Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day

Every 3rd of May, since 1993, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day. For this year in which we will be holding the National and Local Elections, our celebration of WPFD gains greater significance for our nation's political life as it underscores the link that access to accurate and fair information has with democratic governance.

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WPFD was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly following a recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO's General Conference in 1991. It was viewed as an "opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty."

Moreover, behind the UNESCO recommendation for the staging of such a celebration is the recognition of a fundamental human right that was stated in Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: the freedom of expression.

While in our local  contexts, the risks to the lives of journalists and media broadcasters had not been as pronounced as in other areas in the country (Mindanao, for instance) or abroad (the Middle East, for example), the threats to our freedom of expression in general and to press freedom in particular in Bikol are no less pernicious. And in view of the May 2010 Elections, a particular threat increases in its degree of menace due to it being frequently overlooked.

Which threat is this?

Chiefly, it is the unfortunate fact that many local journalists and media broadcasters are not financially autonomous. When members of the press cannot adequately earn their keep, many become vulnerable to being "bought." They become vulnerable to being beholden, mostly because of "utang na loob," to moneyed and powerful individuals. Rarely discussed and even a source of embarrassment, this threat to local press freedom is often over shadowed by the more sensational (but relatively infrequent) "death threats" issued to media practitioners. To risk death to proclaim the truth seems more ennobling than to risk living in poverty with its numerous petty humiliations and maintain one's integrity.

Consequently, when members of the press are beholden to wielders of political power, as in the case of local media outlets which pride themselves in being de facto official radio stations of influential politicians, checks against the latter's abuse of power become very difficult. This is because it becomes tantamount to biting the hand that feeds you. Thus, such media outlets become purveyors of propaganda of the mayor, the congressman, the governor, the President. Such media outlets come to the defense of their patrons, and not of the truth.

At a time when discernment of our nation's and communities' leaders is most crucial, a "bought" press is just as insidious as a silenced press. A beholden or bought press distorts information about a candidate or a public official, cloaks irregularities of government officials, and dismisses criticisms against them. Ultimately, a beholden or bought press thwarts democracy and its processes, both of which are premised on the citizens' access, not only to facts and information, but to the truth.

The celebration of WPFD serves to remind us against such threats to press freedom and to democracy, and challenges us to confront them together with our media practitioners.