Read PSSC Executive Director Dr. Lourdes M. Portus’ synthesis of the webinar on Media Freedom in the Time of Pandemic held last September 3, 2020. You may watch the full webinar via the Philippine Press Institute’s Facebook page.
Let me start my synthesis by citing the rationale of this webinar: In this time of crisis, the organizers say, “the public all the more needs an independent media as watchdog for checks and balances,” and may I add, to provide the real score about COVID-19. “A critical press that challenges the status quo, fact checks, and counters propaganda is necessary,” since the public’s need for relevant, reliable, and timely information has never been more important than this time.
In his talk on Reaffirming Media Freedom from Government Control During the Pandemic, Prof. Danilo A. Arao logically reaffirmed what media freedom is by first defining the term vis-à-vis press freedom and journalism. He discussed the five principles of journalism—truth-telling, justice, humaneness, stewardship, and freedom—and identified the indicators of a repressed media, citing actual cases, such as the discrimination of the alternative media. Then, he painted a picture of the new normal in media freedom as a result of COVID-19. His presentation progressed to reclaiming and reaffirming media freedom and finally, with courage, laying out short- and long-term goals to achieve media freedom.
To me, what needs to be highlighted in his talk are the following:
- While the speaker is a staunch advocate of media freedom, he stressed that there is no such thing as ultra-media freedom. There are legal and ethical boundaries, as well as responsibilities, that media persons should observe.
- Prof. Arao was able to prove the stark reality of media repression as obviously seen in the thick pile of cases filed against Maria Ressa and Rey Santos, the closure of ABS-CBN, the passage of the Anti-Terror Act, the killing of 16 journalists under the present administration, red-baiting, and the banning of media coverages, among others.
- Prof. Arao’s message is unequivocal: There is no objective media. Media is not neutral. After all, all media are socially constructed. There is inherent bias for the truth, and Prof. Arao describes this as “claiming responsibly.” Therefore, editorials need to take a stand on burning issues; investigative reports should expose wrongdoings; and journalists should oppose and be critical of fake news.
- Finally, what would be more instructive for us audience members are his suggestions to reaffirm media freedom by asserting while reporting, being “creative” in responding to the pandemic, and sustaining public pressure through the continuous coverage of freedom-related issues. The goals for these include junking the Anti-Terrorism Act, pushing for the renewal of the franchise for ABS-CBN, the acquittal of Ressa and Santos, decriminalizing libel, denouncing red-baiting, ending impunity, and fighting tyranny.
The second speaker, Ms. Carolyn O. Arguillas, being a good writer, brought us to the colorful sights and sounds in the regions, particularly The Mindanao Narrative in the Time of Pandemic.
She narrated the backdrop and contexts of Mindanao—having 23.9% of the Philippine population and being equated to violence, terrorism, neglect, corruption, and injustice yet having rich natural resources.
Due to COVID-19, Mindanao reporters had been adversely restricted in their movements. As they relied on government officials for news, the release of details or facts took a protracted turn, with DOH divulging vital information belatedly. But they had to be persistent.
Aside from the difficulty in reporting on COVID-19, the survival of media entities has also been a challenge; some ceased operations while others shifted to other means, such as digital platforms. Having an incomplete staff has also affected the flow of important information.
Ms. Arguillas also expressed her concern with the closure of ABS-CBN since many areas in Mindanao only have access to television via the free ABS-CBN channel. A major blow to media freedom, the move effectively killed the company’s programs and regional stations, depriving thousands of communities of crucial information in the process. The number of jobless journalists has also increased, forcing some to transfer to government institutions, such as information agencies.
Another major issue confronting Mindanao is the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which according to Ms. Arguillas is causing uneasiness among various sectors.
Finally, for the last passionate presentation on The Lowdown in Disinformation During Crisis, Ms. Tess Bacalla began with a basic definition of disinformation—that is, the specific intention to deceive people. She discussed how disinformation gets in the way of democracy and stressed the value of media, citing an article published by The Conversation stating that “media coverage is vital to our shared conversations and plays a key role in regulating our emotions, including fear.”
She also provided insights on how disinformation may be debunked. Beyond fact-checking and monitoring false claims and misleading statements, she cited the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania’s statement that “simply telling people they have their facts wrong” is not enough. “To be more effective at correcting misinformation in news accounts and intentionally misleading ‘fake news,’ [people] need to provide a detailed counter-message with new information—and get [their] audience to help develop a new narrative.”
Cited as well was a quote from the Scientific American reporting on social research findings. They found that “batting down conspiracy theories about disease outbreaks such as that of the new coronavirus may prove counterproductive to public health efforts.” This was echoed by a quote from David Kaye that there is a “need to be mindful about disclosing. . . disinformation in a way that reinforces or amplifies the content.”
Ms. Bacalla then suggested ways on how the media can become more responsible in the time of “infodemic,” such as combating clickbaits, sensationalism, and misleading headlines. She also talked about the “counternarrative vacuum,” which is found in media platforms, opinion columns, interviews, and online-reports. She cited the need to look into the indigenous peoples (IPs), the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and other vulnerable sectors and found the writings of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) appropriate as follows: “Media being content on government officials dominating the public forum, bragging about their achievements, without any real solutions.”
She described the good and alternative stories that are left untold and the need for the situation of the underserved to be surfaced. And she asked, “what happens to democracy? Is the media stepping up?”
She noted that on social media, netizens pass around more informed perspectives on how the government could have done more and better as other countries in the region have done and fared better and asked, “why are the facts that underlie these views given so little space and time in mainstream media?”
To conclude her presentation, Ms. Bacalla quoted a challenge to journalists by Luis Adrian Hidalgo in his 2017 article entitled “Understanding ‘Fake News’”: “Now more than at any other time, journalists need to uphold their core values and show by the quality of their work, the accuracy of their facts and the context of their reports how important it is to provide free and ample space for their practice.”
Given the informative and fiery presentations of the speakers, the audience engaged them in an open forum with the following major take-aways:
- COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to clamp down on the media.
- The local media promotes a sense of community when the national media does not.
- There was unreported news in Mindanao—hence, the birth of Mindanews for alternative news.
- The corporate structure of media should be reshaped.
- Media organizations are not yet ready for a total abolition of libel laws; the first step would be looking into the decriminalization of libel.
- Re-imagining journalism means strengthening the principles of journalism, leveraging the power of digital technologies, and being creative to get the attention of the public.
- With the implementation of the Anti-Terror Act, the public needs to get organized, solidify ranks, continue defending press freedom, and call out irresponsible government officials.
- The ABS-CBN shutdown needs to be understood as a press freedom issue. There must be meaningful public discussion on the matter to understand where both sides of the political spectrum are coming from.