Press freedom is the absence of restraint in the journalists' exercise of their vocation. Since we are here to safeguard the people's right to know, which has become the basis of our existence, we do our craft in the service of those who barely have access to information. If there is anything that emperils free expression it is the people's right to information that this curtails.
Press freedom is the purification of our intention to dispatch our services to the people. We are called mass communicators because that is what we exactly do. We extend our services to the broadest masses of the people. We reach out to the poorest of peasants in the countryside; to the weakest of workers in factories; and the least powerful of the service and professional sectors. We reach out even to the smallest of urban dwellers who do not even have the capacity to spare a few pesos to buy a copy of newspapers.
What make us think there is press freedom?
A campaign T-shirt by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) once carried the statement "There can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty and fear." Such an ideal condition make us think that there could be no real press freedom in this country and well, elsewhere.
To para-phrase NUJP, organized Filipino journalists think there is press freedom in the following scenario. Again, this is too ideal a scenario.
We get what is just for our labor.
More often than not, we do not get decent wages. Most of us could not even afford to place a subscription for publications that carry our stories. We rely on anything that we could get gratis... even competing to get a free copy of a press statement or a government document. This makes most of us free-lunchers (pwede ring free breakfast and free dinners). Thus, we fall prey to corporate gimmicks as media fun run, media powwow, beer bash with the media, and many more that intend to provide respite from our daily fare. We go there for the fun of it, later get bored with the games that the sponsors make us participate in. Most of all, we go there for something else than have fun and that includes having to compete for the most valuable freebies that are often raffled out.
A recent project that intended to see media professionals in the wages or income ladder makes us realize that we are far behind the workers' minimum wages, even receiving irregular income from publishers or broadcast networks we work for. So we could not answer in all honesty the question, "Where are the journalists in the economic ladder?". We may be way below the lowest rung in the ladder.
In the local print media, only regular staff reporters get regular wages; not in the case of most contributors and columnists, who most often than not, fill up the pages of our weeklies. (Did I hear that even the only daily papers do not pay our photojournalists and columnists?) This is not the case in some provinces, where correspondents in national dailies get their so-called bread-and-butter from their submissions to local papers.
That a "Thank You" is no longer enough is not a joke among us. It is laden with so much yearning to get paid for services rendered.
We are satisfied with what we have labored for.
At the end of the day, it is the reports that we did that will eventually judge us. Did we satisfy our audience or did we satisfy our sources? (Sino ba ang dapat nating pinagbibigyan?) Whether we admit it or not, we are happy when our reports see print or are broadcast, but what truly makes us satisfied and fulfilled is when we see that we have expressed what our conscience dictate. Can we look at ourselves and our audiences straight in the eye after we have written or broadcast our reports? It is this conscience that tell us what to report on and how we will carry out ourselves. Nothing else.
On the other hand, while we have strive to do the best we can to produce reports that not only satisfy our audience and our sources, but also our conscience, nothing is more frustrating than seeing it spliced, even hacked to death, even before it has seen light. It is not us who decide what sees print or gets aired. Company position on issues affecting the broad masses of the people determines the fate of our reports. It is what prevails, especially in our society where the moneyed business defines the political scene.
There is censorship in the newsroom and this is the worst censorship. Not even a libel suit can stop a well-meaning journalist from writing his stories.
We are fearless.
We must conquer all fears to be able to deliver the services expected of us, that is, to quench the people's thirst for the right information. When we report, we claim to be free from fear even when we are not. Is there any story worth dying for? Are we ready to risk a limb? Or life? I doubt, because we cannot even lift a finger against our corporate sponsors who either masquerade as friends of the media or are our personal friends.
In fact, while we were trained that "No story is worth dying for?" we do not even know what story is not worth dying for. This brings us to counting those who died in the line of duty. Most of the 150 journalists in the list of those who were executed for their stand on social issues are provincial radio commentators, block-timers at that, who had to buy air-time to be able to air their views.
Worse, some of those killed even get blamed for being corrupt. This leads to the next requisite of press freedom.
We can say heads up, that we are not corrupt.
We can practice our vocation to truly serve the broad masses of the people without having to compromise ethical standards.
How could one be corrupt when journalists are supposedly watchdogs, the Fourth Estate, etc.? Paano natin isusumbong ang sumbungan ng mga maliliit?
So, how do we view press freedom then? After almost 20 years since the United Nations established in 1993 the World Press Freedom Day from the struggles of African journalists in the '80's, how do we assess our own press freedom? How far have we gone and where are we bound for?