The role of responsible media in nurturing good governance

By Maria A. Ressa, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 22 2009 11:51 AM | Updated as of May 22 2009 10:55 PM

(Speech before the Makati Business Club/Management Association of the Philippines, May 21, 2009)

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today.  First, let me disclose that I probably wouldn’t be in the Philippines today if it weren’t for Cheche Lazaro. 

In 1987, after I finished my one-year Fulbright fellowship and was ready to return to Boston to attend law school, Cheche convinced me to throw that possible future away – and help her start Probe Productions.  We left ABS-CBN then because we wanted to be independent – to pursue the stories we wanted and to define the standards & ethics which everyone at that time told us was impossible to do in any of the networks.  Cheche left her job as the Head of Public Affairs of ABS-CBN, and we created this little company that taught me that a small group of people who believe in an idea can make a big difference.  We began an aggressive anti-corruption campaign and set strict editorial and production standards. 

I was Cheche’s producer and director, and I saw the passion, the earnestness and her empathy for people in her search for the Truth and her drive for justice.
The lessons I learned in Probe formed the foundation of my values as a journalist.  It gave me a sense of purpose which, in turn, gave me courage through my nearly 2 decades with CNN.  That’s why my team and I chose to stay in a place like East Timor when everyone was evacuating. 

That’s why we faced the riot police in Indonesia or the jihadists in Pakistan.  Because somehow our presence there protects the people.  We are eyewitnesses and the first page of history.  We balance the fear for personal safety with the duty to report the Truth.  When breaking news began to lose meaning for me and I began my search for home, it was my experience with Probe that gave me the courage to return to the Philippines in 2005 to try to change the news culture of ABS-CBN.

I remember our first law suit in Probe.  I was a fresh graduate and afraid I would have to testify.  When Cheche got to the stand, my fears vanished.  Somehow, she gave all of us courage.  We still joke about the highlight of her testimony that day.  She was very emphatic and said, “We will never ... never, never, never allow ourselves to be intimidated.” She didn’t, and we won that case.

More than two decades later, Cheche’s facing another, far more sinister law suit with graver implications – both for Cheche and for our society.  This time, I was again a defendant, but the charges against me were dropped.  This time, she only said, “we will never be intimidated.”  Only one never.  She’s lost the edge of her youth.

This time, she could be jailed for 6 years.  And because the case has prospered this far, it creates a chilling effect, warning other journalists away from stories that powerful parties may not want told.  I could’ve advised them that Cheche is the wrong journalist to try to intimidate.

You asked me to talk about the role of responsible media in nurturing good governance.  It’s simple: we demand accountability.  It is our job to hold both the public and private sector accountable to the people – a right enshrined in our Constitution ... Section 7, Article III of our 1987 Constitution recognizes “the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.”

It is important that the public has the information it needs to make an informed decision because that is the foundation of our democracy.

Journalism is the only profession that is given special mention in the Constitution:  Section 4, Article III states that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press.”

I mention these two provisions because they have been challenged many times since I became head of ABS-CBN News.  Last year, we spearheaded a case that is now at the Supreme Court – more than 100 journalists from more than 14 media organizations – questioning the constitutionality of the arrests of journalists during the siege of this hotel in November 2007.  12 of the 30 journalists arrested were from ABS-CBN, and we challenged it at the highest court of the land because I felt it changed the fundamental principles of our democracy and had clear ramifications for the role journalists will play in conflict situations like Edsa, Oakwood and another Peninsula. 

The government called this hotel a “crime scene” and said that journalists violated two laws by being here: Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code which has to do with “resistance and disobedience of persons in authority” and PD 1821 for “obstruction of justice.”  During a similar one-day siege of Oakwood Hotel in 2003, would authorities have arrested the whole CNN team which had its offices there?  They didn’t then.  What changed in those few years?

These actions by authorities have far-reaching consequences because now every journalist reporting on a conflict situation has to worry that he/she may be arrested and charged.  This is no longer a threat, but a reality.  For doing their jobs, working journalists can now look forward to being treated like common criminals. 

A distinguished journalist like Cheche now has an arrest warrant, has been fingerprinted and had to pay bail for her freedom. 

What was her alleged crime?  She wanted to give GSIS the right to reply to the charges of the teachers who have contributed to its fund.  How ironic that the right of reply bill just this week passed committee at the House of Representatives and is now waiting for plenary debate.  The government actually wants to mandate a basic tenet of journalism – to get the other side.  Yet, when it doesn’t want to answer the questions, it avoids them by refusing access, labelling ABS-CBN biased and filing a lawsuit against this pesky Cheche Lazaro.  You can’t have it both ways.

Why should this matter to anyone else who’s not Cheche nor a journalist?  Because these moves, taken collectively, show a pattern, an erosion of press freedom in our country.  That has a direct relation to the quality of information our people get and is changing the democracy we thought we had.  By pressuring the journalists, the powerful can control the information you get which then affect your perception. 

Debates about big issues are distilled to outdated Marcos-era laws like wire-tapping and obstruction of justice – which, by the way, was used by the QCPD to charge Ted Failon after the shooting of his wife, charges thrown out by the fiscal court.  Just this morning, the NBI released its findings, ruling that Trina Etong committed suicide.  A far reality from the way Ted and his family were treated by the police.  If you look closely as I do, you’ll see that the line in the sand is slowly being moved before our eyes.
 It’s easy to distract you from seeing that.  They attack the messengers.  We journalists are, by no means, perfect.  Some of us can be arrogant at times, and that is how we have been portrayed by officials like Valencerina, who question Cheche Lazaro’s credentials and motive.  Valencerina asked, “does fame and status give Ms. Lazaro the immunity to break down journalism ethics and break the law?” She attempts to portray Cheche as arrogant, someone who’s not in the trenches, comparing her to her alleged supporters: unnamed “non A-list TV journalists” in her words. 

Since I know nearly every TV journalist in our industry and field nearly 50% of them, I’d like to know who her alleged supporters are.  But it is crazy to engage this way because this is the strategy now: focus on the details and parse the Truth.  I recognize it from my days reporting on Suharto.  So I ask you to look at our collective track record as journalists.  No one likes making enemies, but like I said earlier, we balance our fear for our personal safety with our duty to report the Truth.  We hold the line because if we give in, we would have contributed to weakening our democracy.

Look at what’s happened in the past few years.  In 2003, more journalists were killed in the Philippines than in Iraq, and today – despite pressure from the international community – the extrajudicial killings of journalists and leftist leaders which happened with virtual impunity have yet to be effectively addressed.  Intimidation tactics, indirect pressure and libel suits have been used to attempt to control journalists.  Most of our top journalists and managers, including ANC platform head Glenda Gloria, anchor Ricky Carandang, editor-in-chief Marites Vitug are facing lawsuits from top government officials.

In 2006, Proclamation 1017 severely curtailed press freedom after authorities threatened to shut down news organizations and stationed an armoured personnel carrier outside our station.  A year later, I discovered that an earlier draft of Proclamation 1017 included an order to shut down ABS-CBN.  From sources here and in the United States, I was told that Filipino diplomats were asked to float the idea of martial law to see if they could get support.

I tell you this because our institutions are under siege, and the rule of law is now being used against those who challenge authority.  Marcos-era laws are being revived and given new meaning when applied to journalists.  More than ever, we have to sift through events and find the trends to discern what’s really happening.
Our critics will say do you journalists think you’re above the law?  Absolutely not.  But I ask you to not fall for false arguments.  Let us do our jobs so we can hold everyone accountable to the public.  Let the market punish those who aren’t good journalists.  As far as ABS-CBN, we have a strict 116 page Standards & Ethics Manual which we live by.  We are far harsher on ourselves and people who violate that manual are held accountable.

It’s an interesting time to be the Head of ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs.  I believe this is a pivotal time in our history.  Will we let these lawsuits stop us?  No.  To quote Cheche: “we will never ... never, never, never allow ourselves to be intimidated.”  Emphatic emphasis of youth.  Joke!  Are we anti-government?  No.  We are pro-people.  We want to build a better society.  We want to educate, inform and inspire.

Let me end by inviting you to join our election campaign that looks to the future: one year before the May 2010 elections, we launched Boto Mo, I-Patrol Mo: Ako ang Simula.  We went nationwide to help register voters and citizen journalists, spreading the message that you are powerful and you can make a difference.  Change begins with you.  And the response was overwhelming. 

We helped increase the number of Filipinos who registered to vote from 190,000 in April to more than 800,000 in May!  We held the first of our leadership series – five presidential candidates – and we had to turn people away at the auditorium!  The enthusiasm and the thirst for new ways of doing things was palpable that night.  It’s the first time I saw an election forum like this in our country.  Watch the replay of that forum on May 31 on ABS-CBN.

We’re already putting together our second leadership forum.  So far I’ve confirmed former President Joseph Estrada, Senator Loren Legarda, Senator Ping Lacson and Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay.  It will be at the University of the Philippines on June 5, telecast live on ANC that night and on Studio 23.  On Sunday, June 7, you can watch it on ABS-CBN.  And on Independence Day, we will again repeat our voter’s registration drive nationwide, this time bringing our anchors to Naga, Iloilo and General Santos City.

The lawsuits and legislation like the Right of Reply bill are throwbacks to the past.  We need to live in the present and plan for the future.  The whole world has changed because of developments in technology.  When we launched Boto Mo-I-Patrol Mo in 2007, we combined the traditional power of mass media with new media and mobile phone technology.  We empowered ordinary Filipinos and they rose to the challenge – 500 messages a day in the run-up to elections and more than 2,000 messages on election day!

That was only a rehearsal for what we can collectively do in 2010.  If you have had enough and want to see a better future, stand up and say Ako ang Simula.