By Perry Diaz
Last November 23, 2012, President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III in a keynote address at the 9th Media Nation Summit, spoke about corruption in the media, which was the theme of the conference. He called on the media industry to develop “common standards” to prevent corruption, saying that the lack of which could lead to corruption.
P-Noy said that he saw shortcomings in the industry and he envisioned the need for standards, which he likened to the role of the Ombudsman for local officials where the people can go to file complaints against media practitioners.
While P-Noy’s suggestion of having a media ombudsman is not a novel idea, it has merits if used in the interest of balanced reporting. For example, the Sacramento Bee newspaper in Sacramento, California has an Ombudsman since the 1970s. The ombudman’s role is to investigate complaints of unfairness, imbalance or inaccuracies in the newspaper’s news reporting. The current Sacramento Bee’s ombudsman, Sanders LaMont, has this to say about his job: “As The Bee's ombudsman I attempt to listen closely to readers, advocate high journalistic standards, explain how things work at the newspaper, relay readers' concerns to editors and answer questions about this newspaper. I then write a weekly column, picking subjects raised by readers that I feel will interest others.” Mr. LaMont also serves as president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, a professional organization with members in more than a dozen countries.
Code of ethics
In regard to P-Noy’s argument for the need to develop “common standards,” there is already in existence the “Journalist’s Code of Ethics” (JCE) that is enforced by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). The JCE consists of 11 articles, which its members are expected to uphold in the exercise of their profession.
The JCE was adopted during NUJP’s founding congress on July 30, 1988. To join the union, the applicant must agree to strictly adhere to the JCE in which a violation would be a cause for expulsion.
Among the cases of code violations was the ouster of the NUJP chairman in 2009 when he was found to have “personally solicited money from a source for his personal use,” which was a violation of Articles V and XI of the JCE. Article V states, “I shall not let personal motives or interests influence me in the performance of my duties, nor shall I accept or offer any present, gift or other consideration of a nature that may cast doubt on my professional integrity,” and Article XI states, “I shall conduct myself in public or while performing my duties as journalist in such manner as to maintain the dignity of my profession. When in doubt, decency should be my watchword.”
But while the NUJP has administrative oversight on its members with respect to their ethical behavior, there is no avenue for the prosecution of corrupt members. And this is probably where the media industry as a whole would need something -- like a quasi-judicial body -- to review cases of corruption involving “envelopmental journalists.”
“Envelopmental journalism” took its roots during the Marcos martial law era when journalists would rather be bought than taken out of business... or worse, “salvaged,” a code word for forced disappearance. At that time, some journalists would regularly receive envelopes loaded with money from politicians – thus, they were called “envelopmental journalists” – to keep them quiet… and happy.
Many believe that this brand of journalism is still being practiced today, subsidized by shady politicians who want to ensure that the these corrupt journalists would write nice things about them or bad things about their rivals and enemies.
Today, “envelopmental journalism” is on the wane. An increasing number of journalists in the print and broadcast media are dedicated to their profession imbued with the desire to seek the truth and expose corruption in government. But sad to say, many of them lost their lives in a spate of extrajudicial killings that peaked during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency. However, these heinous crimes continue to this day.
Recently, the House Committee on Public Information has finally passed the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. This was the first major milestone for all the years that Congress grappled with it. But it is far from seeing daylight. P-Noy has yet to endorse it, which makes one wonder, why?
Last November 15, P-Noy said at the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas’ 38th Top Level Management Conference: “The reporter bears the brunt of having to find stories, source information, and craft reports that find a way to their countrymen. Given the hard work they do and the high standards everyone should demand of them, it becomes legitimate to ask whether their pay and benefits are commensurate to the highest standards of integrity demanded of them.”
But Mr. President, how could reporters craft good and accurate reports when there is no FOI law that enables them to do a thorough research on the story they are writing about?
If P-Noy is serious and truly sincere in improving the quality of media reporting, the FOI bill should – nay, must – be enacted and signed into law in order to level the playing field for journalists; thus, avoiding the pitfalls of not having enough information to write a credible story.
At the end of the day, journalists can only write about information they know... or allowed to know. And denying them this knowledge is tantamount to suppressing freedom of the press. Ironically, it was P-Noy’s mother Cory Aquino, an icon of democracy, who fought hard for that freedom, which is now enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.
Indeed, the time to pass the Freedom of Information bill was long overdue. It’s now or never, Mr. President.