Seares: Striking back at the press

Atty. Pachico A. Seares

NEWS sources, especially politicians and other high public officials, are also human beings who feel pain and anger when they are attacked in media and some may want to return the assault.

They try “public relations” first: seek friendship, extend favors or, for some, give bribes. And woo not just editors and reporters but also newspaper publishers and broadcast station owners and managers.

If p.r. fails, in some localities where peace and order is shaky and the police are under the thumb of the politician, threats and violence are used. Journalists are usually killed where a political boss rules and gets away with murder.

Subtle methods

Elsewhere, especially in urban centers, methods of reprisal are more subtle but no less identifiable in intent.

Common “hit backs” are inspections on fire safety conditions of a broadcast station, tax audit on a newspaper’s business operation, or making access to its premises difficult by traffic ban.

The include petty moves such as barring a TV station’s van from parking, removing propaganda materials for a radio program, or checking health papers of a newspaper’s canteen.

A local official can do any of those things. The media outlet may complain about selective law enforcement but can’t prove it. It’s within the authority of the local government. How much more if it’s exercised by the president?

Fighting the giants

During the past weeks, the national broadsheet “Philippine Daily Inquirer” and the broadcast network ABS-CBN have been the subject of verbal attacks from President Duterte.

Choice of targets isn’t surprising. The two giant media outlets have more clout and reach to influence public opinion. And they have been “hostile” to the president, especially on controversial issues. Or so they are perceived to be. Inquirer insists it has been fair and accurate while ABS-CBN chooses not to reply.

Often, the complaint is generalized: no specifics where media error or negligence occurred. At times, the news source just doesn’t like a story or feature because it hurts his image.

Same situation in news gathering where lapses of the reporter or columnist are not specified. A public official may shun questions from a media outlet or even ban its reporters. Or, also for spite, give the information to the outlet’s competitors. For no other apparent reason than an “adverse” story or opinion.

And no arbiter to say who’s right, whether the news source’s anger is deserved, since nobody rates a media outlet’s performance. In a way, its readers or audience judges by continuing or dropping their patronage. But their collective sentiment may take time to show results.

Something they want

Duterte says Inquirer and ABS-CBN suck but he doesn’t say where they are wrong. U.S. President Trump goes further: he publicly insults journalists, derides news outets, and calls media “public enemy No. 1,” a shotgun blast that doesn’t spare even media outlets that always root for him.

Aside from intolerance of criticism, Trump must have some agenda in bullying media and degrading its work. Duterte doesn’t hide his: Inquirer and ABS-CBN are hurting his image and their owners want something from the government. A realty development firm, whose owners also own the Inquirer, would like to extend a lease of government land in Makati. ABS-CBN, whose franchise will expire soon, wants to renew it. Duterte says he has valid and legal reasons for denying their requests.

Duterte thinks Inquirer and ABS-CBN both hurt his image “unfairly.” On the broadcast network, there’s the additional motive that it allegedly didn’t refund him for commercials that it refused to air during the 2016 campaign. His tit for their tat: don’t give them what they want now.

Where vulnerable

One Philippine president went as far as instigating an advertisers boycott against a newspaper. Another president shut down all “hostile” media outlets. In the U.S., Trump talked of jailing journalists to whom stories are leaked and changing libel laws to make media pay for “unjust” criticism.

News sources are getting bolder in using power to hit back at media, apparently to tame if not to muzzle. A weak flank in a media news outlet would be where its owners are vulnerable in their business dealings with the government.