By Melinda Quintos de Jesus
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
“Transformation in New Democracies” Conference organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, January 25, 2007
I would like to begin by asking you to place yourself in a moment of Philippine history, in the unfolding of events that many Filipinos still cherish in their hearts.
Imagine the tumultuous sounds and the mass of people lined up on the broad avenue called EDSA in Metropolitan Manila. Men and women, young and old, walking or standing, or on their knees in prayer. Some people held up rosaries. Some women carried flowers, offering these to the soldiers in a gesture of peace. Others simply raised their clenched fists. Others marched boldly in the frontlines to meet the military tanks that had been called out by then President Ferdinand Marcos to stop them.
After 14 years of strongman rule, a group of military officers, headed by General Fidel V. Ramos, had defected and were isolated in a military camp located on the same EDSA. Their plight which had been announced on a clandestine radio station Radyo Bandido (Bandit Radio) brought out the people to the streets, in an effort to protect them from troops loyal to the government.
On February 25, the fourth day of the barricades, these events were now covered by international media as a popular uprising against a long standing dictatorship. It was the first to be televised of such events, a phenomenon which would earn the name People Power.
This massive protest challenged a regime mired in corruption and sustained by continuous repression. These days marked the end of strongman rule and made possible the restoration of Philippine democracy.
Some 20 years later, a new generation of Filipinos may be too young to remember the moment. And the symbolic force of People Power itself seems to have been lost to the painful years of struggle that have dogged the transformation of the Philippines into a democracy. These first steps toward freedom were probably the most dramatic. But it takes more than freedom to make democratic change truly meaningful.
Ladies and gentlemen, I begin with this recollection as a way of dramatizing where I come from. I am a journalist who wrote in the media during Martial Law. I was part of the media who would conduct more probing coverage of the regime in what would be called the “alternative press.” In 1989, I helped to establish a private foundation, an NGO that would address the problems confronting press freedom. I have no academic credentials and can claim no real expertise, except the ideas and insights which have been drawn from experience, and the readings that I have forced myself to do to validate them.
My discussion of terms therefore is not for the purpose of instruction, as these are probably better understood by the experts and academics in the audience. I do so only to illustrate the confusion that is out there – the misunderstanding and misuse of the terms of democracy. This confusion has made it difficult to establish a common and shared framework of analysis, even for those who are engaged in the business of promoting democratic development.
Terms of Discussion
The assigned subject presumes that the media play a role in building up a nation or society under any kind of political system. The media serve as instruments for control and guidance, allowing authoritarian leaders to project their goals for the people. In democracies, the media play a role apart from government, serving independent functions and purposes.
Different kinds of political systems assign different roles to the media. The difference or contrast shows that the media are essentially neutral transmitters of information and ideas, reflecting the realities in which these channels operate.
Elections are generally recognized as the basic requirement of the democratic system. Democracy cannot be separated from the idea of representative government. The system calls for enough citizens to share the same choice. The result of the vote should express the will of the majority of the people.
The system can be parliamentary, where the legislative and executive are merged; or it can be a republican system with the separate but coordinate branches of government holding off each other in a system of check and balance. The important thing is that these have been chosen by the sovereign will of the people and not by self appointment, certainly not as inheritance, and not as a divine right.
People use the word to describe what they desire in terms of governance. Democracy represents the ideal, a system of good government that guarantees and protects people’s rights as well as provides public goods and services.
The democratic system has become identified with conditions that are required for democracy to grow and gain meaning, a system that has for its core the liberal values of freedom and equality. The holding of elections is the minimum requirement. The conditions, however, do not flow automatically from the exercise of the ballot.
These conditions include the rule of law, an effective judicial system, efficient and competent administrators. These conditions require a strong state with functioning agencies, existing for the public good. Without these conditions, elections may be only a matter of form, with little meaning or connection to these desired outcomes.
Democracy also requires an engaged citizenry. For without a level of public involvement, elections become only a game or competition among established forces in society.
These aspects demonstrate how Abraham Lincoln’s words accurately describe democracy as a government “of the people, for the people and by the people.”
Ideally, these citizens should have a real choice among the candidates seeking public office. In many elections in the 119 democracies in the world, as counted by Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Future of Freedom (2003), people’s choices are often quite limited, and the vote may be limited to a choice between two evils perhaps; or with only one person running for head office and one party to elect to their seats in parliament.
With the rise of democracy as a universal standard, this discussion should recognize the variations in the quality of democracies around the world. Not all democracies are the same. Elections have given power repeatedly to tyrants and dictators; as well as to corrupt and incompetent leaders. In such countries, then, elections do not necessarily result in good governance.
Democracies are not created equal.
The conditions which brought forth the democracies of the West were certainly different in background from one another and these conditions are even more radically different from those in countries in the so-called developing world. These differences constitute various factors such as history, population growth, land mass and natural resources, and all those other aspects, material or social, that affect growth and development.
Democracy also describes a way of life that grows out of the ideals of the democratic political system: liberty and freedom, equality in law, and the basic and fundamental rights of citizens. These values evolve a way of life involving certain processes: the opening up of political and economic systems to the participation of all members, the consequent empowerment of those previously excluded from the structures of power with access to power, the free flow of information, and a vibrant public exchange of views and news. Democratic development would have at its core the operative values of freedom and equality in law for all its citizens.
What about the term “development?”
The opening up of political and economic processes has linked democracy to economic growth, thus the presumption that democracy and development go together. But examples show that this is not always so. And these examples hold up how indeed development can proceed on separate levels. Are we referring to the development of political and social capital or the development of economic capital?
Representative government has been shown to be a very difficult process. An enlightened monarch could actually make things very good for his or her subjects. The examples of China and other countries with closed political systems have shown also how economic growth can be facilitated by a change in government policy, a shift that will make it easier for trade and markets to produce wealth.
In many democracies, the course of development may be faithful to the schedule of elections, but the electoral cycle leaves many in society without the benefits mentioned above. Examples of how damaged political cultures can stand in the way of democratic political and economic growth abound in the world of developing democracies, including the Philippines.
In the early 1990s, then Prime Minister of Singapore, now Senior Mentor Lee Kuan Yew criticized the stalling of economic growth in the country after People Power ousted Ferdinand Marcos. The problem, Lee Kuan Yew said, was that the Philippines had too much democracy. In a roundtable discussion sometime in the 90s, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a Jesuit and constitutional expert and at the time president of the Ateneo de Manila University, explained, and I paraphrase, “We in the Philippines have a democracy so that Filipinos can be free. The system is not designed to provide efficient and good government. What we need to do now, is to create good government out of our democracy.”
I bring this up to emphasize a central point, that neither democracy nor development can be handed to any people or country on a silver platter. It calls for shared commitment and hard work. It is a long term process.
As conditions in each country are different from one another, we see everywhere in the world democracy and growth proceeding more quickly or more slowly than others.
It is in this rough and shoddy terrain of developing democracies that we locate the question for the media. Once again, we need to deconstruct the term for the appropriate meaning.
The term “media” encompasses all kinds of communication channels. Lately, these refer to the mass media which facilitate the transmission or exchange among many of ideas, images, symbols, the content of high culture and popular entertainment. Such media systems can nurture democracy, not just as a system of government, but also as a way of life.
The press, however, refers more specifically to the exercise of journalism. A democratic dispensation assigns to the press media the task of informing the public about the issues and events that they need to know for them to be able to participate in public affairs. Newspapers and broadcast news media report on issues and events of significance, facilitate the exchange of views, encourages debate and discussion among those who disagree. At their best, journalistic media help to create a community of citizens who understand public issues, so they can share in the task of governance and take responsibility for the quality of public life.
From day to day, public education also calls for a media that explains and clarifies issues, policies, programs and services, holding these up to public scrutiny, and inviting critical observation. The function of media as “watchdog” involves providing information about misconduct and misdeeds in high places, where there is power to keep such wrongdoing from public knowledge. So investigative reporting occupies an important niche in a free press.
The above model does enhance democratic processes. But the media also depend on certain conditions for the system to flourish. Clearly, it is much more difficult for the media to play a constructive role in developing or faltering democracies. The reason is simple. The media are channels or systems of communication that reflect or mirror the problems and difficulties of the societies in which they operate.
The free press is vital to the vigor of the mature democracies that have been tested by time. But it plays an even more important role in making democratic development possible in the more challenging landscape of new or newly restored democracies.
Where there is no rule of law, where public conduct proceeds without the required sense of fairness and civility, the media can also become instruments of the ruthless and the powerful. They can be simply the instruments to be used by the competing factions or groups. In this situations, the media may lose the potential to give voice to those who have less and to promote a greater equality among citizens.
A Framework of Understanding
That is quickly said the framework of understanding of the subject. The quick summary simplifies a complex discussion. But for our purposes this morning, it will have to suffice. I had taken time to clarify the basic ideas or concepts about media and the press to enable us to set up a road map for the future of media in a developing democracy.
I will attempt to present some ideas drawn from current literature as well as the actual experience in the Philippines which provides an example of the problems confronting democracy and development.
Media in Society
Media reflect the weaknesses and strengths, the problems and opportunities inhering in the society in which they operate. The media are tools that a society can make use of to attain different things: control and cohesion, openness and diversity, and the empowerment of citizens through information.
States in Crisis
While media and press freedom are part of democratic arrangement, the effectivity of these instruments will vary. The study written by James Putzel and Joost van der Zwan for the Crisis States Research Center of the London School of Economics, the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania), and the Stanhope Center for Communications Policy Research describes the template of media freedom with two basic components: autonomy and privatization. Media should be independent, with freedom from government to be guaranteed by law. Media should also be in private hands, to provide a check to the power of government.
But their study reviews the experience in the world of new or newly restored democracies to suggest that in certain conditions, the template of free and privately owned media and press may not be appropriate. In a crisis situation, the media may be weighed down by the conditions or submit to the agenda of various competing forces.
These landscapes include countries in the following categories identified by the study:
1. Fragile State – A state significantly susceptible to crisis in one or more of its subsystems, particularly vulnerable to internal and
external shocks, and domestic and international conflicts.
2. Crisis State – a state under acute stress, where reigning institutions face serious contestation and potentially unable to manage
conflict and shocks.
3. Failed State – a condition of ‘state collapse” – e.g. a state that can no longer perform its basic security, and development
functions and that has no effective control over its territory and borders.
In the states described above, the free and privatized media become conditioned by the prevailing crisis and conflict and are in no position to facilitate democracy or development.
Democracies in Transition
I will add to these a category of “democratic transition.” In these transitions, the state can remain weak and unable or unwilling to enforce law and order. Officials are corrupt and courts inefficient or both. The degree of weakness and frailty varies. The term developing democracy would be appropriate to use to describe such a state.
The question of the role of the media and press is critical in countries like the Philippines and Thailand, where the state institutions function to a degree that allows government to proceed but remains vulnerable to radical political shifts and continuing political crisis. In these two countries, political discourse makes use of the terms “test of democracy” or “attacks against democracy,” suggesting that democracy may not be strong enough to withstand the trauma inflicted upon the systems and institutions. Elected leaders may display autocratic and dictatorial tendencies, and the political class, both economic and political, may not be interested in providing public service and the distribution of wealth and goods but only in the preservation of their positions of power.
In these countries, democracy may be understood as being in an early period of development. The task for the press should be the same as that assigned to the press in a more developed and well established democratic society. But in these states in transition, the press may need to do more.
The press should consider contributing to the task of basic public education, helping citizens to understand the roles of government institutions, their functions, the dilemmas of policy, and the context of competing views and forces when these occur. The citizens and voters in these societies may have gone through basic schooling but may not be able to continue learning as citizens. In time, the voters will end up failing in their responsibilities as citizens, primarily, in voting wisely and making poor choices for their leaders.
Unfortunately, the free press communities in developing democracies may be failing in this task of citizen education. Many working journalists are not aware of their place in the democratic system. Their jobs are shaped by the structures of power and influence, and the press too has become vulnerable to political or commercial pressures. Given failed and flawed governments, the press becomes easily subverted by tyrants, dictators, and corrupt and clever politicians.
Road Map: Media for Democratic Development
Sometime in the 1940s, a group of eminent thinkers in the US undertook the study of the role of the press to determine the legitimate expectations that the public can have of its service. Hutchins Commission released its report in 1947 and enumerated the following objectives for the free press in the US:
1. Provide a “truthful, comprehensive account of the day’s events in a context that gives them meaning”
2. Serve as a “forum for the exchange of comment and criticism”
3. Offer a “representative picture of the constituent groups of society”
4. Present and clarify the goals and values of society
5. Provide a way of reaching every member of the society by the currents of information, thought, and feeling which the press
supplies.” (as cited by Bollinger)
The report has since been used to develop a template of social responsibility for the press and media. Despite this effort, media products and services in many Western democracies have fallen short of these values and ideals.
A Commercial Free Press
But in the course of the growth of the press media, the conventions of the press have set forth criteria for the practice that do not always coincide with these goals. To determine what is newsworthy, journalists have been trained to look for news of broad and wide interest, news about prominent people, public figures, and celebrities. The “news” tends to emphasize the sensational, the extraordinary, and the out-of-norm. These criteria leave out many important and relevant news that citizens should know about. The issues that affect many marginalized communities are also ignored.
The free market system imposes a business model based on circulation of the media product, viewership ratings, and advertising. The model projects the journalistic activity of reporting and commentary for commercial ends. As a consequence, news has focused on the trivial and resort to news as entertainment which is easier to sell.
Other weaknesses become more pronounced when the press as an institution lacks professional maturity or competence. In the midst of political forces, the free press may not be so free after all, as it becomes captive to political and partisan groups,
and turns out news in the service of some other political agenda. Where corruption is rampant, the press tends to be part of the cycle with its own set of unethical practices, selling news and space or following the spin of stories without checking out the facts and the context of the stories.
In different transitions, societies have seen the press liberated from official regulation, even protected from laws that encroach on media autonomy. But more often than not, the media and press become tools of the established powers and facilitate the perpetration of the undemocratic forces in the political system.
In democratic transitions, the pendulum swing to freedom is so swift that the people are oblivious to the implications of the shift to freedom and democracy. Such change can give rise to excesses as well as outright abuse of press power, all of which give rise to complaints and to calls from different sectors, including government, for limits and regulatory sanctions, if not, return to control by government.
Given freedom from government interference, the press should develop its framework of self-regulation, recognizing the internal force inherent in the practice of freedom. As argued by American First Amendment scholar Lee Bollinger, autonomy has its costs and autonomy imposes control. He observes the image of the free press in America as “suffused with ethical content.” Journalistic standards would do well to reflect if the practice is to assist in the achievement of goals of democratic development.
These can be done through various established instruments, among them,
journalism ethics training, media monitors, and journalism reviews. There should be continuing education of journalists and media workers, especially in the principle and practice of democracy as well as the promotion of best practices and the encouragement of excellence. The formation of professional associations should hold their members to standards of practice. Citizen press councils or other venues for receiving complaints should force the press to listen to critical feedback. Finally, the market should involve its own checks. Media literacy empowers citizens to use the press more critically.
The last involves the public in the upholding media freedom as well as the social responsibilities of journalism as public service. A media literate public appreciates and understands the role of the press in society. The public can evaluate the performance of the press, voice its criticism of its failings as well as encourage and applaud its strong points.
Without media literacy, the public becomes a passive and indifferent consumer of media programs and services, providing the excuse for commercialism to shape unchecked media content and style. “This is what the people want. This is the kind of news that gets read. This is what rates.”
Shaping the character of the free press, self-regulation should not be about limiting press freedom. Rather, voluntary programs and mechanisms should enhance freedom for all, give voice to those without power, improve the press service by engaging all sectors in the public dialogue, broaden the bases of coverage so that the service fulfills its part in the democratic arrangement. A democratic theory for the press should underlie all efforts at self-regulation. If the assigned purpose for the press is providing information so that citizens can be involved in their governance, journalism must serve the broad advocacy for freedom and equality for all.
The road map takes us back to the central idea in democracy – the sovereignty of
the people and the role played by the citizen.
In promoting democratic development, the “community of democracies” should examine the participation of citizens in public affairs, the engagement of citizens in the scrutiny and evaluation of those representing them in government, and the capacity of citizens to monitor media performance, to give feedback to the press, if a free press is to thrive.
Democratic communities must foster a new relationship between the press and the public, more connected and more interactive. Such a relationship will evolve a new kind of journalism to meet the challenge of the age of democracy.
Bollinger, Lee C. Images of a Free Press. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Commission on Freedom of the Press. A Free and Responsible Press: A General Report on Mass Communications: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947.
Putzel, James and Joost van der Zwan. “Why Templates for Media Development do not Work in Crisis States: Defining and Understanding Media Development Strategies in Post-war and Crisis States”. Project Report. Crisis States Research Centre. London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 2005.
Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.