POSTSCRIPT / May 17, 2005 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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On media murders: Who is a journalist?

GENERAL TRIAS, Cavite — Malacañang is set to launch today a P5-million “Press Freedom Fund” to help finance operations in catching and prosecuting killers of journalists.

But, then, who is a journalist? That prior question will be a big problem when work begins in earnest on laying the basis for protecting journalists and going after their tormentors.

Interior Secretary Angelo Reyes posed that all-important question in his initial consultation with the working press at the Front Page resto in Ermita last Friday. But, to our surprise, nobody picked it up.

Anyway, Reyes’ consultation produced a consensus that a tripartite workshop be held early June to draw up measures to protect the working press from violence. Eyed as participants are representatives from media, the government and the community.

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MEDIA WORKSHOP: We came here to General Trias, btw, to participate in a weekend seminar on journalism trends and media ethics for community journalists and some public relations practitioners.

The seminar held at the municipal hall was organized by the National Press Club represented by its president Tony Antonio and the Center for Culture and Mass Media Foundation Inc. headed by Executive Director Lito Malinao. It was hosted by the Cavite Press Corps led by president Ruby Garcia.

I lectured on editorial and column writing and on media management. The other speakers were Antonio (copy editing), Malinao (newswriting), Ricardo Valmonte (libel), Lamberto Castro (media ethics), and Joel Palacios (economics/business reporting). Dado Beltran was the moderator.

We have been conducting these seminars in various places throughout the country as our contribution to the continuing education of fellow journalists in the provinces.

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PRESS FUND: The office of President Arroyo will put up P3 million, and the office of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., who was actually the first to propose such a fund, will chip in the balance of P2 million.

Malacanang said there would be meetings where members of media associations are expected to draw up a Memorandum of Agreement on how to use the P5 million.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said that P2 million will be set aside as reward money for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of suspects in the killings, P1 million for the Witness Protection Program, and P2 million for a Quick Reaction Team to act on incidents involving media practitioners.

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PRIOR QUESTION: But it is important that the question “Who is a journalist?” be satisfactorily answered first.

Without meaning to look with a jaundiced eye at those who are not gainfully employed as editorial personnel by the established media, we want to know what criteria are to be applied in classifying a person as a journalist.

A regularly employed reporter is no doubt a journalist. But what if has a legman or a stringer who is not on the company payroll but who helps the reporter gather, sometimes even write, his reports? Is the legman entitled to equal protection and assistance?

If the reporter himself strays into a beer garden, and is slain during a heated discussion with another customer, is his death to be mourned as the killing of another journalist?

What about contributors who occasionally write for newspapers and magazines but are not employees of those publications? If one of them is killed while following a story, is he to be considered a journalist killed in line of duty?

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TOP GUNS: Are those who work in the newsroom and whose names do not appear on top of stories, such as copyreaders and proofreaders, also covered? If a sub-editor or a copy reader is shot on his way home, how do we classify his case?

Now if a columnist on the payroll of a jueteng operator is ambushed by assassins hired by the business rival of the gambling lord, will a peso from the Press Freedom Fund be spent on him?

Or going to the extreme top, if a publisher who has not had a word of his printed in his newspaper, is gunned down by a motorcycle-riding duo, is he considered as another journalist victim?

Is the majority owner of a newspaper a journalist? If this owner gets into a business conflict for using his/her influence in extracting a high court order favorable to their family business, is he/she entitled to the same protection accorded journalists?

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RADIO-TV: In the broadcast media, are blocktimers or independent commentators to be considered journalists entitled to protection under the program envisioned by the Press Freedom Fund?

I refer to persons who buy radio time, broadcast commentaries on their own (without reflecting the views of the station), and probably get their own sponsors who pay them directly.

A variation of this is a government official or a politician who maintains a regular radio show and who uses his air time to hit his business and political enemies. Is he a journalist?

The foregoing situations are enough to illustrate how difficult it is to say who is and who is not a journalist for purposes of availing of protection envisioned under the Press Freedom Fund.

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UNRELIABLE LISTS: To simplify, one is tempted to just compile lists of editorial personnel from the various publishing houses and radio-TV stations. This lazy way of gathering a master list of journalists is unreliable for obvious reasons.

Years ago, we noticed that the membership list of the National Press Club was unusually long, that there were many pseudo-newsmen listed and, therefore, not entitled to vote during NPC elections.

I went to check indirectly with the president of the newspaper (whose editor then was running for NPC president). When I showed him the list of people claiming to be correspondents of their paper, he crossed out several of them as unknown to the company.

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LINE OF DUTY: There is also the matter of determining if the death of the journalist, assuming he is a journalist, was work-related.

A possible example of a non-work-related case is that of the reporter mentioned above who was killed in a brawl in a beer garden.

But even under the circumstances, it would be rash to dismiss that case right away as not work-related. Some assassinations are simulated as robbery cases (by robbing the victim) or as a result of a grudge fight (by staging an altercation) or something else.

This complicates the work of the police, who will be under pressure to rush their classification of cases involving journalists.

This is the reason, btw, why one big newspaper keeps saying that six journalists have been killed this year, while another paper says there are five — while the police say there are only four!

The police explanation for their low number (four) is that one of the six victims was not a journalist and the death of another one was not work-related.

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MEDIA MOGULS: The workshop that Secretary Reyes is planning to hold will run into this basic problem of defining terms and agreeing on criteria.

He should involve in a big way the owners of media. There are many things affecting work conditions that journalists cannot decide on their own.

While big news organizations have transportation and communication equipment, smaller ones just improvise. Your heart will cry out for newsmen who have to take public transpo or hitchhike to be able to go around.

While their colleagues from the giant outfits have laptops and cellphones — all provided by the company — they have to borrow typewriters in the offices they cover and compete for the few landline phones available.

Whatever we agree on in the workshop that will impinge on policy and expenses will have to be passed on to the media owners for consideration. So why not involve them from the very start?

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LIVING OFF THE LAND: Here in General Trias, I was shocked to learn that there are some reporters in the province who are not paid by their papers. I was told that they are expected to just resort to their own devices to earn a living on the beat.

Reminds me of the old days when some policemen in poor localities asked about wages. They were told “May trabaho ka na, naghahanap ka pang sueldo?” (You already have a job and you’re still looking for a salary?)

Is it moral to give a man a badge and a gun, and maybe a booklet of traffic violation receipts, and send him out to live off the land?

A parallel question can be asked of our poor fellow craftsmen in Cavite as well as other workers similarly situated.

What do the owners of media say when their underpaid, or unpaid, press workers get into trouble?

At this point, the talk necessarily drifts to ethics and competence. But that will be for another day.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 17, 2005)

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