The elusive freedom of the press

bu-op-icons-benjieBy BENJIE OLIVEROS
Bulatlat perspective

During the dark days of Martial Law, only a few brave souls in media dared to challenge the Marcos dictatorship and its stranglehold on the press. While there was the mosquito press, the trailblazer among journalists was the late Joe Burgos, who dared publish the We Forum in 1982. He, together with his staff, was jailed for this. Defiant, right after his release, Burgos published the Pahayagan Malaya.

That was history. After the Marcos dictatorship was deposed by a people power uprising, the media was finally free. Right?

In November 2014, Bulatlat’s editorial was titled Press Freedom?. The editorial discussed the concentration of ownership and control by six giant media conglomerates internationally, and likewise, by a few wealthy families locally, and its impact on the freedom of the press.

Today November 17, 2016, Vera Files and Reporters without Borders made public the results of its research on media ownership in the Philippines and formally launched the Media Ownership Monitor. This provided a wealth of data and information on the concentration of ownership of media conglomerates in the country. Nevertheless, Vera Files and Reporters without Borders announced that it is still a work in progress.

The major findings of the research, which were lifted from the Summary of Findings report presented by Vera Files during the forum, were the following:

The media market is highly concentrated, both in terms of economic market power and audience share.

The two biggest media conglomerates cornered majority of the market share: ABS CBN Corporation’s revenue, in 2015, amounted to $817.04 million, with an advertising revenue of $453.88 million or 58.47 percent market share. In the same year, GMA Network Inc.’s revenue was $293 million, with advertising revenue of $264.61 million or a 20.97 percent market share. Together the two media conglomerates cornered 79.44 percent market share. The rest had to contend with the remaining 17.05 percent.

In terms of audience share, the two conglomerates cornered 80.72 percent of the viewing public. Their radio stations combined got 47.2 percent of the listening public.

Media ownership is still the exclusive enclave of the ruling class and the economic elite.

Ownership structures are on the surface legal, but the practice of corporate layering could lead to legal contraventions like related foreign ownership and maybe taxation. It could also be a way to mask the real owners.

Even if there is not much open political influence, there are still links between the political and media elite.

Religious groups have gained a foothold in media.

All these influence what the media covers and writes about and what it does not cover and write about. These also influence the slant of articles being published and broadcasted.

However, looking at the ties that bind in the web of ownership of media conglomerates represents only half of the picture of what and who influences media coverage. The other half could be seen in the list of major sponsors placing advertisements and information plugs in the different TV and radio stations, print and online publications. Major sponsors provide the bulk of the revenues of media conglomerates. And since media is a business, profits remain supreme over all considerations.

Unfortunately, Vera files said, media corporations are compelled to report only the amount in revenues generated from advertising placements. The list of major sponsors is still considered a “trade secret,” and thus media corporations are not required to disclose these.

As far as major sponsors are concerned, the big multinational companies that produce fast moving consumer goods such as Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, Nestle, etc. could be quite neutral, except for the fact that their placements are based on the ratings of the different networks. Hardly would these sponsors try to influence the reportage of media corporations. However, the mad scramble for ratings to attract advertising placements made media focus on entertainment and crime stories, thereby pushing to the sidelines reports that have a bearing on public interest.

Of interest are the influences of the more controversial sponsors such as mining and oil companies, telecommunications and utility companies. Mining companies have been accused of destroying the environment several times; oil, telecommunications and utility companies have been frequently accused of overpricing and overcharging customers. And, of course, the more controversies they are involved in, the more motivation they have for placing advertisements and ‘information plugs.’

How do media conglomerates that rake in a lot of advertising revenues from these companies write about the controversies and cases involving the latter? It would be interesting to analyze the reports of media conglomerates, with substantial placements from these companies, about controversies involving the latter. Or do media conglomerates report about these at all?

The government – specifically Government Owned and Controlled Corporations (GOCCs) and National Government Agencies (NGAs) – is one of the biggest sources of advertising placements. Does this not influence media coverage of controversies involving the government and its officials? While the links between the political and media elite may not be that apparent, would the media elite bite the hand that feeds them?

So back to the question: Is there press freedom at all under the type of democracy existing?

In 1960, A. J. Liebling, an American journalist, wrote in an essay published by the New Yorker, Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

But he was not the only one who arrived at such a conclusion. Decades earlier in 1941, in an essay titled “The Fourth and Fifth Estate,” American educator Norman Woelfel wrote:

It is foolish to assume, because in America we do not have an official propaganda agency dictating what shall be broadcast, that American radio is free. Like the press which is free for those who own and control it, the radio is free for those who can buy equipment, hire technicians and talent, and secure profitable advertising contracts.

Neither was this situation prevailing only in America. In 1945, Australian politician Arthur Calwell was quoted saying: “…there can be no such thing as freedom of the press, except for the owners and editors of newspapers, while capitalism lasts.”

Well, for as long as media is a business, it appears that it could never be free, at least as far as informing the public is concerned. So is there such a thing as ‘objective’ reporting under the prevailing situation?

Come to think of it, the press was most free when it was not free; when it fought against official censorship. Joe Burgos became the icon of press freedom because he published the We Forum, which exposed the violations and anomalies of the Marcos dictatorship, during the height of martial law. A paradox? ()

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