Opinionated, Rambunctious - and Powerful

Article excerpt

President Fidel V. Ramos of the Philippines likes to complain about journalists and is never at a loss for metaphors when he rails against them. They emphasize the negative, he says. They focus on the hole, not the doughnut. They prefer to say that the glass of government is half-empty.

Yet Ramos is the most avid reader of newspapers. Aides say he begins his day with a brisk run and a look at thick folders of news clippings, prepared by a staff that works through the night to get them on his desk before daybreak.

Ramos is not alone in being irritated by the media, and at the same time, needing to follow what they say. Everywhere, officials and politicians anxious about their careers breakfast on a diet of news and opinion.

After only 10 years of democracy, the Philippine media are extremely powerful and the freest media in Asia. Newspaper exposes catalyze policy reforms and abort political careers. Ramos writes angry memos to his officials on the margins of newspaper clippings. Journalistic inquisition makes politicians quake.

For 14 years during the reign of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the media were lapdogs of the dictator and his wife, although some journalists strained at the leash. After Marcos fell in a popular uprising in 1986, the elaborate system of press controls was dismantled overnight and scores of newspapers and radio stations burst on the scene. Today 30 dailies publish out of Manila; over 200 more publish in the provinces. There are some 2 50 AM stations and over 150 local and national television stations.

The Philippine media love controversy. Except for government-owned broadcast agencies and one government-run newspaper chain, the media today are hard-hitting and critical of authority. Newspapers regularly expose official corruption and abuse; their commentaries are often strident and unrestrained. Most journalists take seriously their role as watchdog of government. Philippine society is dissenting, not consensual. Philippine democracy is noisy and rambunctious. And the media reflect all this.

Without doubt, the press has enriched Philippine democracy by keeping people informed and by encouraging debate. But it has also been criticized for a tendency toward sensationalism. Tabloids, which sell briskly in Manila and surpass the circulation of the broadsheets, offer a menu of crime and sex. The broadsheets are more sober, but their criticism can sometimes get out of hand.

Much of the reporting focuses on day-to-day events and lacks substantial analysis and context. Sometimes rumors are passed off as news. The Philippine press is "given to overstatement and hyperbole, its verve and its nerve overtaking the substance of its endeavor," says Melinda de Jesus, director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. Complaints of corruption -- what Filipinos call "envelopmental journalism" -- are also rife. Reporters say that envelopes of money are discreetly tucked under their plates during press lunches or surreptitiously distributed by political aides during news conferences.

These faults are partly rooted in the competitiveness and sheer number of media outlets. The competition is especially harsh in television, where reporters race for the juiciest showbiz gossip or the goriest images of crimes to raise their ratings. Unorthodox methods include tripping the power lines of competitors.

As the number of media agencies multiplied overnight, not enough trained journalists could be found to staff them. Fresh university graduates were assigned to cover prime beats like foreign affairs and the presidential palace, even though they did not know how to write a lead or what "off the record" meant.

Still, there is strong support for press freedom among a broad cross-section of Filipinos. In the last years of Marcos, business professionals boycotted the government-controlled press. Today, citizens' groups noisily protest any attempt to muzzle the press. …