Juan L. Mercado

Wasteland operators

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Inquirer’s headline summed up the festering issue: “Some  journalists had it coming, the probers say.” They were referring to the recent killings that victimized three Mindanao—no, not journalists—“block-timers.”

 

“(He) berated targets like they were the worst animals on earth, cocked his gun on the air, challenging (them) to a gunfight.” Who did? The probers wouldn’t say. But that style fits Joas Dignos, ambushed in Valencia, Bukidnon.

The other two are Michael Milo in Tandag, Surigao del Sur, and Rogelio Butalid in Tagum, Davao del Norte. A faction of the squabbling Davao del Norte Electric Cooperative paid the tab for Butalid’s radio program. He slammed their opponents within the same co-op.

The victims “had donors that were rivals of those they attacked,” the probers noted. Isn’t that prohibited by the Journalist’s Code of Ethics?

Of course, said Msgr. Elmer Abacahin who heads Cagayan de Oro’s media group. He confirmed the investigators’ findings, but added: This was “not sufficient reason to kill the victims.”

The dictionary included the word “journalist” in 1693. The word was then defined thus: “a writer or editor for a news medium… who aims at a mass audience.” Since then, radio and TV came on stream and the Internet burst into the scene in the mid-1980s. The advent of the new and social media resulted in an explosion of so-called citizen journalists.

Radio/TV stations in Europe and the United States don’t have block-timers. Neither do radio/TV stations in other Asean countries. Here, “walk-in customers” can plunk cash for airtime on the over 952 radio stations, which the National Telecommunications Commission oversees—with a shaky hand. That excludes “pirate stations” like the one in South Triangle, Quezon City.

With no questions asked, many block-timers broadcast—what? News and comment, they claim. Character assassination or praise, for a price, critics counter. They “give us the opinion of the uneducated that brings us in touch with the ignorance of the community,” Oscar Wilde wrote.

Print media indicate what is “paid ad.” This is published  distinct from editorial matter. Block-timers don’t own up who pays the tab for their programs. But those praised—or shellacked—give a fair idea of who pays. Stations wash their hands, muttering: “The program does not reflect the management’s view.”

“Pinabili lang ng suka sa kanto, pagbalik, journalist na (Told to buy vinegar at the corner store, he trotted back a journalist)!” That putdown reflects a key concern of “Crimes and Unpunishment: The Killing of Filipino Journalists.” Unesco and the Asian Institute of Journalism launched the book last December.

There were 408 “journalists” covering the Bureau of Customs during the Arroyo administration. That equaled 408 provincial newspapers (32 are dailies). The mob was about seven times the number of foreign and local reporters accredited by Malacañang.

 

“Most people claiming to represent media are anything but,” columnist Boo Chanco snapped. “Many are from tabloids that have no circulation and moonlight as ‘fixers.’ Past officials tolerated the outsized numbers because they hid dirt.” Publishers of major papers and network managers should help sift out those shams.

Today, the Customs press corps is less 97. And Finance Undersecretary John “Sunny” Sevilla, named by President Aquino as officer in charge of that agency, can tighten this loophole further.

“At the new Customs port in Sasa, Davao, ‘Friday boys’ are known as  warik-warik. They list media men for funding,” Jun Ledesma of Sun.Star Davao wrote. “I was also told some can even facilitate the release of shipments.”

Most “block-timers” operate in a moral wasteland, where facts are few and comments bear a price tag, Viewpoint noted in 2009. “Where the carcass is, there the vultures gather.” Electronic gunslinging is abuse. “Power without responsibility has been the prerogative of the harlot through the ages,” Irish statesman Stanley Baldwin wrote.

“Block-timing is a primary fund-generator for provincial radio stations,” Melinda de Jesus of Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) noted earlier. This proved to be the emerging problem for the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP). Programs with little accountability proliferate in a country that works by the revised “Golden Rule”: “He who has the gold rules.”

A CMFR study found lack of training and, even more significant, ethical sense. A quarter finished high school while 13 percent “had no record of educational attainment.” There’s little, by way of training on objectivity, balance, fairness—and avoidance of conflict of interest, as journalism’s code of ethics provide.

The KBP found fault with the no-holds-barred coverage in the Luneta hostage crisis. Eight Hong Kong tourists died. And the Philippines today still has to cope with the diplomatic spillover, as China presses for reparations. Fines were imposed on major networks.

Still, this was a 180-degree turn for the KBP from the Chavez vs National Telecommunications Commission case of February 2008. In that en banc decision, the Supreme Court, lashed the KBP for playing footsie with the Arroyo regime’s gags on the “Hello Garci” tapes.

KBP’s Radio Code now prohibits open-ended contracts for block-timers. Identifying sponsors of block-time programs will increase transparency. But the implementation of existing measures—from certification that the “block-timer” adheres to the KBP’s code to monthly reports—has been spotty.

Indeed “our membership lists remain porous,” observed a Cebu Press Freedom Week editorial. “We’ve still to flush out the  hao-shiaos  who flaunt press cards or block-time microphones.”

 

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