By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
Sometime in 1999, a group of journalists and rights advocates gathered to discuss what they observed as “shallow” reporting when it comes to people’s issues and their interests. These discussions boiled down to the need to set up a media outlet – an alternative to the dominant – that will look into various issues with a progressive lens. Immediately.
But where to begin?
One of Bulatlat’s founding editors and currently Ibon executive director Jose Enrique Africa said they originally wanted to come up with a newsletter, much like the “mosquito press” back in dark days of the Marcos dictatorship. But just like the old days, the financial burden is sure to take toll on their operations. It was then that they came up with an idea to put up a news website.
Africa admitted all of them were clueless on how to go about with the news website. They scoured help from all too willing friends who lent their skills from creating a logo to putting up the website.
Today, Bulatlat turns 15. It is the country’s longest-running alternative news magazine online.
Before the founding
After the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship, there was a rise in the number of newspapers and media outlets being put up in the spirit of the restoration of the so-called democracy. But then human rights activist and current Bulatlat’s editor-in-chief Benjie Oliveros said they found reporting, especially on the issue of human rights, still very wanting.
“You can turn your press release upside down and it still would not make it to the paper,” Oliveros said.
Africa described the media coverage of various people’s issues as “manipis” (thin) and “mababaw” (shallow). In its reporting, the media created “templates” as well – such as, portraying the urban poor as lazy – without taking a second, longer and more critical look on what is really plaguing the country.
In the months leading to the ouster of President Joseph Estrada, several websites were put up that were critical of the administration. Some could be considered “progressive” but not consistent on their stand on various issues affecting the Filipino people.
It did not help that under President Estrada, dominant media outfits that were relatively critical or had exposed government scandals and corruption came under attack. The Manila Times was sold to another publisher after Estrada charged the paper with a P101-million libel suit. Then, companies started pulling out ads from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, reportedly instigated by the Estrada administration, because of its negative stories. Africa said this served as the last straw that compelled journalists and rights advocates to finally form an alternative media outfit. This, he added, showed how the dominant media could be easily kowtowed by the few and the powerful.
Its founding editors wanted Bulatlat to be different from various websites that were being put up. Africa said this was a news website that is “light” yet “with a bit of spice.” They wanted to popularize various people’s issues. How should one write and make economics sound so interesting? Even Africa said he doubts if he was able to do so.
Even its then editorial team found their reports “dry” or, for the lack of a better term, “kulang sa libog” during the first few months of Bulatlat’s operation. But soon enough, they were able to find the niche that was missing in the media spectrum at the time.
Be gone, Bulatlat
Now that Bulatlat has turned 15, Africa says their observations about the Philippine media’s reporting on people’s issues and interests sadly remain the same. And it is for this reason that the role of Bulatlat and many alternative media outfit in providing a voice to the marginalized in the so-called “information highway” is more relevant than ever.
“Even in those days, we knew that the democratization of internet is an overstatement. I remember how one of our first articles of Bulatlat was to debunk that hype. This analysis was affirmed by Bulatlat. There is a self-selecting process that goes on when one accesses a website and those with the biggest resources will dominate it,” he said.
In fact, he said that the so-called democratization of internet did not lead to the sharpening of people’s minds but all the more confused them. For one, instead of criticizing the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few people, many internet users were prone to attack the impoverished who are trying to fight for their rights.
Still, Africa said he finds Bulatlat’s effort to resist the “tidal wave” of backward and reactionary ideas that are flaunting the internet “heroic.”
But 15 years later, Africa said he hopes that Bulatlat would be gone in 15 years.
Africa added, “If 15 years later, the dominant media is progressive in its reporting of people’s issues, the orthodox and the concentration of wealth and power, the best thing is for Bulatlat to be gone in 15 years. But that is not likely to happen. At the very least, the appreciation and the momentum that Bulatlat has gained could lead to more people, even those who are not progressive, to seek an alternative.”