Why democracy can't exist without journalism

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 23 2020 07:54 PM

MANILA—As journalists come increasingly under attack from populist regimes, they perform an even more important role in combating disinformation and holding those in power to account, veteran investigative journalist Sheila Coronel said.

In the Philippines, state regulators shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network, whose long-pending application for an operating franchise was later denied by a congressional committee dominated by allies of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The president boasted of pulling the plug on the Lopez-owned network, saying he “dismantled the oligarchy” in the country, in a speech in Jolo province last July 13.

But Malacañang removed the portion on ABS-CBN when the speech was aired to seemingly insulate the president from growing public backlash over the shutdown.

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“What has changed now is that there is deliberate disinformation that we didn’t see in the past,” said Coronel, comparing the extent of the problem over the years.

“There was deliberate, systematic disinformation produced by people in power to delegitimize professional news gathering and to delegitimize facts that are contrary to the propaganda,” she added, citing such efforts in 2016 when Duterte won the presidential election.

Much of Duterte’s overwhelming victory was attributed to a strong social media campaign, which an Oxford study later found to have employed an army of paid trolls.

Many of these social media pages were later used to attack journalists and news organizations, whose reporting was deemed critical of the Duterte administration.

Coronel described journalism as an “institution of accountability” despite efforts to discredit the profession.

“It’s not the sole institution but journalism is still important in holding the powerful to account wherever those powerful people are,” said during a Facebook live interview organized by the Ramon Magsaysay Award on Wednesday.

Coronel, academic affairs dean of the New York-based Columbia Journalism School, received the award—regarded as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize—for journalism, literature, and creative communication arts in 2003.

In an era of disinformation, journalism should serve as a “place for civilized conversation because all the other spaces are toxic or uncivil,” she said.

This function, she said, involves a “journalism that’s able to be more discerning, that’s able to take masses of information and be able to distill meaning and context and useful information for the public.”

“I think the people are realizing that democracies cannot operate without a world of shared facts,” she said.

“That’s why I’m confident also about journalism as a profession. There is still a need for professional fact-gathering, that if journalism or journalists didn’t exist, you would need to invent them.”