WHEN media groups started going about the grim task of compiling a list of journalists killed in the November 23, 2009 massacre in Maguindanao, there was a brief moment when the numbers wouldn’t add up.
While it was clear that many of the victims worked for local newspapers and radio stations, some of the victims held positions that did not seem to be connected to journalism.
Aside from the reporters, photographers, and drivers who could be expected to cover the filing of the certificate of candidacy of Ismael Mangudadatu, there were other victims who were newspaper circulation managers, and account and sales personnel.
Later, it turned out that these were journalists as well – journalists who were also doubling as sales personnel selling air time and ad space during their coverage duties.
Many Manila journalists balk at the idea of reporters pestering a source for a good story, then coming back to pester the same source to buy ad space in their newspapers. But for many community newspapers and radio stations that are barely able to keep their heads above the water, this is a sad but necessary reality – journalists are being made responsible for pulling in the revenues as they are for bringing in the stories.
The Philippines may have the distinction of having one of the freest presses in Asia, but the freedom still comes at a steep price. Corruption, low pay, and extrajudicial killings remain the top issues that Filipino journalists have to deal with aside from the daily deadline that they have to meet.
Over the last seven months, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism conducted 12 training seminars for print and broadcast journalists and bloggers. In these forums, we engaged local and national journalists all over the country in discussions over issues that remain sticky in their day-to-day coverage and require judgment calls on their part.
Alarming, sad picture
What emerges is a picture that is alarming as it is sad, as reporters who work for national news agencies live and deal with problems that are far removed from the struggle for physical and financial survival of their cousins in the community press.
A mid-level reporter in Mindanao says he survives by working as a stringer for a local and a national television network. Both pay little, and only for stories aired that are few and far between. So the reporter works double time by acting as a producer and an anchor in another private radio station. To top it all off, our intrepid and industrious reporter also works as a marketing and advertising person.
It’s a situation that exposes journalists to risks that range from physical to moral ones. Commiserating with the multi-tasking reporter, a provincial paper editor also based in Mindanao admitted candidly, “I learned that all along I was wrong in some ethical practices.”
Explained a reporter for a Manila-based newspaper: “Countryside journalists continue to be vulnerable to bribery due to factors of their outfit’s survival.”
A junior reporter for a provincial paper, though, said it was sad to know that violations of ethical journalism standards by a few have been magnified. “There are doings by a few and these are reflective of the image of the whole,” said the reporter. “Sana mawala na ’yan sa sistema ng media (I hope this disappears from the media system).”
A senior correspondent for a giant television network meanwhile acknowledged that many media companies do not have the capacity to pay their staff well to keep them away from corrupt practices. But she believed that “ethics is a personal judgment call.”
In all the PCIJ training seminars where ethical practices were taken up, the most common reason that the journalists cited to explain breaches of ethics was the supposed lack of financial support from their employers.
The journalists admit that receiving money, gifts, and other favors from people they cover for news, especially during elections, compromise their writing.
The Philippine government has been ranked among the most corrupt in the world. Corruption has become so pervasive that scandals have been coming out one after another in the news.
But these stories about corruption become less credible when persons delivering the news are themselves involved in other forms of corrupt activities. It certainly affects the credibility and integrity of the media in exercising its watchdog function.
Media companies — print, broadcast, or online — have varying salary rates. Many print journalists for community newspapers are paid only for the stories that are run, not for stories that they submit. Some journalists thus take home as little as P3,000 a month. The more senior ones make P10,000 to P15,000, depending on the number of newspapers they write for.
Because of the inadequate salary, some journalists are forced to look for “income extenders.” Some do it “legitimately” by officially taking on multiple roles in the company. The Koronadal-based Periodico Ini, for example, lost five people in the Maguindanao Massacre: Rey Merisco, John Caniban, Arturo Betia, Noel Decena, and Rani Razon.
Periodico Ini publisher Freddie Solinap said that with their deaths, his small newspaper effectively lost all its reporters – and most of its administrative staff. Betia had doubled as the paper’s marketing director; Decina as circulation manager; and Razon as sales manager.
Others do public relations work for politicians or government offices. Sometimes, the part-time work even gives journalists bigger pay than their main job.
But there are those who do not have to work extra to earn more. According to a radio reporter in the Visayas, these journalists merely wait for their monthly “allowance” from the local government.
“Many broadcasters and journalists here are guilty of being unethical,” said the reporter, “and I am sad to say that most of those unethical broadcasters are not here to learn and refresh and review their GMRC (good manners and right conduct).”
Others seek money
Yet if some community journalists engage in small-time corruption to make ends meet, other journalists complain of colleagues and superiors who engage in corruption in a scale that makes their poorer cousins in the provinces look like Mother Teresa.
There are rumors of famous television and radio anchors in Manila who attack in order to collect, or of editors and producers who roll in the lap of luxury because of their role as gatekeepers of the news. Theirs is certainly not a case of kapit sa patalim.
But the condition, at least in the provinces, does not seem to be beyond solution. Zoilo P. Dejaresco, whose family owns a radio station and publishes a chain of newspapers in the Visayas, acknowledged that salaries of reporters in community newspapers are inadequate to support the basic needs of a small family.
“Our view is to put premium pay on senior writers we barely can afford to lose by multi-tasking them between, say, print with radio and administrative work,” he said. “So, instead of hiring one more warm body, the writer will be earning more take-home pay.”
Safety is another issue worrying journalists, especially those in the provinces.
While the two major television networks ABS-CBN and GMA have finally begun equipping their reporters and camera teams with bulletproof vests and ballistic helmets for coverage that could be dangerous, most media agencies, even those in Manila, are content to send their reporters out with nothing more than a press card and a prayer.
The situation is all the more deplorable in the provinces, where correspondents live with the rebels, bandits, or soldiers that they also cover.
Even before the Maguindanao Massacre, the Philippines was already one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. The murder of 32 media workers in Ampatuan town pushed the death toll for Filipino journalists to 137 – about a third killed in the line of duty or for their exposes on local crime and corruption – since the freedom of the press was restored in 1986.
Providing insurance coverage for journalists, Dejaresco said, could be possible but only to those in special coverage that places them at extraordinary risks, and the coverage would have time limits.
He said he would agree to allowing a field reporter to carry a gun but only “in extremely meritorious cases where life and limb are clearly established to be in clear and present danger.”
But Dejaresco draws the line at providing firearms to reporters. This, he said, is a no-no since a reporter could be more dangerous and unnecessarily provocative when carrying a gun. “They have to be psychologically fit, in our estimation,” he stressed.
In the end, journalists have to realize that while the profession is inherently fraught with danger, there are day-to-day decisions that they make that could make the difference in just how much risks they would be forced to face.
To be sure, allowing oneself to be manipulated or branded as partisan in favor of one or another politician whether or not for political or financial considerations, is just another way to get oneself in trouble.
Said an editor of a Davao-based newspaper: “Our role as journalists (in election reporting) does not end with just reporting on the results of elections or election-related violence.”
Acting independently, he added, is a first, big step that all journalists must take. “We have our roles to portray, one of which is not to let politicians use us for their own benefit,” he pointed out. “We should address the real, accurate stories.”
Even more important, according to a journalist from the Visayas, is for journalists to “have enough courage and perseverance to do what is right, even if it hurts.”
“The pen must continue to be mightier than the sword,” said another journalist from Central Luzon. – PCIJ, May 2010