of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). Now compare this with the 3.5 billion received by the Philippines during the same fiscal quarters. If this does not mirror the lack of trust of foreign investors in the Philippines, then I do not know how to look at it. Countries in Southeast Asia – Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam – have already left the Philippines behind in attracting investors which are needed in developing the economy.

Investors blame this on the glaring corruption in the government. Nothing new. Transparency International released a report several weeks ago ranking the Philippines as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, even surpassing Indonesia. In fact it is found in the bottom 20. We all know this, and this report did nothing to confirm this fact it mainly quantified our corruption index.

Presidnet of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on the other hand, in an effort to divert the attention from her government’s inaction, said:

“A lot of their (Transparency International) basis is what they read in the papers. It’s a whole layering of perception indexes. And if you compare the Philippines with the rest of the region, we have to remember that the Philippines has the freest media in the region.

“What would be on page 10 in some other countries would be a banner headline in the Philippines. Even rumors and innuendos become fact when they’re in the banner headline. That’s part of what we have to live with,” she added. “I don’t think the business community would like a clampdown on freedom and liberties in the Philippines because that’s part of our competitiveness I suppose.”

This was her answer when she was asked in an open forum by Charles Goddard of The Economist Intelligence Unit on how the country would combat corruption. A woman is caught stealing and blamed it on the witnesses because if not for them there will be no stealing. A lousy argument once again made by Mrs. Arroyo.

This essay will not be about corruption in the Philippines for several reasons: Number one, I am not an expert in Philippine bureaucracy and how it works; number two, it’ll be a waste of time to propose solutions to this problem because the people who run the Philippine government have gone callous to heed the calls for reform. Ordinary Filipinos are already hopeless that this country will change in this generation. Our national leaders have failed us. Straight. And number three, I am more interested in discussing about a topic very close to me – the media.

The president might have begged the question for instead of acknowledging her administration’s failure to curb corruption she blamed the media. however, there is truth to her declaration. Media in the Philippines, the “freest in Asia”, contributed a lot why the country’s falling down the drain.

In a democratic country, a free media is indispensable. It is a component of freedom that without it democracy is nothing but a general noun.

Meaningless.

In the case of the Philippines, a country that claims to be democratic, or is working toward it, having a kind of media that is a sloppy imitation of the United States’ media is problematic at best and a nuisance at worst. The kind of ‘free’ media cherished by the American people works for a certain kind of social situations – strong state apparatuses, literate people, powerful middle class, historically mature population – aspects that are obviously lacking in the Philippine setting.

Philippine Daily Inquirer's Sunday issue.
Philippine Daily Inquirer's Sunday issue, a far tamer version of its weekdays issues

Philippine media, on the other hand, has a free reign and is having a great time partying with the gore, controversies, blood, sex. It is never controlled in the real sense. I’ve read newspapers in English in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam; these are papers read by foreigners, by English-speaking business men. Yes, they print news about national problems, corruption, natural disasters, political factionism, crimes, but they do not place them in the front page. They allot a small portion of the paper for these concerns.

In the Philippines, the case is the complete opposite. Politics takes precedence over other issues followed by entertainment news. So debacles in the senate such as the recent confrontation between senate president Manny Villar and another senator Jamby Madrigal is more important than the approval of JPEPA, an economic partnership program between the Philippines and Japan that will boost development in the country. Or that the rumored break up of senator Francis Pangilinan with his wife Sharon Cuneta got more attention than the 8.3 per cent losses that the stock market incurred.

According to the Agenda-setting theory, a communication theory that basically explains that media organizations can be so powerful because they can actually dictate what is newsworthy, if it’s not broadcast, aired, or printed then it is not news.  In the Philippines national development is not the primary agenda of the media, that is, if they consider it as part of their agenda at all.

Media in the Philippines are at a failure to recognize that they can shape public opinion and they can do it for the good of this country.

Comparing Vietnam News and Philippine Daily Inquirer based on criteria such as page design, the way news are written, use of the language, and editing, an objective journalism professor will clearly judge the Inquirer as winner in all fronts. But Vietnam news creates a better image of the country than the Inquirer does for the Philippines.

I am not interested with Foreign Direct Investments but when I read Vietnam News my attention is pulled towards it because it is in the front page. I am not interested about national economic policies of the Communist Party for 2015 but I get to read them because they are prioritized over other sensational issues. These controversies, if I may add, are rarely printed or if they are, are not in banner headline where a poor foreigner can see them and would think that Vietnam is pathetic.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer dated October 13, 2008
The Philippine Daily Inquirer dated October 13, 2008

Inquirer is the complete dialectic of English newspapers in Southeast Asia. It may be the ‘freest’ but it has redefined the word free that it has gone unrecognizable. For Inquirer, it seems that it has made an assumption that all its readers are dumb so news related to entertainment are placed in the font page. They do not think that if readers would want it, they could just go to Showbiz page and read about the fight between Cristy Fermin and Nadia Montenegro. No, Inquirer slaps these details, scandals on to the readers’ faces. “The bad news is good news” dictum is still the guiding principle of most media organizations in the Philippines.

I believe that the kind of media the Philippines has is not suited for its developing status. Sensationalism, crime reporting, warring politicos, rampant corruption have their right places. And the front page is far from it.

Truly corruption in the Philippines as measured by Transparency International is based mainly on perceptions that are further based on reports from national media. And the sad truth is that in the Philippines this is not just perceived corruption for it is too obvious. The government is too hypocritical to blame this low Foreign Direct Investment turn out on the media. Nevertheless, the media is also answerable. It has not transcended sensationalized reportage. Issues are not tackled in the manner of investigative journalism. It’s a hybrid between half-baked adversarial journalism and down the line shallow showbiz reporting that results to what the Philippine media is today.

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