Thursday, January 20, 2005

Improbable tutorial

Improbable tutorial

Posted 05:49am (Mla time) Jan 20, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 20, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

CAN tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh in Northern Sumatra offer a tutorial for a press grappling here with heightened violence? Improbable? Read on...

Tidal waves drowned half of Serambi Indonesia Daily's 200 workers and flattened its presses. Serambi is one of 10 papers operated by PT Indopersta Primamedia. Nearest to the quake's epicenter, the paper was the hardest hit.

Yet, five days later, Serambi reappeared on newsstands. Edited by survivors, it was published from a small jerry-rigged plant in Lhokseumawe, a grueling five-hour drive from Banda. Tsunami slashed its circulation from 25,000 to 10,000.

"Sermabi published essential information on where to find food, medical help and news of relatives and friends," the World Association of Newspapers noted. "It is a saga of remarkable courage."

For two weeks following its comeback, Serambi was distributed free. Even in the best of times, the paper struggled as it publishes in a region wracked by a violent independence movement. Today, it's sold for 1,500 rupiah (16 US cents).

"How could they publish five days after the disaster, with half the workers lost and no ads?" asked Director Sentrijanto. "The answer is: They felt it's their responsibility as the only local newspaper published in Aceh."

Serambi is a tale of rare journalistic grit. But for those who'd muzzle the press here, it's a stinging tutorial.

Assassination is the ultimate censorship. Since 1986, there have been 59 journalists murdered. (Martial law curbs prevented a body count during the Marcos dictatorship.) No triggerman, let alone mastermind, has been convicted. "Can we really say we enjoy freedom of the press when it must be practiced under the shadow of a gun?" editor Teodoro Locsin Jr. wondered aloud.

But these assaults recently metastasized into a more vicious form: Arsonists are the new censors. Masked gunmen lobbed a Molotov bomb into a P35-million Outside Broadcast (OB) van of ABS-CBN. "Group K" owned up to the fire-bombing. It charged the network with "biased reporting" against the late Fernando Poe Jr. in the presidential election.

Smarting from "living-high-on-the hog" reports while in Hong Kong, ousted President Joseph Estrada weighed in. He endorsed incendiary retaliation. The fireball should be "a lesson to the media who are one-sided," Estrada told the Inquirer.

There are corrupt journalists, fumed the man necklaced with plunder charges. "Some of you are worse than “kotong” (mulcting) cops. Kotong cops go away when you give them money, some of your colleagues come back for more again and again." He should know.

A press card does not exorcise moral rot. And some newsmen serve as megaphones for the powerful. "A free press is not necessarily an angelic press," Judge Samuel King wrote.

We have professional lapses from inaccuracy, biased commentary to superficiality. Many "substitute easy cynicism for hard reporting." The current court case on the right of reply underscores that.

Serambi is about a craft demanding a commitment that, as Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, almost resembles the priesthood.

"Nobody ... who is not ready to live only for the profession can survive in this incomprehensible and voracious craft," this Columbian editor and novelist wrote. Here, "the end product is finished when the story is done, as if it were the end of everything -- but never leaves one in peace, because it restarts again, with even more ardor, the following minute."

That ideal prodded Serambi's decimated staff to restart the paper. It's the same "fire in the belly" that shaped the life work of journalists like Teodoro Locsin Sr., Mochtar Lubis, Joaquin "Chino" Roces, Katherine Graham, Jose Burgos Jr. and Tarzie Vittachi, among others.

Columnist Amando Doronila cited "three lessons" after Manila Times owners knuckled under Estrada's pressure: "First, no president succeeded in gagging the press within a democratic system. Second, economic pressure and other forms of blandishment -- including tax investigations -- failed to silence it as an institution within a system of checks and balances. Third, it took a dictatorship to curtail press freedom, but not completely."

Estrada initially welcomed (later recalled it as a "joke") arson as a solution for press failings, real or conjured. This is consistent with his dislike for the media that could not be cajoled into subservience.

"Estrada interprets his conflict with the press in class terms," Asiaweek wrote in August 1999. "The oligarchies of this country, he says referring to wealthy media magnates, don't want me to succeed in my program to help the poor."

That rationale underpinned his failed drive to cripple the Inquirer by getting "friendly" advertisers to back out. "What the President apparently wants is for us to publish only the good news," this paper editorialized. "We cannot do this just to be in the good graces of the President -- or any president."

The Serambi Indonesia Daily's tutorial may strike a chord in the press here. But Estrada's belated retraction of flame-throwers as redress for press grievances shows this example will be lost on this "leader of the opposition."

Not surprising. He can't even tell whether his name is Jose Velarde or what.


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