Filipino media: Out of context — and loving it

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

The absence of context in news reports and even commentaries is a common failing of most of the major news media, in contrast to its frequent and common emphasis by alternative media organizations.

The latter are the contemporary successors of La Solidaridad and Kalayaan during the reform and revolutionary period of the 1890s, of El Renacimiento during the US occupation, of the guerilla press during the Japanese regime, and of We Forum and other semi- legal and clandestine publications during the open dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos from 1973 to 1986 when the country was under martial law.

Their long tradition of social engagement and independence places the alternative media in the mainstream of Philippine press history. The alternative media are those media organizations focused on providing information as an instrument of change and even revolution — a commitment that compels them to always report those events and issues that concern most Filipinos as parts of a longer chain of events without which accurate public understanding would be difficult if not impossible.

In contrast, the lack of context in the reporting of even such major issues as Moro autonomy is a glaring reality in the dominant (often mislabeled as “mainstream”) media. Part of the reason is many media practitioners’ sharing with the public they claim to serve the same biases and perspectives, although, in too many cases, it is also the consequence of the political, ideological, and economic interests of the media organization.

Sheer incompetence — the journalist’s inability to ask the questions that could shed light on the meaning of an event or issue, for example — also plays a part, as well as an antipathy to doing the most elementary research on the history and background of even the most complex issues. What’s odd is that the aversion to research is still occurring at a time when doing it has never been easier, thanks to the Internet, from where data are both immediately available and verifiable.

This aversion may not be a failing at all, but a preference. It’s easy enough to wrench an event out of its history and its political and social context, and some media organizations even take perverse delight in doing so if it will support their ideological biases.

The supposed “mauling” by “militants” (the habitual media use of which identifies the groups concerned with “extremists,” it being the same word used by global corporate media to denote terrorists) of two police spies during a protest in the last State of the Nation Address of President Benigno Aquino III is a recent example. That incident has been gleefully played up by the online site of a newspaper that has seized every opportunity to demonize progressive groups as part of its far too obvious campaign to make these groups out as violent, dangerous and unscrupulous.

“While protesting alleged violations of human rights, militant protesters mauled and detained” the policemen, said its story, which in its concluding sentence repeated that “The protesters — demanding respect for human rights — detained the two men in a jeepney for several hours before turning them over to police manning a checkpoint on Commonwealth Avenue.” (The same newspaper and its online site headlined last June 12 the “militants” supposedly “using” the family of OFW Mary Jane Veloso — whom the newspaper “killed” on April 29 in a malicious headline — to advance their [the “militants’”] presumably nefarious ends. )

A news report is supposed to be that — a report.

But the newspaper in question habitually includes opinion in its news pages to reflect its views on a number of issues, although its favorite targets are protesters and demonstrators whom it describes as either “militant” or “leftist,” and whom even the subtext of its reports implies are always wrong. Never mind that it was men and women like the protesters it demonizes who were the most effective and consistent opponents of dictatorship, and that it was also men and women like these — students like Emilio Jacinto, workers like Andres Bonifacio — who fought for social change and national independence during the Spanish colonial period.

The police spies were indeed detained by the demonstrators, but what can only be described as a commentary disguised as a news report failed to mention the context in which it occurred. The precise context of the demonstrators’ detaining the police undercover agents is that police and military surveillance and identification of supposedly “subversive” individuals has often been the basis for the State-sponsored abductions, torture, enforced disappearances and even extra-judicial murders rampant in this country. Being photographed during a demonstration and identified as an “enemy of the State” by police and military operatives can be, and has been, the equivalent of a death warrant in this rumored democracy.

The incident was far from being illustrative of the alleged unreasonableness, inconsistency and insincerity of groups that are opposed to human rights violations. Quite apart from the reality of the threat to life and liberty posed by State surveillance, international human rights groups, such as the London-based Article XIX, have declared freedom from surveillance as a right associated with freedom of expression (a protest is a form of expression) and the right to communicate.

The biased and uncontextualized reporting of the alleged “mauling” of police operatives completely ignored the reality of the abductions, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings that have been attributed to State security forces in such cases as the Jonas Burgos disappearance and the Cadapan and Empeno abductions for which the courts have declared a notorious army general as likely to be responsible.

This makes the media organization concerned a party in enhancing public indifference towards the continuing violations of human rights in this country, as well as in denial of the fundamental journalistic and human responsibility of not doing harm. By focusing attention on the supposed “mauling,” and ignoring the life and death implications of being spied upon for future abduction, torture and/or elimination, it helps conceal from public knowledge and outrage the violence systematically inflicted on those men and women in this country whose only offense is their daring to imagine an alternative future.

In a society in which villains are painted as heroes and heroes painted as villains — where the most terrible events are swept under the rug and lies paraded as truth — the responsibility of the media should be clear enough: it is to enable the people of this country to wade through these deceptions. Unfortunately what is mistakenly called the mainstream media are failing to do so — not always out of ignorance, but often out of malice.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
July 30, 2015

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