By Chit Estella
October 27, 2006
IN A country where libel cases have often been filed but have seldom prospered, occasions where public officials do present such charges have traditionally been regarded by journalists as par for the course. Hazards of the trade, so to speak, that can be lived with even as one goes about doing one’s job.
But the recent filing of libel suits by presidential spouse Mike Arroyo is of a different sort. The charges have been filed—sprayed, really—against a range of journalists who belong to newspapers as varied as their perceived orientations. Even the journalists who were sued would probably never be caught in one another’s company. So why is it that they suddenly have something, or someone, in common?
It has been said that all people can’t be right all the time, but can they all be wrong all the time? When journalists of all stripes find themselves at the receiving end of Arroyo’s ire, something must be afoot. This month’s issue of PJR Reports discusses the concerns raised by members of media in the wake of “typhoon Mike.”
Killings, libel suits, and even accidental deaths while on the job are some of the usual risks journalists take. But there is one other danger that is not often spoken of. It hangs above the heads of reporters as they go after their stories and write these. Occurring even less frequently than a libel case (at least, in these times), such a danger when it strikes comes like a bad dream that one prays to get awakened from. This is the danger of the retreating news source.
Of all relationships in media, that of the journalist and the news source is perhaps the most sacred. Journalists have been known to choose to go to jail rather than reveal their source who had imposed a condition of anonymity.
But what happens when the source is made of weaker stuff? Such was the experience of Arlyn dela Cruz when she reported on the adventure of an anti-terror expert who sneaked components of a bomb past security personnel in the country’s major domestic airports.
A source who turns around and disputes the details of his own story has all but cut a journalist at the knees. Journalists ask themselves why this happens. In the Samson Macariola case, obviously the results were far from what he had hoped for. Instead of reaping praise and possible job opportunities, what he got was the threat of possible arrest and loss of livelihood.
In the media community, it was found that Macariola had been actively looking for a venue in which to present his experiment and found this in Dela Cruz. Should such a behavior by a news source serve as a warning sign? Was there anything more the Philippine Daily Inquirer could have done to protect itself? The lessons are worth noting by all.
Now and then, a sliver of good news appears. This month, it was the conviction of three persons accused in the murder of Marlene Esperat. Though quick to note that the masterminds have yet to be punished as well, media organizations that have worked to bring justice to the Esperat family found cause to celebrate. It was much-needed rain in the middle of a seemingly unending drought.
In the meantime, much work remains to be done. Journalists need to be informed and trained so as to reduce the risk of becoming an unnecessary addition to the list of casualties. The conference recently conducted by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Davao City is an effort toward this end. So, too, are ongoing activities to establish and strengthen Citizen Press Councils that are meant to get the public involved in the creation and defense of the freedom of the press.
In the end, every effort adds up to achieve victory. And any victory, however long it takes, is never too small.