Should we even be proud that we have the freest press in Asia? Should we even brag to the world that our Fourth Estate can sometimes 'out-sting' the nastiest press in the rest of the free world? What is freedom really? Is freedom and democracy synonymous?
These are questions even philosophers will perhaps dedicate an entire treatise just to answer. But in the context of what is happening in the Philippines, perhaps reexamining our answers to these questions themselves could provide some beginnings of enlightenment. Our self-professed, self-styled Messiahs, or journalists, as some of them want to call themselves, have taken the clout of what is supposed to be a noble profession, one which is supposed to observe the highest ethical standards worthy of public trust. This calls to mind a passage in the bible: "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew 7:15- 16).
Without having to go into complicated philosophical analysis which clouds, rather than clears up issues, I think that the basic principle behind having press freedom is to make the press a true medium (hence, media) of public expression. With democracy supposed to be the 'rule of the people' under the principle of 'vox populi, vox dei' or voice of the people, voice of God, media is therefore expected to be an intelligent catalyst to help form people's consciences and basis for action by intelligently sorting out all the noise and confusion that cloud the truth.
It is said that in every argument, there are three sides, the pro and the con and finally, the right side. This is in principle the synthesis of two extreme thoughts, the very essence which provides the strength of the species in evolution, be it in the world of the ideal or the physical. Without the essential synthesis, or impartial third party processing we cannot grow in strength or maturity as a nation.
In Philippine politics, it does not take a brilliant mind to see how some unscrupulous characters can manage to manipulate media to their advantage. If you take the time to monitor broadcast and print, you will not fail to detect that even news columns and broadcast commentaries carry the exact phraseology containing arguments favoring or opposing a controversial position. If you monitor media on the same issue for a longer time, you will find that the same media people will be attacking the same issue at a predetermined frequency and in a manner that exposes obvious stage management by an outside interest.
Watch out for the tell-tale exact phrases used by different writers -- some of them do not even bother to adapt the ideas and wordings fed to them by their paymaster. These are obvious indications that media is being 'managed' or fed what it is supposed to write. Ever wondered why some radio commentators (in the interest of 'journalism') go through the motions of getting the side of the other party who later end up a victim to a pre-meditated gross distortion of the truth when the same commentator later drives home his scripted venomous tirade after the interviewee has said his piece?
In fairness, I do recognize that a number of people in media are very capable and observe the highest ethical standards. I also recognize that poor quality reporting, mediocrity, lack of funds to cover all aspects of a given news, and inexperience can also sometimes account for poor media reporting, more than anything else. One big irony is that when an issue becomes very controversial, the few media people who manage to keep their noses clean hesitate to write pieces that run contrary to the spirit of an ongoing public flagellation of the innocent out of fear that they will be suspected of being on the take. I think that in this particular case, the media will have been guilty of an equally grave crime of omission -- keeping silent while being aware of the truth they have vowed to uphold.
I think the most fatal combination is when business and political reporting mix. Businessmen who are featured in the business news often recognize the fact that business beat reporters are more objective, more sober and more ethical. The problems happen when businessmen tangle with government agencies covered by general or worse, by political reporters who have little background on business reporting. A good number of these reporters are also most vulnerable to "third party media management."
Let me cite two very interesting examples that amuse me no end.
In the PIATCO case, the way I see it the poor victim is really the Cheng family who had been forced to undergo a series of contract revisions that matched the number of times the administration had changed hands beginning with Ramos, to Estrada, to the present Arroyo administration. With my over 30 years experience in business, I find it strange when a businessman takes the initiative to open an already perfected contract -- especially when dealing with the government. You work so hard to close a contract and so why will you want to open it to revision when that altogether opens the contract to so many other complications.
So why, I ask myself, will the Chengs want to open their PIATCO contract? It only makes sense to me when I consider that the only reason that the Chengs allowed the contract to be opened -- is for them to accommodate the "cost for doing business", as what the game is called by foreign investors.
It is said that each new administration wanted to have a cut in the pie and each new administration got greedier than the previous one. The latest word is that the present administration was not happy with just a cut in the pie, they wanted the entire pie.
The regular consumer of news who reads about the PIATCO issue will think that the people behind the contract were the world's worst scoundrels. If media did their homework and bothered to take the sides of all concerned, without fear or favor, they would have gotten to the bottom of things.
How can it perform its role when it follows the scent of money?
In the news a few weeks ago, I read that the DPWH's Bureau of Research Standards has entered into the field of standards evaluation for cement. With globalization, standards are a very critical issue, one which demands that each government in every country be appropriately accredited by a credible, third party standards body.
The DTI's Bureau of Product Standards is internationally accredited to perform this function. The bad news is that DPWH's BRS who claims to be the "Supreme Court of all testing labs" has not passed the BPS muster. Citing interagency courtesy, DTI's BPS will not apply and impose its otherwise strict, pro-consumer standards on the DPWH testing lab. Instead it had asked its mother office DTI to impose sanctions on a cement plant for its 'substandard products' only to later reverse itself after a re-test challenge performed on the country's best cement testing labs.
If media covered the news on a 'he said, she said' basis, it will be impossible to know the score because BRS insists that its lab is the best. If these had been covered by CNN, BBC, Wall Street Journal or Reuters, they would have sent their reporters to conduct their own probe into cement testing laboratories in the Philippines.
Meantime, amid all the zarzuela played out by our public characters and further hyped by spin masters and vulnerable Philippine media alike, we have only succeeded to alienate ourselves more to the international business community. The government has lured, wined and dined with foreign business and investors to come to "country of opportunity and promise". We have succeeded in attracting reputable foreign companies to partner up with our own local ones.
A few Philippine companies who managed to make it globally will tell you that you could only make it out there if you kept the strictest quality standards and observed ethical and responsible business practice. It goes the same way with foreign companies who have invested in the Philippines. They have indeed passed the acid test of the very discriminating global market and we should be honored that they have selected to invest in the Philippines, in spite of and despite.
What message do we now project to the rest of the world after we have imposed sanctions on the products of a foreign partner based on findings of an unaccredited testing agency, later to reverse ourselves after being proved otherwise by the more credible local testing facilities? Should we trust the function of standards testing to DPWH, an agency that had consistently placed top notch in the list of the least credible government agencies?
By their fruits, ye shall know them and the truth shall set us free.