Threat to the future

Vantage Point

Luis V. Teodoro


Either they know what they’re doing, or they don’t.

If they do, the hate-mongers, mercenaries, and apostles of violence who have been sending death, rape, and other threats to students of journalism in the University of the Philippines (UP) and other colleges and universities as well as members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) are trying to prevent them from going into the media when they graduate. However, the intent is also to frighten them enough to turn them into heralds of disinformation and apologists for power once they join the media community as communication professionals.

But even if these mercenaries and/or disinformed dupes are completely in the dark about how much they are endangering their young targets, and are just as ignorant or uncaring of the consequences as the interests that pay them, the results could still be the same. The threats of violence and “red-tagging” harassments with which they are poisoning the public sphere would make the future of journalism — and with it democratic governance — even more uncertain and more problematic than some political analysts and current practitioners who have been combating disinformation fear both would be.

The Philippine media and journalism are already besieged by such constraints as the mostly unresolved killings of journalists and media workers (177 since 1986); state hostility to critical and/or truth-telling practitioners and the use of whatever means are available to silence them; and the apathy and even hostility and mistrust of a public that has been conditioned by their so-called leaders into dismissing the independent press as “fake news” peddlers. On the other side of this disturbing equation is government and popular approval and support for the disinformation propagated in social media and those print and broadcast sources that are in the pay of dynastic interests.

To all this is being added widespread acceptance of the claim that future journalists, their organizations, and their publications are even now already mouthpieces and even members and recruiters of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA) and/or the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), for which many have justified the death threats and other forms of violence leveled against them.

These accusations are quite plainly based not only on the attackers’ intolerance of views different from their own and those of the interests behind them. They are also driven by their and their patrons’ contempt for the loyalty to the facts that is the primary hallmark of responsible communication.

What has been happening for decades, but which had become even worse during the past six years, plus these latest assaults on free expression and press freedom cannot continue without damaging even further what little is left of Philippine democracy.

While the Marcos regime is in the process of investigating the killing of broadcaster Percy Lapid, whether it will end in the prosecution and imprisonment of both the killer(s) and the mastermind(s) has yet to be established. Meanwhile, it is during its watch that the future journalists of this country are being threatened with harm. The protection of every citizen is a State responsibility. But no administration has so far prosecuted most of those responsible for either the killing or the harassment of both the current as well as future generation of media professionals.

Rather than discharge that essential duty, the previous regime so encouraged attacks against independent journalists and media organizations that by making such assaults “normal,” that it is very likely its ideological partisans and lackeys are the culprits behind the orchestrated threats against student journalists and the campus press.

In these circumstances, only a citizenry aware of the adverse impact of the silencing of the press today and in the future on democracy, society, themselves, and the universal need for the information vital to the understanding of what is going on can put a stop to and even reverse this looming catastrophe.

But that kind of media advocacy among the mass of the populace is nowhere in sight. What we are witnessing instead is mass disdain for the critical and truth-telling press, and their succumbing to disinformation — with all their consequences on the outcome of elections and other public issues and on the state of free expression and press freedom.

As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) put it in his 1946 poem “In my craft or sullen art,” no matter how much writers strive (he was referring to poets but what he said applies as well to all writers including journalists), they are little appreciated or even heard by the millions who “pay no praise or wages/Nor heed my craft or art.”

It is in this sense, among several others, that poetry (or journalism, for that matter) is a “sullen,” or uncertain craft. But that and the factors mentioned above are only a few of those that make journalism such a troubled and troubling enterprise in this rumored democracy.

Despite all these, however, and just as the poet nevertheless persists in his craft, “not for ambition or bread,” the true journalist labors for the sake of getting at the truth that everyone needs.

Student journalists, who are neither paid nor otherwise rewarded as professionals are, nevertheless belong in the same category. Campus journalism has a long and honored tradition of reporting on, and analysis of, the issues that confront both the institutions in which they are enrolled as well as the larger society.

During the Marcos Sr. dictatorship, the student newspaper of the University of the Philippines (UP), the Philippine Collegian, and other student publications, even as they reported on such campus issues as government surveillance of some faculty and students, also exposed the regime’s claims of being the harbinger of a “new society” for the shameless sham that it was.

The Collegian’s engagement with national issues is part of a tradition of national concern that goes back to the time of US occupation of the Philippines. Student newspapers then were at the forefront of combating the anti-Filipino racism of the colonial order — and, lest we forget, law students like Emilio Jacinto sought, and wrote the truth about Spanish colonial rule that was so vital in involving thousands of his compatriots in the struggle for independence.

Today student journalists and publications are continuing to address such “home” issues as tuition fee increases, and national ones like the continuing threat of authoritarian rule and the structural sources of the country’s underdevelopment.

What those who despise free expression, press freedom, and the emergence of the informed public both make possible have never understood is that it is neither a political, ideological, nor economic cause that drives true journalism as both craft and art.

What does is, first of all, the hope of making sense of the confusion and disorder that characterize Philippine society, and, second, the commitment of providing the millions who cannot themselves do that because they have no access to it, the information that will help them do so.

Democracy thrives in an informed society, which makes journalism and its better practitioners its indispensable allies. That reality explains why independent practitioners are being killed, harassed, threatened, and falsely depicted by tyrants and despots as purveyors of false information, terrorists, trouble makers, and whatever else. What is even worse is that the same epithets are being deliberately mis-used to sabotage the future of responsible journalism as truth-telling, as well as that of these troubled isles and their long-suffering people.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).