Fourth Estate under fire
Here’s a little experiment for you. Ask around and find out if kids today are still told that old fairytale, “The Emperor has no clothes.” I really wonder about this because it seems in our present age, if a kid stood up to point out the Emperor was nude, the kid would be lynched, or worse.
But if you want to understand the role of media, whether print, radio, TV or online, the fairytale says it all. Whether king, president, prince or policeman –and none of these people are lacking either bodyguards or power—someone has to speak truth to power. This is why media is traditionally referred to as the Fourth Estate, a term that arose in the 18th century when newspapers began to play what we Filipinos call a fiscalizing role in public life.
Back then, there were three traditional groupings or Estates in European society: the Nobility, the Clergy, and the Commons which really meant, the middle class. The nobility and clergy sat in the House of Lords, the commoners in the House of Commons. The press sat in the reporter’s gallery and their influence represented the public.
We are inheritors of this European point of view. Graciano Lopez Jaena and his fellow propagandists demanded a free press in the Philippines. And each of our Constitutions since 1935 has enshrined press freedom as one of the fundamental freedoms of our democratic society.
That doesn’t mean people in power like the press. Or put another way, just as one American Speaker of the House famously said that the best form of government was to have one party rule and the other party watch, a basic bias of every president bar none, and all the many officials down the line, is that the best sort of media is the controlled kind.
What are the instruments of control? The most basic is to strangle a media outfit by denying it ads. Then there are libel laws. The third instrument which applies more to radio and TV, is by threatening to deny a franchise or renewal of a franchise, which requires congressional action. The fourth is to take one’s criticisms of the media public, using the platform of the presidency to scold and shame media critics. And the fifth, crudest, and riskiest, is to liquidate individual journalists or shut down media outfits by force.
In 1909, when we still had American Governors-General ruling the roost, the newspaper El Renacimiento published a famous editorial titled “Birds of Prey,” which blind-itemed, by means of an editorial, a high-ranking American colonial official named Dean Worcester.
The official filed a libel case against the newspaper while authorities got even with the newspaper by cutting off government ads in the paper. The Philippines Free Press –then American-owned—denounced the move in an editorial, saying it was tantamount to government admitting it placed ads not for public information, but as a bribe to ensure a cooperative press.
The 20s and 30s was about rival newspaper chains set up on the basis of Filipino newspapers being established to challenge American-owned ones, or to have pro-government chains to counter the ones that were critical of the government, with libel suits periodically filed by outraged politicians. A story from the era best summarizes official opinion on the media then and now.
During a stay in Baguio, a house helper told President Quezon, “The press is here.” He thundered, “Tell the press to go to hell!” Only to be told, by the embarrassed maid, that it was one of the Dominicans from Letran. She had pronounced priest as press.
Our modern media era began after World War II, when a young sports journalist took to commenting on politics on radio. His name was Arsenio Lacson and his hard-hitting commentaries outraged President Roxas so much that his radio show was taken off the air in 1947. It turned Lacson into an overnight sensation, becoming a Manila congressman two years later. Then President Quirino compounded his predecessor’s error by going after Lacson too: there are stories of things getting so bad that President Quirino literally sent a tank into the streets of Manila to rumble around trying to find Lacson. No wonder Lacson ended up becoming the first elected mayor of Manila in 1952.
We know that President Marcos crossed a line no previous president had done before, when he shut down the media when he proclaimed martial law. Seven major English daily papers, one English-Filipino daily, three Filipino dailies, one Spanish daily, and four Chinese dailies were shut down; sixty-six community newspapers were closed, eleven English weekly magazines, seven television stations, and two hundred ninety-two radio stations were also closed. Only one newspaper, TV station, and radio station were allowed to stay open, because they belonged to Marcos’ friends.
Since 1986, things have returned to the old ways, but also, some new ones. The new ones involve the concept of the Right to Reply, which would require newspapers in particular, to allocate the same space to those objecting to a news story, as was originally given to the story that offended. The other way is simply to kill the offending media person.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, for one, maintains a database of media people who have been killed since 1986, a list that now stretches into the hundreds, generally in the provinces where local kingpins are subject to less scrutiny, and can exercise much more impunity, than in Metro Manila.
The revival of the old ways center on libel suits to target individual journalists or the publications they write for, and the use of presidential influence to mount advertising boycotts, most famously when President Estrada forced the sale of the Manila Times and nearly brought the Philippine Daily Inquirer to its knees. In 2006, President Arroyo sent troops to surround ABS-CBN and The Daily Tribune and might have gone further except her plans for martial law were derailed by our then ambassador to the USA, the future foreign secretary Albert del Rosario. Columnist Tony Abaya lost his column in 2006 due to being critical of the government, and the PCIJ at one point, had search warrants issued to look into its files.
President Aquino took a more traditional route, of publicly calling out commentators and networks he didn’t like, while President Duterte has been candid about his intense dislike for particular networks, newspapers, and online news outfits, harnessing the full power of the state to send a signal to big business not to support these outfits. At the same time, alert allies can take these frontal attacks as suggestions that renewals of franchises in Congress might not be a good idea.
In our current era, when the world is experiencing a revival of strongman rule, a shared characteristic of strongman types is a burning hatred for the media. Ironically, never has the sharing of information been so easy and yet, so susceptible to what has come to be known as fake news. A recent poll showed that for most people who get their news from social media, they are hard-pressed to recall the sources of the news in their feed.
This makes it easy to lump together the fake with the real, and to generally lower opinion of all media. It helps foster the view that media is unessential, and makes constitutional safeguards not just of free speech, but a free press, irrelevant. But so long as those guarantees remain enshrined in our Constitution and laws, a free press has a fighting chance. Then again you can simply amend the constitution, or, as we have increasingly seen in our national life, do what you want and stonewall or shout down, any questions to death. Most people might just shrug and even say media had it coming. People have done it before. But let’s never forget that the moment an independent media becomes controlled, it’s just the beginning of everything else being controlled.
When no one is free to point out the Emperor has no clothes, everyone is naked –in the face not just of an Emperor’s will –but his, and his subordinates’, petty whims and worse.