The Philippine Media: The Good and the Bad
By Mila Astorga-Garcia
ED LINGAO does not mince words when he talks about the good and the bad of Philippine media. For good reason. He knows his subject in and out, has been a practicing journalist for more than two decades now, covers the news that matter in a substantial way, and more importantly, has the guts to report them responsibly.
Veteran journalist Lingao, Multimedia Director of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), winner of the 2010 Marshall McLuhan Fellowship award from the Embassy of Canada in Manila, has in fact been recognized for his outstanding reportage on human rights, governance and election reforms, and for breaking new ground in the practice of multi-media journalism.
A media release by the PCIJ and the Embassy of Canada, provided these details: “Lingao is one of a handful of Filipino journalists who had reported from war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, had pounded the beat, worked as producer and managed newsrooms for the Manila Chronicle, The Manila Times, ABS-CBN News, The Correspondents public affairs program, and ABC-5. He has logged a tremendous portfolio of investigative reports and documentaries on politics, governance, Mindanao, military and police affairs, public safety issues, and online media.”
Yet he remains down-to-earth, humble, and engaging when he speaks, as when he lectured before academics on Monday, Sept. 20 at the University of Toronto, when he submitted to a no-holds barred interview with The Philippine Reporter and when he delivered a less formal after-dinner talk before Filipino media colleagues Sept. 21 at Aristokrat, a Filipino restaurant. Lingao is actually on a 10-day study and speaking tour in Canada as a Fellow of the University of Toronto. From Toronto, he will go on a speaking tour in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Vancouver, BC.
The following are Lingao’s views on media shared during the interview and the two events cited above:
State of the press after EDSA
“The Philippines has been noted to be the freest press in Southeast Asia… media sets the pace, the agenda, the national mood. But as the press is free, information is restricted; the press is free, so are the killers,” says Lingao.
Almost 140 media practitioners have been killed since 1986, a few gunmen are in jail, no masterminds have been arrested and there has been difficulty in prosecuting killers because of bad police practices, refusal of witnesses to testify and lack of confidence in the court system, Lingao elaborates.
Consider the infamous Maguindanao Massacre of 2009 which Lingao cites as a classic example: There were 58 murdered, 32 of them journalists, the biggest number of media people killed at one time in one place, earning for the Philippines the title of the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.
Even more difficult to fathom is the fact that there are 200 suspects responsible for the horrific massacre, who somehow have gotten for themselves 80 lawyers to defend them. Yet for the families of the poor victims, some of them had to flee Maguindanao for fear of further violence from the ruling warlord family.
Lingao has written a number of exposes on the Ampatuans, the principal suspects in the massacre. Reporting in The Maguindanao Chronicles, reports on politics, murder and the quest for justice, he explains how the Ampatuans used public office to amass mostly illegal guns for their 2,000 armed militia. Up until this time, he says, only 1,000 guns have been recovered, leaving the Ampatuans still 1,000 firearms, enough for them to continue to lord over the people of Maguindanao in Southern Philippines.
And where could the money for such weapons of war ever come from? Through diligent investigation, they found out that internal revenue proceeds were generously siphoned to Ampatuan territory, based on inflated population increase reports submitted by the local government. The higher the population increase, the greater the taxes turned over to the local government for developmental purposes.
However, Lingao says, there is hardly any hospital or school in Ampatuan-ruled cities, for which you would think tax money should have been used. Instead, in one city alone under Ampatuan control, they have built at least 35 mansions, acquired 121 vehicles, and placed 44 Ampatuans in local office. Lingao pointed out several times in his lecture how close the Ampatuans were to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who he says is one of the most corrupt and unpopular presidents in Philippine history.
Trends in Philippine media
People tend to rely more and more on TV, radio and the Internet. However, in electronic media, the emphasis is in packaging, not so much in substance, Lingao complains. Also networks tend to prefer live coverage, not the more retrospective style of news reporting where live coverage simply complements or supplements the news report. At least when you write and report the news after the fact, which is what the reporter does, you are able to present the facts that are important and not everything in the raw, he says, which is what live coverage is. He says the more live the coverage, the less journalism is involved. Journalists are not stenographers, he says.
Lingao cites the August 23, 2010 bungled rescue of a busload of Hong Kong tourists by Manila policemen. In its bid to take control of the airwaves and thus earn a lot of money for the station, a radio news reporter interviewed the hostage taker for an hour. This meant that its competitors and even the negotiators were locked out from communicating with the hostage taker.
Worse was the live TV coverage of the rescue attempt by police which allowed the hostage taker to know every police maneuver taking place. The incident resulted in the death of 8 hostages and the hostage taker.
Lingao notes that up to now, the media people involved remain adamant that they were just doing their job and that live coverage is what people want. “But media has to be responsible and accountable. They do not have to report everything or give everything that people want,” says Lingao.
However, Lingao does not put all the blame on media for the bungling of the rescue effort and the deaths. It certainly was the making of the incompetent and trigger-happy police, and even more so from the complete absence of the President whose presence was believed could have at least helped avert a disaster. However that national leader was in absentia or preferred to be in absentia at that time. And as Lingao would confide, when asked what the President has achieved in his first 100 days, “Nothing, except the “wang wang (the sirens accompanying a presidential vehicle).” He noted however, that people were still willing to give the President a chance to prove himself, at this early part of his term.
Lingao notes still another disconcerting trend on Philippine television. He relates a personal experience. One time, somebody in management had the bright idea of getting a team of reporters for his (Lingao’s) news program. The reporters turned out to be fashion models who were more interested in training how to put on their make-up than on learning how to write news stories.
Management must have been thinking it is easier or cheaper to teach good looking women how to be reporters, than to spend for make-overs of real reporters who may not be good-looking.
In TV, the emphasis is in packaging not only the massenger but the news, Lingao adds. As a result, a lot is lost on the substance, as prime time news is limited to one and a half minutes airtime, minus 30 seconds for the anchor introducing himself or herself. Delivery is bombastic, music is introduced and even accompanies the entire broadcast, and the oftentimes annoying stingers (“dyadyadyadyan!”) are occasionally added for emphasis and drama effect. Even by international standards, he says, a one and a half minute news segment is too short given the seriousness of the issues that are being reported in the Philippines, such as elections, the insurgency and taxation. BBC gives at least 2 and a half minutes for each prime time news item, he says.
Sadly, he says, television has been reliant on the ratings and profits, and no longer with its mission to provide the news. Emphasis has been on crime and entertainment, and not on major matters.
In hindsight, it was easier to describe the martial law days, Lingao says, for the lines were more clear then, and there were no gray areas. You were either with government or for government — whereby you could enrich yourself by just towing or promoting the line — or you were against the dictatorial government – in which case you were either detained and tortured, or in the underground media.
People were then mission-oriented. But now, the playing field has exploded and the gray line has become broader. This apparently has spawned a lot of undesirable practices among journalists, which Lingao, however, is not so quick to condemn.
Lingao cites in particular provincial journalists who are usually overworked, multi-tasked, underpaid, and yet have the responsibility of feeding their families. When doleouts are available from local politicians, they find it difficult to resist them.
Lingao confides that most of the journalists killed in the Maguindanao Massacre were given food and board and lodging money by the wife of Mangudadato, the political rival of the Ampatuans – perhaps just a standard operational procedure by those seeking coverage of an important event. For some, it is food for their children. “I am not in a position to judge them, he said, for many of them are simply in dire need of survival money.”
However, Lingao takes issue with Manila-based journalists who are a lot better paid and yet practice to this day “envelopmental” journalism so shamelessly. It is so well known in media circles that some even take the role of moneybags for their benefactors.
Again Lingao recounts a personal experience: As the news manager in a TV station he had difficulty disciplining his reporters whom he was constantly reminding not to accept doleouts from anyone. “Why don’t you ask the big boss,” they would say, referring to his boss, the VP of the station, who turned out to be a bagman very close to the president and the first gentleman.
That was my paradox for four years, he says.
Philippine media’s bright spots
But not everything is bad in Philippine media, Lingao clarifies. The Philippines is noted in Asia for its level of investigative journalism and he counts PCIJ, Newsbreak, VERA Files, and the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility as exemplary organizations in this field. He also respects Bulatlat.com as a very good source of progressive investigative online reporting.
Lingao believes media has “to continue its role as watchdog of government and society; to fight for greater access to information; to upgrade and uphold its standards on safety; to upgrade its standards on professionalism; and to police our ranks.”
Parasites vs Dinosaurs
On a side but important note, Lingao reveals in his lecture that there is a current debate going on regarding what makes a journalist, especially with the onset of mutimedia, online reporting, blogging, etc.
The house is divided into two: the parasites and the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs accuse parasites of pretending or assuming to be journalists – just so they can be accorded the courtesy and privilege of being one – while parasites believe dinosaurs are extinct creatures who do not know how to change with the times, and thus stick to their traditional practices, standards and ethics.
Are bloggers who want to be called journalists because they write news or opinion online parasites? Are videographers who produce real time coverage of events that they readily upload online worthy of being called reporters or journalists? How about the questions of who they are accountable to, and who sets the standards for their practice?
Lingao, being more of a multimedia person but a reporter in the traditional mold, seems to have difficulty accommodating the parasites.
And he gives this parting shot to his Filipino media colleagues in Toronto: “There was a time when reporters were writers. I think that’s what we need.”