The Forum on the Press, Politics and Development, Manila, 9 December 1994
Among the institutions of civil society, the Press is perhaps the most influential in setting the agenda for progress for a democracy. Indeed very few institutions have the kind of hold on the hearts and minds of the people as that possessed by the media. Authoritarian figures, on their part, are even more sentient of the power of the Press, and employ every means at their disposal to ensure that it is always servile and submissive. A free society must always be vigilant against those who seek to perpetuate their dominance by maintaining a stranglehold on the Press. In this regard, the people of the Phillipines deserve our sincere admiration in their constant struggle to fortify the foundations of a free society. More than any others in our region they have had to endure successive ordeals on the road to democracy. Jose Rizal did not give up his life in vain for his spirit continues to inspire the generations of his compatriots after him.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great minds of this century, once said: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." The greatest challenge to democracy in developing societies is not merely to maintain the external features of democratic governance, but rather to ensure that it constantly serves the best interest of the people. Democracy may often be supplanted by anarchy or by ineffectual governance. A democratic government may be nothing more than what George Bernard Shaw described as one which "substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." If democracy is to be truly the means to empower the people, then it must be prevented from becoming a mere stage for the power play of the elite, with total disregard for the aspirations of the people. Political life in a democracy should be realized (in the words of Vaclav Havel) "not as the art of the useful but as practical morality, as service to the truth."
The progress and success of a country's democratic polity must be measured by, among other things, the number of families freed from the dungeons of poverty and destitution. Social and economic upliftment would not be possible without sustainable economic growth. Thus, the economic policy of a democratic government must be pro-business, promoting investment and entrepreneurship. Such a policy is often unpopular but necessary. However, promoting growth is not synonymous with giving a blank cheque to big businesses and conglomerates who, by promoting only their vested interests, give the pro-business policy a bad name. We need to promote genuine entrepreneurship, small and medium scale ventures, productive investments and to increase the supply of goods and services.
Rapid growth often enough leads to disparities and when these disparities become so wide economic and social apartheid sets in. This is most repugnant to our moral sense. Thus, on political as well as moral grounds, the promotion of growth cannot be sanctioned without adequate policies to promote social justice. The magic of the invisible hand of the market must be supplemented by the workings of the visible hand of affirmative action.
The growth of civil society, democracy and social consciousness has always been coterminous with the development of the Press. The role of the Press will continue to be to hold, as it were, the mirror up to society. Its infirmities and imperfections must neither be concealed nor magnified, its strengths and virtues justly and fairly reflected, neither obscured nor embelished.
The problem of Press control has always been projected to be the problem of developing societies. However, as Noam Chomsky has demonstrated, the problematique of the Press is not confined to societies like ours. Censorship of the coverage of the Gulf War in the Western media is now a well established fact. Our main concern here is role of the mass media in industrial societies in assiduously "manufacturing consent" and achieving "thought control" to serve the powers that be. Thus, information is no longer used to promote critical judgement, but to reinforce popular beliefs, prejudices and stereotypes by constant bombardment as well as subliminal indoctrination.
Societies in Asia will also continue to debate on Press freedom. Because of the awesome power it possesses the Press is often viewed with great trepidation. Napoleon Bonaparte was reported to have said: "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets." Thus any regime which is grounded on shaky political and moral foundations always seek to muzzle the Press. However, we should also hasten to remind ourselves, that for present-day governments to persevere in obstinate curtailment of Press freedoms is a course which would eventually lead to political suicide. I believe, to all intents and purposes, the days of effective censorship and control virtually powerless. But, most significantly, the people themselves will regard the continued muzzling of the Press as the very embodiment of tyranny and oppression, undermining the fundamental liberties essential to a civil society. This in turn will inevitably lead to the overthrow of the perpetrators.
Be that as it may, in some developing countries, the media's complaints about constraint and control are more often than not the result of their own imaginings. It is instructive that the thoughts and ideas that have survived and withstood the test of time were expressed by courageous people who risked their lives in times when speech was dangerous and censorship was the rule rather than the exception. Alas, in our own day, when Press freedom is virtually a reality, that freedom is often exercised in the pursuit of mediocrity and philistinism. To my mind the more fruitful debate is not so much about freedom from censorship , but rather the need for the media to emerge as the podium for the encounter of ideas and opinions as well as the catalyst for the emancipation of the mind from mediocrity. In some cases, superficiality and mediocrity has become so pervasive that intellectual discourses are sneered at and viewed with contempt. This is truly a betrayal of the journalistic ideal, for it is inconceivable that the raison d'etre for Press freedom is to provide a licence for the promotion of all that is trivial and frivolous.
Of course, the media cannot run away from the business of the day, that is reporting events and covering issues with fairness and objectivity. Admittedly fairness and objectivity depends to a certain extent on the ownership of a particular media institution, be it the government, political parties or a business tycoon. But it is not so much the ownership of the media which is crucial here. Rather it is the manipulation of the media by vested and selfish interests who have no regard whatsoever for truth, fairness, or any other ethical and moral considerations. And this manipulation they sometimes perform by an insidious process of imposing their will by remote control, as it were. It is therefore incumbent on the professional journalists themselves to have the moral courage and conviction to resist the temptations laid before them.
In the final analysis, the media must strive to transcend these self-serving interests. They must break away from the culture of mediocrity in order to foster a robust intellectual life and a fulfilling cultural environment. In this respect, the Press in the Phillipines stands out among those in South- east Asia as the most vigourous and tenacious in protecting its integrity and freedom. Others are watching closely how the Press here would develop and the direction it would take in exercising its hard earned freedom. It will be most inspiring if it succeeds in instituting a new model of journalism, departing from the conventional precepts and practices. Press freedom should not be used to give rein to the venting of sectarian sentiments, the manipulation of racial prejudices and religious bigotry, and the fabrication of lies. The model that we envisage is that of a free Press but committed to societal ideals and the enduring values in our traditions. We stress commitment precisely because freedom without commitment will strip the Press of its sense of direction. The Western Press is certainly free, but it has been drifting aimlessly for want of such commitment, which also reflects the state of its own society. Rather than thriving on sensationalism, acrimony, mud-slinging, and stirring up animosities, our Press should seek to harness societal energies towards the realization of cherished ideals: justice, virtue and compassion. These are the challenges thrown before us. Our media must take up the gauntlet and, in so doing, herald the beginning of the Asian renaissance.