Now, more than ever

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - May 7, 2021 - 12:00am

UNESCO led the world last Monday in celebrating World Press Freedom Day. Last Wednesday marked the day ABS-CBN was shut down by Duterte a year ago.

UNESCO declared the day to remind governments to respect their commitment to press freedom.

For media professionals, it is a time to reflect on issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

World Press Freedom Day is also a day to support journalists who are targets for restraint. It is also a day to remember journalists who are in jail or have lost their lives while pursuing a story.

Nineteen journalists have been killed in the four years of Duterte in Malacanang, giving the country a reputation as a dangerous place for newsmen.

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus described the situation in a virtual forum last November:

“There are more attacks and threats that have shown how indeed we’ve become more vulnerable to those who don’t want the media and the press to play the role they are assigned by the Constitution.”

But press freedom is just part of what we need to defend. Democracy, as our generation knows it, is under attack all over the world.

It barely escaped Trumpism in the United States, the bulwark of democracy in the world, and American democracy isn’t out of the woods yet. It continues to be under siege.

The Philippines is precariously navigating its political system to preserve some semblance of democracy since the EDSA uprising that toppled Marcos.

With Duterte, free media is under constant threat in subtle and not so subtle ways. Some reporters have been denied the right to cover the presidential palace, and the powers of the presidency have been used to bully owners of the media.

Sometimes it seems like we learned nothing in the time between the martial law of Marcos and the election of Duterte. Then and now, seem to eerily fall into a pattern. And for ABS-CBN, the past simply repeated itself.

In 1972, soldiers fully armed with their M-16s swooped down on ABS-CBN’s broadcast center and closed it down around midnight that Friday. We expected it was coming, but we were still shocked when it did.

But in 2020, the closure was a slow-motion drama. We knew for months it was going to happen, but like the first time, we were still shocked when it did.

No Metrocom soldiers closed down the broadcast center last year… just a piece of paper from the National Telecommunications Commission telling us to go off the air because our franchise expired.

Other than Jake Almeda Lopez, I can’t think of anyone else who has experienced two shutdowns at the hands of a power-mad president while working at ABS-CBN.

The first time was traumatic and scary because no one knew what martial law was about. While they were closing down ABS-CBN, they were also rounding up prominent media personalities and locking them up at the Camp Crame stockade. We were not just worried about our jobs… we were worried about our lives.

This time, there was no formal curtailment of constitutional rights. We just found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being legally vulnerable to the whims of a vindictive provincial mayor pretending to be president of the country.

We were also the victims of a terribly corrupt political system where members of Congress are almost totally beholden to whoever is in Malacanang. With Constitutional check and balance gone, now more than ever, we need a free and independent media. But that’s not how Duterte saw it. For him, it was a time for vengeance.

In both instances, the international brotherhood of journalists came to our defense. It was more difficult in 1972 because the best alternative media we could muster was the xerox machine,  copying clippings of articles from the international press about the martial law regime of Marcos. That was how it was for the next 14 years.

This time, ABS-CBN was not totally silenced, thanks to digital technology.

The courageous reporters of ABS-CBN are now still able to report the news for broadcast on digital media. They are still making waves at the West Philippine Sea, and they are still exposing the tragedy of poor people dying miserably without medical help as Duterte and his minions mismanage their pandemic response.

In this era of social media, there are those who say traditional journalism is not as essential anymore. Not true.

Everyone is now a publisher on social media. And everyone can get the news from his own information silo and get a distorted view of reality. A Trump spokesman hailed the arrival of alternative truths.

Of course, truth is truth and there is no such thing as alternative truth. There are alternative opinions and people are entitled to their own. But no one is entitled to alternative truth. No such thing.

Fact checking is now essential. This is why we need the discipline and dedication of professional journalists more than ever to tell us what is true in today’s world. The work of a journalist remains the same: to tell the truth and call out the abuses and failures of leaders of society.

Then, as now, to be a journalist is to be dedicated to the task of exposing despots and incompetents, defending freedom and the common good.

It has been a year since ABS-CBN was forced to close down its on-air broadcast services. But the service continues in digital media not just here, but in all Filipino communities in the world. The mission has not ended, only the means of executing it changed.

It took 14 years for ABS-CBN to be resurrected the last time around. It won’t take that long this time. Times have changed and technology has and continues to change the way we live.

Let the Duterte shutdown serve as a good learning experience for the network’s dedicated journalists to make them even tougher.

ABS-CBN as a Filipino institution will live on. But more important, the journalists it has nurtured will carry on its proud tradition that under whatever circumstances, the ABS-CBN journalist will ensure that truth must prevail.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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