POSTSCRIPT / September 2, 2010 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Media merely hold a mirror to society

OVERSTEPPING: The media were among the victims of the hostage-taking fiasco at the Luneta last Aug. 23 – mainly with respect to news coverage allegedly interfering in, or even obstructing, negotiations and rescue operations.

It has been noted, for instance, that the hostage taker, dismissed police officer Rolando Mendoza, went ballistic after seeing on the bus monitor live videos of his screaming brother and relatives being dragged out of a chaotic media scene.

The implication was that had media not aired that episode live, Mendoza may have behaved differently, and may have even continued to be cooperative with the runners attending to his demands.

The other criticism was that the media overstepped the boundaries (police lines) and were operating seemingly beyond or in violation of the rules.

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WHO’S FAkE OR LEGIT?: This led me to write last Tuesday (and I am quoting myself to be able to clarify):

“One real problem is the proliferation of so-called media. When there is a news incident, can anybody with a camera just join the crowd and be accorded the normal courtesies and access given to press photographers?

“Who is legit and who is fake? The display of a press card is not even a guarantee that its bearer is legit. In fact, the bigger the ID cards hanging from his neck, the bigger fake he often turns out to be.

“This point raises the issue of accreditation. On well-defined beats, accreditation is acceptable since even the media do not want their ranks infiltrated by impostors.

“But accreditation should not be construed as a kind of licensing or granting of permission to cover. The legitimate press does not need government permission or license to perform its duties.”

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NOT ARROGANCE: A few readers apparently misunderstood the statement “The legitimate press does not need government permission or license to perform its duties.”

A reader misinterpreted it as arrogance, asking why the “legit press” should consider itself so untouchable as to be beyond government regulation.

Before this misinterpretation is picked up by others out of context, I must explain what I meant by “The legitimate press does not need government permission or license….”

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CONTEXTUAL FRAME: We media workers do not imagine ourselves to be beyond reproach, beyond criticism, beyond regulation.

Neither do we claim that press freedom is absolute.

In fact, the beauty of freedom is not revealed or valued in its wanton lack of borders but, like a painting, is best appreciated within the limitations of its contextual frame.

To understand better the context, we go to Article III (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution which says among other things:

“Section 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, xxx.”

“Section 7. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. xxx”

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PRIOR RESTRAINT: While such professionals as doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and the like, need a government license to work as such, journalists are not required to pass a government examination and secure a license.

That is as it should be, in the context of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing “freedom of speech, of expression and of the press.”

I cannot imagine a situation where a journalist is required by law to first secure a license before he can write and print his thoughts or to disseminate information of public interest.

A law requiring licensing of journalists is a case of prior restraint, of pre-censorship, which is a violation of the freedom of the press as guaranteed under Sections 4 and 7.

That was simply what I meant when I said “The legitimate press does not need government permission or license to perform its duties.”

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BUSINESS, TAXES: But does not a newspaper need a City Hall permit and a business license? Is this not licensing?

It is licensing, all right, but the license is not for saying or printing opinion and/or news. The license is for doing business.

A business activity of a certain scale and style that involves soliciting and accepting payments for its products and services must be regulated and subjected to licensing, at least to protect the public.

In this regard, a newspaper will not only need a license but must also pay proper taxes on its income, which is derived mainly from its sale of copies, advertising space and collateral services.

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REGULATION: But while journalists are not required to secure government licenses to pursue their information work, we never interpret this to mean that we are exempted from regulation.

Indeed, we are already regulated on three levels:

* Personal — This involves the very character of the journalist. There are certain things we do not do simply because our personal values restrain us.

* Internal – These are the industry and guild codes that have evolved with time and which every member of the “profession” must observe or else face sanctions.

* Government – This refers to laws, ordinances as well as valid and reasonable police/state guidelines. We strive to cooperate as good citizens in a well-ordered society.

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MEDIA MIRROR: After saying all that, we often add that the media are merely holding a mirror to society.

The community simply sees itself in that mirror. How society is, or how it looks, is not the fault of either the mirror or the media holding the mirror.

But of course, being another human activity, news reporting is far from perfect. Hopefully, with everybody acting in good faith, distortions in the image are minimized and promptly corrected.

Minimizing distortions is possible only when the media and the community consciously cooperate with each other.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 2, 2010)

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