By Chit Estella
May 30, 2006
During the waning Marcos years, the late Mark Fineman who was covering the Philippines for the Los Angeles Times once loudly asked if anyone had a match so he could light his cigarette. Faster than he could finish his sentence, two Filipinos seated beside him quickly offered their lighters, almost shoving these in the face of the startled American journalist.
“I only need one,” the embarrassed Fineman muttered.
Clearly, something more than the much-vaunted Filipino hospitality and over-eagerness to please a foreign visitor was at work here.
At that time, the local mainstream press was under the heels of the dictatorship. Only the foreign press, which even Marcos would not dare to touch, could report freely on the ruler’s misdeeds. In the latter years of one-man rule, the reports became increasingly negative—and increasingly loud.
That Marcos would lose power soon after was later attributed by some people—including a number of foreign journalists themselves—to the efforts of the foreign press. For those Filipinos who began fighting the dictatorship long before the first critical story on Marcos was written by a foreign correspondent, nothing could be farther from the truth.
But the role of the foreign press can be instructive in other ways. It can very well be the bellwether of the international community’s opinion regarding a particular leader. Because a local situation must first become so bad before it can attract any international attention, criticism by the foreign press can also serve as a predictor of a president’s downfall.
That is why the recent highly critical editorial by the New York Times was received with much trepidation by Malacañang under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. That is also why the local press took note of the editorial.
Still, it must be asked: do present conditions bear any resemblance with those of the past? Would the similarities include a repeat of the foreign press’s role as harbinger of bad news for a ruler?
PJR Reports asked some foreign correspondents based in Manila for their opinion on the role of the foreign press in shaping the political fortunes of a country. Twenty years after 1986, they offer a tempered view of the past and the present.
For now, it would seem that it is the press that has more worrying to do than the administration.
In many countries, many journalists continue to work under repressive conditions, even getting jailed for deeds that, in other countries, are a prerequisite to responsible journalism. Their conditions remind us that World Press Freedom Day is still a dream rather than a reality. Across Asia, governments in restrictive countries have taken steps to control the newest form of mass media: cyberspace. It is a medium whose power has yet to reach its full potential but governments and cyberspace users both know how awesome this could be. How to use such power responsibly and how to protect it were the subjects of a recent conference on the Internet.
Past or present, old or new—mass media will never cease to shape our world or whatever corner of it we are in. In this age of “citizen media” where every person has the capacity to function as a journalist, it becomes even more important to understand the power that we all hold in our hands.