Editorial: At a crossroads

Posted on September 17, 2012

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Is traditional Philippine media at a crossroad, facing new, fast-expanding audiences that demand more than what it can offer?

One asks this question more than two decades after the 1986 exit of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.  His downfall by people power paved the way for the vigorous return of a free press.

Cebu Press Freedom Week is celebrated in the month of September to keep in memory the value of a liberty that experienced near-death when newspapers and broadcast outlets were padlocked soon after the declaration of martial law in Sept. 21, 1972.

Five presidents later, the Philippine media are confronted with a paradox.

It finds itself banging on the door of a government that is reluctant to advance the gains of EDSA in concrete standards of transparency and accountability .

It is  dismayed to  see  the Aquino administration and Congress dillydallying with the passage of  the Freedom of Information Act, which would make access to government decisions and records a matter of right, not just for a journalist but for any citizen.

On the other hand,  the media operates in a society where people rapidly acquire greater access to information at their fingertips via the Internet.

Data, images, entertainment, and news  can be downloaded with blurring speed on PCs, tablets, smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices. What’s the problem here?

Figuring out what people want to know, and what citizens should know, is one of journalism’s finest burdens.

Eighty million Filipinos  with cellphones  living in the Facebook capital of the world do not guarantee a well-informed nation. (Telcos report 80 percent penetration of the total population.)

The truth-telling role of the press has never been  more needed than today. On the shoulders of often underpaid and unprotected journalists lie the duty of asking the pesky questions that matter.  Not just to ask, but to verify facts and check  the responses with research and a critical eye.

Whether its about the secrecy of an official’s Statement of Assets and Liablities (SAL)  (After Renato Corona’s exit in disgrace,  why should other judges and congressmen be shielded from public disclosure of their own SALs?) or the governor’s release of millions of pesos in calamity aid to other provinces (Is generosity here self-serving for the giver who plans to run for the Senate?), the media knows it stands in the place of nameless citizens when it prods and probes for answers.

Cebu news hounds didn’t need an FOI bill to get to the bottom of the P98.9 million Balili (underwater) land deal of the Provincial Capitol.  Persistence was 80 percent of  the task.

The community press  will never outgrow  its traditional role as watchdog of government excess if public officials still pay lip service to transparency and accountability.

What the media can look forward to is faster, more dynamic ways to tell a story and get feedback about  their work on Twitter, blogs, podcasts, e-groups, e-books and whatever incarnation will replace Facebook.

Typewriters long ago gave way to keyboards and touch phones. Speed, signal strength and pixels seem to be the measure of how well an individual stays on top of current events.

Journalists still agile enough for the challenge have to reinvent themselves as “mojos” or mobile journalists if they don’t want to be left behind.

Serving the public also means sharpening professional conduct.  This way, journalism will stay alive and well in Cebu.

While the Internet has upped the game to deliver relevant information, the media should remain guardians of the common good.

It’s an old-fashion notion that is essential for democracy, with or without an FOI Act.

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