Christmas spirit of discernment and truth-seeking

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

First off, I wish to extend a Merry Christmas greeting to our dear readers of The FREEMAN! For today's column, I wish to discuss the Christmas spirit of discernment and truth-seeking, particularly amidst the pervasive force of fake news and misinformation in our times. Coincidentally, this season also marks the end of semester activities for the school year. And my last discussion with my Media Law and Ethics class at the university included a topic on the history of media ethics.

My students might have been somewhat surprised when I told them that media ethics has not always been the default characteristic of journalism throughout its history. In the early stages of mass media, particularly during the emergence of newspapers and magazines in the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of media ethics was not well-defined, to put it mildly. Newspapers were often seen more as tools for propaganda rather than a medium for fair and objective reporting.

This is not surprising because journalism, like any instrument of power, is always prone to be used for the promotion of powerful interests, oftentimes not for the public good and welfare. History teaches us that technological advancements did not naturally come with the development of stronger ethical standards in journalism.

On the other hand, with great power comes the impetus for greater responsibility. Many journalists eventually recognized this need and moved towards greater professionalism. This shift towards ethical standards was partly in response to the excesses of propaganda and sensational journalism and partly due to a better understanding of the media's power and responsibility in society.

Today, the emergence of the digital age and social media again demonstrates the historical bell curve of media ethics --from weak ethics, to high concern, and back to weak ethics.

Recently, Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), a multimedia network seen both online and on traditional platforms, has been embroiled in controversy. This situation, however, is not a direct result of our leaders' and stakeholders' sudden good intentions to police new media. SMNI, which is perceived as part of a group of media outlets supporting the Dutertes (and possibly also pro-China), has encountered strong opposition from onion-skinned politicians in Congress, who are quick to seize on errors made by some SMNI broadcasters.

The House Committee on Legislative Franchises is set to begin deliberations in January 2024 on a bill seeking to revoke the franchise of Swara Sug Media Corp., the operator of SMNI. This decision follows a congressional inquiry into an SMNI broadcast where hosts Eric Celiz and Lorraine Badoy alleged that Speaker Martin Romualdez had ?1.8 billion in travel funds based on a “source.” This allegation was later proven to be unfounded.

To make things worse for SMNI, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has suspended its radio and TV channels for allegedly violating the terms and conditions of its legislative franchise. In a show-cause order, the NTC directed Swara Sug Media Corp. to submit a written defense within 15 days. In the meantime, the NTC has suspended the radio and TV stations of SMNI for 30 days to facilitate an investigation set to start next month.

Even the liberal, former senator Leila de Lima, took a hawkish stance when it comes to SMNI, stating: “SMNI is not ABS-CBN, GMA or TV5. SMNI is a blatant propaganda media arm that pioneers on fake news dissemination. Prior restraint principles do not apply to these new ‘media’ establishments that are not bound by and do not observe broadcast journalism ethics and standards.”

To be candid, I find myself in a predicament regarding the situation of SMNI. On one hand, I’d like to see media outlets like this disappear, but on the other hand, I am wary of the state's enormous power to curtail media freedom under the guise of media ethics, which, in reality, may be driven by political expediency. We must not forget what the House of Representatives did to ABS-CBN, refusing to renew its franchise based on flimsy and fabricated pretexts presented during a congressional investigation that aligned with the wishes of then President Rodrigo Duterte.

The controversy surrounding SMNI will undoubtedly continue beyond the holiday season. Meanwhile, this Christmas, let’s commit to seeking the truth, even when, as they say, lies are easier to find. Like the wise men who followed the star of Bethlehem long ago, we must seek truth and listen for its quiet voice.

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