Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart, and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

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Ressa’s reckless ‘rappling’ (Updated)

“Rappler”, a portmanteau word coined from “rap” and “ripple”, is the name of a fledgling web site that describes itself as a “a social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change”, and whose team promises “uncompromised journalism that—hopefully—inspires smart conversations and ignites a thirst for change”. Such statements betoken the hand of its CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist and the former chief of the News and Current Affairs Division of ABS-CBN, where her significant contributions included the citizen journalism campaign “Boto Mo iPatrol Mo”. If Ressa’s recent behavior is any indication, however, Rappler may not so much stimulate dialogue as stifle it. Although silence, in all fairness, is certainly an example of change in our generally disorderly democracy, is this the kind of change that is warranted?

Blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago had earlier published “Going to the dogs“, in which she stated her opinion on the discussion generated by a heated dispute between Rappler and the University of Santo Tomas (UST)—a dispute that was caused by a controversial story written by Rappler editor-at-large Marites Dañguilan-Vitug. Over the course of the post, Santiago raised what I believe to be important questions regarding the brave new world of online media and the directions that public discourse on such media needs—and has yet—to take. When said post was brought to Ressa’s attention via a Twitter update, however, Ressa did not only take exception to Santiago’s view that Rappler revealed a pro-administration bias by featuring the recently launched, meme-friendly tourism campaign, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” without investigating its costs, among others. In addition, Ressa pulled rank as a professional journalist and proceeded to imply that Santiago was guilty of libel: reckless moves that are utterly injurious to the digital citizenship that Ressa purports to be a passionate advocate of.

Surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that, in these islands, libel has all too often been used as a weapon with which to harass media workers—a notorious wielder is former First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, who, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), filed more than 50 cases against 46 journalists starting in 2003, before electing to drop all charges in 2007 as a putative gesture of peace toward the press—including her own Rappler colleague Vitug.  More to the point, surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that it behooves one to fully comprehend a text before rapping out statements rippling with ire: Ressa was offended—misguidedly so—by Santiago’s supposed suggestion that Rappler had been paid to do a story on “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, when in fact Santiago’s statement was, “Rappler has quietly revealed itself to be about helping out government instead of being a critical voice that at the very least asks: how much was paid [to BBDO Guerrero, the advertising agency behind] the campaign and is it worth it? I guess no questions like that for ‘uncompromised journalism’ now tagging itself as ‘citizen journalism’.”

Whether one agrees with Santiago’s attribution of bias—my own (perhaps potentially libelous) guess would be that Rappler was motivated primarily, if not exclusively, by a desire to drive up site traffic—this unfortunate episode bodes ill not only for the state of literacy in the country, but also for the future of the local mediascape. Can intelligent conversations and positive social changes possibly take place in an environment populated by denizens who, cleaving to Ressa’s inglorious example, refuse to read well, bristle at the slightest expression of disapproval, reject calls to become self-reflexive and accountable, and betray no qualms about ascribing malice to parties with whom they disagree?

The situation at hand becomes particularly interesting when one considers it vis-à-vis a recent piece by Ressa, in which she serves up the high “power-distance index” (PDI) of the Philippines as the reason that members of the intelligence community did not object to President Aquino’s initiation of countermeasures against a terrorist threat of questionable credibility. The PDI is a measure of the extent to which the less powerful in a given society accept and expect the unequal distribution of power. (It may be worth remarking that Ressa fails to contextualize the PDI within the larger theory of the dimensions of national culture formulated by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, or to acknowledge that said theory, in spite of its usefulness and influence, is hardly the last word in the study of culture.) Ressa asserts that the PDI of the country “helps explain why Filipinos have such respect for authority; why people ‘know their place;’ why true debate in an organization rarely happens if it includes the boss”.

While Ressa’s conclusion to her article seems to show that she frowns on the character of the relationships that a high PDI tends to produce—she warns those in authority that they need to “gather information and guard even more against [their] knee-jerk reactions and biases” because their subordinates “will rarely contradict [them]—even if [they’re] wrong”—Ressa herself appears to be the best illustration of the Philippine PDI, or, more accurately, what happens when heretofore unchallenged PDI assumptions are suddenly breached.

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Update (16 Jan 2011; 10:29 PM GMT +8): Angela Stuart Santiago believes that a “public apology via social media is in order” but doesn’t know if Ressa is up to it. Read her take in “Calling out Ressa“.

Journalism as barbarism

The furor that continues to rage around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, and specifically Mideo Cruz’s installation Poleteismo, one of the works featured in said exhibition, has taken the form of a battle between blasphemy and censorship—an unfortunate development, in my view, as both positions seem predicated on a clear-cut, straightforward duality between how the public has responded to the work and how it ought to respond to the work. Whether the situation will shape-shift into something more capable of accommodating a greater, more complex range of possibilities remains to be seen, but that it has been reduced to such crude terms can be attributed in part to the manner that the mass media thoroughly maltreated the relevant issues.

It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.) As someone who has seen Poleteismo for himself, I find that interpretation completely untenable: the only element of the work that could be said to have a connection to the bill would be the condoms, and I saw no compelling reason to draw that connection—not least because the proposed measure is concerned with more than just prophylactics.

But the burden of the blame for the frenzied character of the dispute is not only for Webb, “XXX”, or ABS-CBN to bear. Understanding, no doubt, that anything related to the controversial piece of legislation would serve as a reliable magnet for rapid, even rabid, reactions, which would then translate into increased ratings, several prominent members of the fourth estate wasted no time jumping into the fray in order to whip the public into a state of hysteria.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Shattering the silence: An open letter to the Philippine writing community

From the moment that sports blogger Jaemark Tordecilla brought to the light of public attention the fact that Alfred “Krip” A. Yuson had plagiarized an article by GMA News Online sportswriter Rey Joble, entire portions of which appeared in a piece under Yuson’s name in the April 2011 issue of Rogue magazine, we, members of the Philippine reading public, have followed the issue avidly and with great concern as to its resolution.

Our interest is rooted primarily in the fact of Yuson’s prominent position in the cultural matrix. As Tordecilla pointed out in his exposé, Yuson is a Hall of Fame awardee of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, arguably the most prestigious literary distinction in the country. In addition, he has authored and/or edited several publications in different genres, has won recognition for his work at home and abroad, evaluates the output of other writers for the purpose of competitions and workshops—not least among them the annual Silliman University National Writers Workshop, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—teaches with the Department of English at Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), and helped found organizations like the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC) and the Manila Critics Circle (MCC). Finally, many of the texts that he has produced have found their way into the classroom as standard readings, which likely secures a place for him in the canon of Philippine literature.

It need hardly be said that Yuson’s stature as a writer, teacher, and gatekeeper affords him not only great power, but also a commensurate degree of responsibility. We believe that he has shown himself undeserving of the one and unequal to the other by virtue of how Yuson has thus far dealt with the matter in Tordecilla’s blog and in his own weekly The Philippine Star column. In these responses, rather than simply acknowledging the offense and apologizing for it, he offers up excuses—his advanced age, deadline pressure, and exhaustion, among others—deployed in rhetoric that belies his claims to contrition.

Moreover, Yuson seeks to confuse the issue by invoking the fraught relations between author and editor, in spite of the fact that his engagement with these relations, as well as with the concept of plagiarism, lacks the self-reflexivity, rigor, and intelligence required in order for it be tenable or acceptable. That he would resort to such subterfuge and at the same time admit that he had deliberately omitted any indicators that he had lifted material from Joble, like reportorial credits and purportedly “clunky” quotation marks, is breath-taking in its audacity and impunity. Surely integrity ought not to be incinerated upon the altar of aesthetics.

It is in this regard that we commend GMA News Online for its decision not to renew Yuson’s contract as editor at large. It is in the same regard that we profess ourselves disturbed and outraged by the deafening silence with which the writing establishment has met this controversy. The plagiarism of Yuson does not involve him alone: to the extent that he is representative of—because deeply imbricated in—the larger world of Philippine letters, his act also necessarily implicates the figures and structures that make up that world. The prevalent reluctance, nay, refusal among Yuson’s peers to openly condemn him would seem to indicate cowardice at best, and complicity at worst. Neither speaks well of our writers, journalists, scholars, and institutions—and may even be symptomatic of a more deeply entrenched cancer of corruption in our cultural sector.

What is certain is this: allowing the scandal to fester in a season of indifference would be tantamount to a virtual relinquishment of any moral authority and credibility that the Philippine writing community may have.

In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned:

Condemn the act of plagiarism that Yuson committed. We reiterate what is generally accepted knowledge in journalism and the academe: plagiarism consists of misrepresenting the work of others as one’s own, and is considered a heinous violation of ethical standards. Furthermore, when one lifts information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, formatting, and documentation, one has already committed plagiarism, and no amount of laziness, carelessness, or forgetfulness can be admitted as an exculpatory factor. We also denounce Yuson’s attempts to evade accountability for his actions by forwarding arguments that, as the Center of Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) has pointed out, tend toward the legitimization of plagiarism. Finally, we decry Yuson’s callous and cavalier treatment of Rey Joble and the effort that he put into his work as a sportswriter.

Challenge the members of the Philippine writing community to make an unequivocal stand against Yuson’s plagiarism. At the very least, we expect Rogue magazine and The Philippine Star to emulate GMA News Online in its commitment to integrity. Associate Justice Maria Lourdes P. Sereno, in her dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court decision to exonerate her colleague Mariano del Castillo from charges of plagiarism, argues that when entities involved in the intellectual life of a culture uphold guidelines against plagiarism, these bodies “are not making themselves out to be error-free, but rather, they are exerting themselves to improve the level of honesty in the original works generated in their institution”. It is true that valuable questions have been raised about the very notion of originality from various fields of inquiry, but we contend that the specificity of the situation at hand calls for no such questions, and would invest it with more profundity than it deserves.

Enjoin the institutions of Philippine letters to cooperate in order to educate their constituents and the wider public about plagiarism. Contrary to Yuson, plagiarism is not a “blooming buzzword” but a chronic problem, which many a teacher will no doubt confirm. Recognizing and avoiding plagiarism is a matter of acquiring particular skills, which, as this incident would seem to illustrate, are not taught as well or as widely as they ought to be. The need for these skills will become especially urgent as our society becomes increasingly knowledge-based. We presume to suggest that Ateneo de Manila University, unfortunately entangled as it has become in various plagiarism disputes, take the initiative in bringing students, teachers, writers, readers, and institutions together to work through this admittedly complex matter. Regardless of who takes the lead, however, Yuson’s offense constitutes a teachable moment for us all, and should not be allowed to pass from our cultural memory unremarked and ignored for the sake of a spurious harmony.

(SGD.) Karen Connie Abalos (SGD.) Mark Angeles (SGD.) Genevieve Aquino
Planet Philippines; Illustrado Magazine; University of the Philippines Manila Kilometer64 Poetry Collective University of the Philippines Los Baños
(SGD.) Reginald S. Arceo (SGD.) Philip Jorge P. Bacani (SGD.) Noel Sales Barcelona
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila Lawyer Editor-in-Chief, INANG BAYAN
(SGD.) Johnalene Baylon (SGD.) Brian Brotarlo (SGD.) Manuel Buencamino
Writer Writer Opinion columnist, Business Mirror
(SGD.) Karl Bustamante (SGD.) Asia Flores Chan (SGD.) Liberty Chee
Editor, Marshall Cavendish International Singapore Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Graduate Student, National University of Singapore
(SGD.) Charles Edric Co (SGD.) Adam David (SGD.) Cocoy Dayao
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila Writer Editor-in-Chief, The Pro Pinoy Project
(SGD.) Christa I. De La Cruz (SGD.) Erica Clariz C. De Los Reyes (SGD.) Karlitos Brian Decena
Graduate student, University of the Philippines Diliman Alumna member, Heights; Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop Journalism student, University of the Philippines Diliman; Contributor, Firequinito.com
(SGD.) Johann Espiritu (SGD.) Elise Estrella (SGD.) Anna Razel Estrella
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila Private citizen Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila
(SGD.) Jesser Eullo (SGD.) Katrina Fernando (SGD.) Karen Mae Frondozo
Faculty member, De La Salle University-Dasmariñas Copy editor Graduate student, University of the Philippines Diliman
(SGD.) Russell Stanley Geronimo (SGD.) Lolito Go (SGD.) Ronald F. Gue
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila; Fellow, 48th Silliman University National Writers Workshop Kilometer64 Poetry Collective Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila
(SGD.) Marie Rose G. Henson (SGD.) Ken Ishikawa (SGD.) Leonides C. Katigbak  II
Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Private citizen Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop
(SGD.) Jabin Landayan (SGD.) Gomi Lao (SGD.) Dean Lozarie
Teacher Creative Director Journalism student, University of the Philippines Diliman
(SGD.) Aleck E. Maramag (SGD.) Alessandra Rose F. Miguel (SGD.) Francis T. J. Ochoa
Alumna, De La Salle University; Fellow, 48th Silliman University National Writers Workshop Alumna member, Thomasian Writers Guild; Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop Assistant Sports Editor, Philippine Daily Inquirer
(SGD.) Jonathan Corpus Ong (SGD.) Wilfredo B. Prilles, Jr. (SGD.) Nikki Erwin C. Ramirez
Alumnus, Ateneo de Manila University; Sociologist, University of Cambridge City Planning and Development Coordinator (CPDC), Naga City Co-founder, NullPointer.ph
(SGD.) Marck Ronald Rimorin (SGD.) Del Camille Robles (SGD.) Orlando Roncesvalles
Writer; Blogger Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Blogger, FOO Law and Economics
(SGD.) Gerry Rubio (SGD.) Joanna Ruiz (SGD.) Faith Salazar
Publication Consultant, The CSC Statesman, Catanduanes State Colleges Editor, Ateneo de Manila University ISBX Philippines
(SGD.) Jaime Oscar M. Salazar (SGD.) Maria Teresa M. Salazar (SGD.) Chris de Pio Sanchez
Graduate student, University of the Philippines Diliman Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Consultant
(SGD.) Vincenz Serrano (SGD.) Nik Skalomenos (SGD.) Angela Stuart-Santiago
Ateneo de Manila University Private Citizen Writer; Blogger
(SGD.) Jamila C. Sule (SGD.) Ergoe Tinio (SGD.) Martin Tinio
Teacher, On-Um.org; De La Salle University-Dasmariñas Marketing Associate, Adarna House Analyst
(SGD.) Jaemark Tordecilla (SGD.) Xenia-Chloe H.  Villanueva
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism UP Quill; Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop

April 28, 2011
Philippines

[NOTE: The signatures for this open letter were solicited from 9:00 PM (GMT +8) on April 26 until 5:00 PM (GMT +8) on April 28.]

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[via Interlineal]

Ruins and monuments: A collective statement on the plagiarism of Krip Yuson

Alfred "Krip" A. Yuson

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

—T. S. Eliot, “Philip Massinger

While we may be growing old, straining under the constant pressure of deadlines, and feeling overworked—and who, in truth, does not?—we may not be as jaded as we think we are: when blogger Jaemark Tordecilla of Fire Quinito exposed the fact that multi-awarded writer Alfred “Krip” Yuson had plagiarized entire paragraphs from an article by GMA News Online sports reporter Rey Joble for a piece that was published in the current issue of Rogue Magazine, we must admit to feeling no small degree of disappointment and outrage.

We find that we can only agree with Tordecilla when he concludes his post with, “Fuck that. We deserve so much better.” That such a sentiment has to be articulated in the first place is almost as dismaying as the wrongdoing itself, of course, because Yuson is no callow wordsmith, and therefore should be no stranger to the concept of intellectual honesty. Insofar as the realm of Philippine letters can be conceived of as a game, Yuson is one of its most prominent professional players, which even the most cursory survey of his curriculum vitae would show: he is the author and/or editor of several books in different genres, has won both local and international recognition for his work, evaluates the output of other, younger writers in competitions and workshops, and is a faculty member of the Department of English at Ateneo de Manila University.

[Read the rest in Interlineal.]

The media and the Manila hostage crisis: Preliminary notes

In the 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Merry takes Pippin to task for stealing the palantír of Orthanc from a sleeping Gandalf and gazing into it, an act that sets off a terrifying encounter with Sauron and places the Quest in peril. “Why did you look?” Merry rails. “Why do you always have to look?” When Pippin says that he cannot help himself, Merry retorts, “You never can.”

The eye may be helpless, as the poet Jorie Graham says, “when the image forms itself, upside-down, backward,/driving up into/the mind,” but when “the world/unfastens itself/from the deep ocean of the given”, ought I/eye resign myself to helplessness, content myself with merely looking on? Ought I/eye not to attempt a refastening, however small or ultimately futile the gesture?

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Newly arrived with a companion in Ayod—a village in the famine-stricken country of Sudan—and distressed by the sight of people starving to death, even as he sought to lend his efforts to an overwhelmed feeding center, the young man wandered into the open bush in order to try and calm himself. A soft, high-pitched noise caught his attention, prompting him to seek its source.

He traced the animal-like sound to a clearing, where he found an emaciated toddler—a little girl who was no more than skin and bones—whimpering pitifully. She was too weak to stand, and was crawling toward the very center he had just left. As he crouched before her, a vulture landed a short distance away, perhaps recognizing that, with a bit of luck, a meal was soon to be had.

The man would later recount that, in the wake of the appearance of the bird, he had waited about 20 minutes, hoping in vain that the scavenger would spread its wings.

Then, taking the utmost care not to disturb the tableau, the man raised his camera to his eye, meticulously framed his shots, and took several photographs.

Once he had finished with his pictures, he chased away the raptor, sat under a tree to smoke cigarettes, and talked—he claimed—to God, as he watched the gaunt little girl resume her struggle. He cried as well—according to his companion, when they reunited, the man was still wiping the tears from his eyes, saying he could not wait to go home, to see his own daughter, to embrace her.

The name of that man was Kevin Carter, and he was a South African photojournalist.

A little over a year after one of the images of the toddler and the vulture that he had taken was published in the New York Times, and subsequently reproduced in other publications around the world—becoming, in its way, an icon of Sudan, and, more generally, of the extreme hunger and poverty that many still suffer from—Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

As for the Sudanese girl, whom Carter had abandoned, her fate remains unknown.

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Sudanese girl and vulture by Kevin Carter

Photograph by Kevin Carter, courtesy of BBC h2g2. No copyright infringement intended.

I have encountered this, the most in/famous of Carter’s photographs, several times, but whenever I look at it, I feel a sense of horror: horror not so much at what it depicts, or at its formal, even sublime, beauty as an image, but at the fact of its existence. Carter’s picture does not merely re-present a long-gone moment—like all other visual records, it re-presences a particular way of seeing the world: in this instance, the kind of gaze that lights upon a famished child being eyed by a vulture and recognizes an opportunity—not to come to the aid of another, but to distance oneself from that other by retreating behind the lens of the camera and taking the best possible shot.

That the language of the camera, which is to say the language of photography and its sister arts of television and cinema, seethes with force is not, I think, a coincidence: moments, situations, and events are invariably caught, captured, shot, snapped, or taken—rather like animals hunted for their meat, while the resultant pictures and clips are the preserved carcasses mounted for display. The acts of seeing, of recording what one sees, and of sharing that record—these can be violent acts, especially when one is confronted with tragedy.

The violence is inherent in the decision to aestheticize, to render spectacular (that is, to transform into spectacle)—pain and misfortune, thereby acquiescing to the power of the structures that inflict them, as well as anaesthetizing whatever sympathy and care might be summoned for the ones who suffer—and such violence is everywhere perpetuated in the name of telling the truth, which, in our time, is no longer the province of prophets or soothsayers, but of reporters.

It may be true that Carter was only there to document what he saw in order that others might be moved into assuming the burden of addressing the problems of Sudan. It is equally true that the feeding center toward which the girl was crawling was only a short walk away, and Carter neither brought the child to the center, nor asked the center staff to rescue her, if, as some have argued, he had been explicitly forbidden by health workers to touch the children, on account of their depressed immune systems.

*

Much ink has been spilled and much air has been heated in the debate over the manner in which the local mass media covered the hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand last August 23, Monday, and journalists, individually and collectively, have sought to excuse their conduct by wrapping themselves in the flag of their duty to the public, apparently heedless of the possibility that such a duty could be exercised at the expense of the public they claim to serve.

“News blackout is not in our vocabulary anymore,” arrogantly declared Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) National President Herman Basbaño, never mind that Article 6 of the KBP Broadcast Code of 2007 [PDF] specifically contemplates crisis situations, stating that the coverage of such “should avoid inflicting undue shock and pain to families and loved ones of victims” and should not “provide vital information or offer comfort or support to the perpetrators”. In what way, shape, or form did the virtually panoptic, gratuitously detailed, and excruciatingly narrated coverage of the crisis, which some media outfits labeled a “drama”, comply or align with these provisions?

Those who challenge critics of the media to explain exactly how the crisis could have ended less tragically had the reporters on the ground behaved differently are being disingenuous, as one would only be able to respond with a species of speculative fiction. It seems to me that the right question to ask is not, “How would the situation have changed?” but, “Did the media act with due diligence, with integrity, and with compassion during (and after) the crisis?”

Also disingenuous are those who insist that media workers cannot be faulted for succumbing to the professional instinct to report. Are journalists victims of their training and experience? Are they fundamentally incontinent, utterly bereft of the ability to hold themselves in check, to remember that their work is governed by ethical imperatives beyond the injunction to bear witness, to lay bare the capital-T Truth—not to mention guidelines from previous unfortunate experience?

Perhaps the most honest—definitely the most chilling—response to the firestorm of criticism against the media that I have come across was from Maria Ressa, the head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs. During a forum at the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines last August 28, Friday, she said that had ABS-CBN unilaterally stopped or delayed its broadcast, “We would have been criticized by the viewers or what viewers would have done is switch stations.” (She had previously tweeted a similar assertion.)

Based on this statement, the foremost concern of Ressa, and by extension, of her network, would appear to be nothing more than ratings—which is to say, in the final analysis, money, or what might be collected under the general rubric of cultural capital (trust, credibility, prestige), because ratings have no value if they cannot eventually be transformed into one or the other.

Let me be clear: I do not begrudge journalists their earnings. Like many other noble professions, journalism is practiced for money (though probably not wealth, and, in this country, certainly not longevity). The desire to inform and educate is not easily—if at all—separable from the desire to attain financial security and gain status. But has the drive for profit, economic or otherwise, become so overpowering as to erode the media’s sense of responsibility, if slowly and surreptitiously? Has the Fourth Estate become complacent, considering that it has historically received from the general public a level of trust far greater than most other institutions, including the state? Does the press see itself as accountable to its audience in the first place, and if so, to what extent?

What might journalists write about, report on, photograph, film, record, cover, broadcast, or talk about if they ceased to focus on fighting battles for attention, for advertisers, for legitimacy, for the bottom line? What might journalism look like if reportage ceased to involve sensational spectacles of suffering that serve less to stimulate action than to stupefy the mind and steel the heart against pity?

[This also appears in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Stephanie Dychiu, James Putzel, and the ethics of reportage

The primary function of language, being a social fact, is communication, and it remains operative throughout whatever other uses language may be put. The communicative function of language takes on additional weight in journalism, because the currency of that particular trade is information, and the objective is the equal distribution of wealth thereof, as it were. Whether “straight” reportage—for lack of a better term—or opinion and editorial writing, the practice of journalism necessarily involves the use of power—the power to influence the way that people look at themselves, their respective societies, and the world at large, the power to help shape values and attitudes, and the power to combat ignorance and enable everyone to “exercise their sovereign human right to decide their destinies” [1].

Bearing the foregoing in mind, I would now like to begin an examination of the series on Hacienda Luisita that was published on the GMANews.TV web site and authored by Stephanie Dychiu. As of this writing, four out of the five parts of the series, which professes to be a thorough investigation of how Senator Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III and the issue of Hacienda Luisita are intimately linked, have been made publicly available.

What I am particularly concerned with here is how Dychiu has used A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines [2], a book written by Professor James Putzel and published in 1992, in her development of the series, specifically in these articles: “Hacienda Luisita’s past haunts Noynoy’s future” [3] and “Cory’s land reform legacy to test Noynoy’s political will” [4], which are the first two parts of the series, as well as “The Garchitorena land scam” [5] and “How the Cojuangcos got majority control of Hacienda Luisita” [6], which are complementary articles to “Cory’s land reform legacy”. I last retrieved all these articles on March 22, 2010, and I have stored copies of these for reference, given the mutable nature of hypertexts.

My choice of focus is, in some respects, arbitrary, but, as I hope to show, not entirely without merit. A Captive Land seeks to present a historical overview of agrarian reform in the Philippines, and while it contains strong criticism of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) that was begun during the administration of the late former President Corazon C. Aquino, it also offers a complex and finely nuanced discussion of agrarian reform.

Allow me to state, in the interest of transparency, that I support the bid of Senator Aquino for president, and that my decision to write this essay is partially motivated by such support. I readily admit that I do not have the necessary background to discuss agrarian reform in general or A Captive Land in particular with any scholarly competence, but that is not the intention here, in any case.

My concerns in this essay, such as they are, do not, in fact, include agrarian reform, Hacienda Luisita, or Senator Aquino and his family per se. Rather, my goal is to critique how Dychiu, herself no agrarian reform expert, as the ostensible writer of—and thus the one ultimately accountable for—the series, used the book in her work, though I do not dismiss her series wholesale.

This critique is animated primarily by the following questions:

  1. Has Dychiu used Putzel, a recognized development expert, responsibly, with due regard and care for what he is actually saying?
  2. Insofar as the Hacienda Luisita series is concerned, can Dychiu be said to have upheld the code of ethics of Philippine journalism that has been formulated by the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and the National Press Club (NPC)?

Responsible research?

As previously mentioned, Dychiu cites A Captive Land several times in the series.

In “Hacienda Luisita’s past” [7], she invokes Putzel in discussing the acquisition of Central Azucarera de Tarlac and Hacienda Luisita, as well as the conditions set by the Monetary Board with reference to how the Cojunagco family obtained Central Bank approval for the foreign loan that was secured in order to purchase the hacienda.

In “Cory’s land reform legacy” [8], while going over the stock distribution option (SDO), which is provided for in the CARP law, she quotes Putzel’s comment that the farmers of Hacienda Luisita, who favored the SDO, may not have really understood what it meant, and then refers to him to pinpoint the date for the formation of Hacienda Luisita. Linked to this article are “The Garchitorena land scam” [9] and “How the Cojuangcos got majority control” [10], which finds Dychiu citing Putzel yet again.

It must be conceded that Putzel, as earlier mentioned, is highly critical of how agrarian reform was undertaken during the Aquino administration, especially with regard to the SDO. In fact, Putzel seems to believe strongly in redistributive agrarian reform, and approves of peasant mobilization, saying in his conclusion that it is a key factor in ensuring that agrarian reform will at least remain on the development agenda [11].

Two basic tests that may be applied in order to determine how responsible a researcher has been are as follows: first, how correctly the researcher has quoted or paraphrased his or her source material; and second, how the source material so quoted or paraphrased has been deployed within the researcher’s work. To my mind, Dychiu fails both.

Note that A Captive Land is used as the source in the first article just to establish the bits of historical background for Hacienda Luisita—a version of the background, it must be underscored, that neither Dychiu nor GMANews.TV appears to have asked from Hacienda Luisita itself—while Putzel’s remark is simply repeated in the second article.

The absence of a counterpoint to Putzel, or any of the other authorities she cites, for that matter, in a piece that contrives itself as reportage, rather than opinion, is also curious, especially considering that, in the introduction preceding “After Luisita massacre, more killings linked to protest” [12], the fourth part of the series, the period over which the research for the series was conducted—three months—and the supervision that Dychiu received from GMANews.TV editor-in-chief Howie Severino are emphasized. Putzel himself, though obviously an advocate of a specific set of directions for agrarian reform, bolstered his position precisely by comparing and contrasting it with those of others.

Moreover, it does not seem unfair to say that Dychiu’s use of Putzel’s statements has less to do with the amplification of her points than with decoration: when she is not (merely) echoing his arguments, her use of Putzel is minimal, tokenistic, and, worst of all, distortive. But perhaps my charge against Dychiu is better illustrated with a few examples.

This is Dychiu explaining how the dictator Ferdinand Marcos dealt with Hacienda Luisita in “Hacienda Luisita’s past”, with key sections emphasized:

The Cojuangcos’ disputed hold over Hacienda Luisita had been tolerated by Marcos even at the height of his dictatorship. However, as Ninoy Aquino and his family were leaving for exile in the US, a case was filed on May 7, 1980 by the Marcos government against the Cojuangco company TADECO for the surrender of Hacienda Luisita to the Ministry of Agrarian Reform, so land could be distributed to the farmers at cost, in accordance with the terms of the government loans given in 1957-1958 to the late Jose Cojuangco, Sr., who died in 1976. (Republic of the Philippines vs. TADECO, Civil Case No. 131654, Manila Regional Trial Court, Branch XLIII)

The Marcos government filed this case after written follow-ups sent to the Cojuangcos over a period of eleven years did not result in land distribution. (The Cojuangcos always replied that the loan terms were unenforceable because there were no tenants on the hacienda.) The government’s first follow-up letter was written by Conrado Estrella of the Land Authority on March 2, 1967. Another letter was written by Central Bank Governor Gregorio Licaros on May 5, 1977. Another letter was written by Agrarian Reform Deputy Minister Ernesto Valdez on May 23, 1978.

The government’s lawsuit was portrayed by the anti-Marcos bloc as an act of harassment against Ninoy Aquino’s family. Inside Hacienda Luisita, however, the farmers thought the wheels of justice were finally turning and land distribution was coming.

[…]

The government pursued its case against the Cojuangcos, and by December 2, 1985, the Manila Regional Trial Court ordered TADECO to surrender Hacienda Luisita to the Ministry of Agrarian Reform. According to Putzel, this decision was rendered with unusual speed and was decried by the Cojuangcos as another act of harassment, because Cory Aquino, now a widow after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, was set to run for President against Marcos in the February 7, 1986 snap elections. The Cojuangcos elevated the case to the Court of Appeals (Court of Appeals G.R. 08634).

Cory Aquino officially announced her candidacy on December 3, 1985. Land reform was one of the pillars of her campaign. [13]

This is Putzel’s account in A Captive Land, again with important parts highlighted:

It became clear fairly early on that although Marcos claimed he would break the oligarchy through martial law, he needed the support of landowners and provincial political clans to enforce his rule throughout the country. Marcos’ refusal to challenge the landowners head-on was clear when he restricted reform to rice and corn lands. Even here he allowed phased implementation, which gave landowners time to take evasive measures.

[…]

What is more, Marcos himself was a large landowner and used martial law to increase his own landholdings as well as those of his extended family.

[…]

Thus, Marcos did not attempt to use the state to undermine the oligarchy as a whole, but to strike out at specific powerful opponents. Marcos’s rejection of the ‘Rules and Regulations’ for the implementation of the reform, which were drawn up by the DAR in 1972, left the programme vague and therefore more easily employed as a means to reward supporters and punish opponents.

[…]

[The Cojuangcos] did not hear from the government again until Aquino was about to leave detention for a by-pass operation in the United States in May 1980. The day before he left, the government filed a case. The plaintiffs evidently included the Central Bank (or Monetary Board), the Government Service Insurance System and the Ministry of Agrarian Reform. The case remained in its preliminary stages until August 1983 when Aquino was assassinated. It was only then that the government began to conduct hearings, but there was still no urgency to the case. However, the government’s attitude changed at the time of the snap elections in February 1986, when the Aquino-Cojuangco clan once more emerged as a major threat to Marcos. On 3 December 1985, one day after Cory Aquino filed her candidacy, Judge Pardo of the Regional Trial Court denied the appeal and ruled that the family had to transfer their lands. The judge made his ruling even before summary arguments were presented, suggesting that Marcos had intervened to ask for a quick decision. [14]

One has to wonder how Dychiu was able to say that the attitude of Marcos toward Hacienda Luisita was one of “tolerance”, considering that she does even not point to any persons or materials that could back up her claim—in sharp contrast to Putzel, who scrupulously cites his sources. It is worth noting that Putzel can hardly be said to belong to the “anti-Marcos bloc” that Dychiu claims portrayed the Marcos-initiated lawsuits as “harassment against Ninoy Aquino’s family”, and yet he himself probably agrees with the assessment of that “anti-Marcos bloc”. Why Dychiu appears to disagree is not clear.

Furthermore, based on the dates, Dychiu provides a different—a reversed—sequence of events, saying that Cory Aquino filed her candidacy after the Regional Trial Court had ordered the transfer of Hacienda Luisita, while Putzel states that Cory had done it before.

It must be admitted that Putzel has the date wrong, as Cory did file her candidacy on December 3. The report that follows below, available on TIME.com, is just one of several identifying the date, although, as can be seen, the release of the order was timed to come after the filing.

[Corazon Aquino] also charged the President with “political harassment,” claiming that for years Marcos has tried to confiscate a sugar plantation owned by her family. Aquino revealed that on Dec. 3, the day she announced her candidacy, a regional court ordered the government to seize the property. [15]

Putzel does also say that the order to transfer “was actually dated 2 December 1985, the same day that General Fabian Ver, Marcos’ chief of staff, was cleared of all charges in connection with the assassination of Benigno Aquino” [16]. Could this be the reason for the disparity between the accounts of Dychiu and Putzel?

In “The Garchitorena land scam”, Dychiu refers to Putzel yet again. I have highlighted an interestingly worded sentence, which indicates another disparity:

In his 1992 book A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines, American development studies expert Dr. James Putzel also mentioned that Father Bernas had informed President Aquino about the Garchitorena deal on April 1, 1989. Aquino then met with the DAR and Land Bank heads on April 5, 1989. Then, Sharp petitioned the Supreme Court to enforce the P62.7 million payment. Juico subsequently stopped the payment order, but the scam had already been exposed in Congress. [17]

This is Putzel’s account in A Captive Land, with my emphasis:

The President was informed about the deal on 1 April 1989 by Fr. Joaquin Bernas, and she met with [Land Bank of the Philippines President] Vistan and [Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary] Juico on 5 April. Sharp then had the audacity to petition the Supreme Court to order DAR to pay the P62.7 million for the land. Subsequently, Secretary Juico stopped the payment order and began an investigation of the deal. However, Vistan revealed the overpricing agreemtn to Congress and on 13 May 1989, Rep. Edcel Lagman told a joint House-Senate Committee the details, unleashing a scandal that brought the DAR’s work virtually to a halt. [18]

Observe that Dychiu states the scandal “had already been exposed” even as Juico stopped the payment order, which is very, very different from Putzel’s narration. Where Putzel shows one event following another, Dychiu claims that Putzel points to a confluence. Is this not a misrepresentation of Putzel? Why does Dychiu again change the timing of events—and, in this instance, purport to be simply repeating Putzel?

Let me now move on to how Putzel is used by Dychiu in “Cory’s land reform legacy”. His opinion regarding the SDO is presented toward the middle of the article:

In his 1992 book A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines, American development studies expert James Putzel expressed doubt that the farmers understood the choice that was presented to them. “The outcome of the vote was entirely predictable,” he wrote. “The balance of power in the country favored families like the Cojuangcos. The problem was not really that the farm workers were denied the right to choose . . . it was rather that [they] were denied an environment that would allow them to identify what their choices were.” [19]

He is again cited by Dychiu a few paragraphs later in “Cory’s land reform legacy” this way:

In his book A Captive Land, Putzel also noted that Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI), the company formed by the Cojuangcos to operationalize Luisita’s SDO, was incorporated in August 1988—nine months before the farm workers were first asked to choose between stocks or land in May 1989.

This bred suspicion that the SDO was considered a done deal early on, and the two rounds of voting with the farmers were only organized to give an appearance of transparency. [20]

If the early incorporation of HLI indeed “bred suspicion”, the vague phrasing and the passive voice of Dychiu’s last paragraph in the immediately foregoing quotation should breed suspicion in turn: who were the ones doing the suspecting against the SDO, when the farmers concerned voted overwhelmingly in favor of it? Does this not seem to be a passive-aggressive attack on the Cojuangcos?

Such a sentiment is not expressed by Putzel—opining that “the farmworkers, tenants, and the landless rural poor continued to be denied an environment that would allow them to identify what their choices were” [21] is not the same as insinuating that there was a conspiracy within the Cojuangco family “to give an appearance of transparency”, as Dychiu does. In this regard, Dychiu’s stance actually seems closer to that of Assembliya ng mga Manggagawang Bukid ng Hasyenda Luisita (AMBALUS), the peasant organization whose view on the SDO vote Putzel disagrees with [22].

Incidentally, Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, himself an advocate of land redistribution, wrote that, with reference to the majority vote for the SDO, “It could be presumptuous of me to tell the farmers what is good for them […] It is not easy for a distant observer to question the wishes of the beneficiaries directly involved” [23]. Bernas, unlike Dychiu, maintained a specific position on the matter but acknowledged its complexity, especially with reference to the choice that over 90% of the farmers made.

As a final example, here are two paragraphs from Dychiu’s “How the Cojuangcos got majority control”:

Those who have studied HLI’s books say the non-land assets seem to have been overvalued to increase the Cojuangcos’ share, while the land assets were undervalued to limit the farm workers’ share.

In his 1992 book A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines, American development studies expert Dr. James Putzel showed how the non-land assets were inflated. [24]

Just like the previous example, Dychiu appears to be making a disingenuous move: who, besides Putzel himself, are the parties (“those”) that have independently studied the books of HLI and believe that its non-land assets were inflated? Why are neither these persons nor their studies mentioned by name? Do they exist at all, or is Dychiu making a hasty generalization based on the statement of a single person—an authority, to be sure, but a single person nevertheless?

It could be argued, of course, that Dychiu must use her sources selectively, a fate that befalls any other writer, but, vis-à-vis the aforementioned excerpts, the judiciousness of her selections must be called into question.

Ethical journalism?

It is worth pointing out that, in his introduction to A Captive Land, Putzel acknowledges that there are advantages and disadvantages in writing about CARP so soon after its passage and early stages of implementation—ultimately, Putzel looks at his own book as a contribution to “what must be an on-going process of study about agrarian reform”, believing that it “will need to be amended, or even revised as other information becomes available” (xxiii) [25]. He certainly does not assert that his work is in any way definitive, which is indicative of his integrity as scholar.

A common practice among academicians is to avoid, as much as possible, invisibility—that is, the researcher generally takes it upon himself or herself to reveal his or her his or her interests and investments in a given project so as to establish not only the scope and limitations of the study itself, but also the scope and limitations of the specific subject-position from which the study is shaped. Claims to omniscience or absolute knowledge are recognized as acts of epistemic violence, and ought to be explicitly denounced and avoided.

Such an ethical stance finds equivalents in the realm of Philippine professional journalism. Two provisions from “Journalist’s Code of Ethics“, a code jointly formulated by the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and the National Press Club (NPC), seem especially germane: one is, “I shall scrupulously report and interpret the news, taking care not to suppress essential facts or to distort the truth by omission or improper emphasis. I recognise the duty to air the other side and the duty to correct substantive errors promptly”; and the other is, “I shall not let personal motives or interests influence me in the performance of my duties; nor shall I accept or offer any present, gift or other consideration of a nature which may cast doubt on my professional integrity” [26].

As regards these provisions, of course, an admission must be registered: to the extent that journalism requires arranging data in particular ways, at particular times, for particular purposes, under the auspices of particular actors both within and without the profession—editors and publishers on the one hand, for example, and advertisers and readers on the other—and given that facts themselves are inherently value-laden, non-distortion and the elision of personal motives or interests are, at best, nearly impossible tasks.

Nevertheless, the importance of clarity, completeness, and contextualization in the presentation of information cannot be emphasized enough. While the 1987 Philippine Constitution certainly protects the freedoms of expression, of speech, and of the press from abrogation, laws against obscenity, libel, slander, intellectual theft, and sedition, among others, also exist in order to ensure that such freedoms are exercised with responsibility.

The “Journalist’s Code of Ethics” [27] is but an extension of or complement to such laws, and its very existence indicates a recognition within the field of professional journalism that words, because they are capable of material effect, can be dangerous. This is not a newly discovered or recognized property of words.  Even the most cursory examination of history will show that many reputations, relationships, and regimes have been reared and razed by words.  In Christian theology, the world was brought about with words, and later saved by the Word.  And of course, just waiting to be summoned is the platitudinous comparison between the pen and the sword. Therefore, it behooves anyone who uses words to be ever aware of—and to be equal to—the great burden he or she bears—even the most reclusive diarist must realize that he or she is writing for someone else, if only someone other than his or her present self.

On the GMANews.TV web site, the Hacienda Luisita series by Dychiu is classified under “Special Reports”, a section of the site that contains what appear to be specimens of that could be called straight reportage. The “specialness” of the reports collected under this rubric probably derives largely from their sustained length and relative depth. At the level of categorization alone, Dychiu’s series is already problematic. Consider how the first part of the series, “Hacienda Luisita’s past”, opens:

Senator Noynoy Cojuangco Aquino has said he only owns 1% of Hacienda Luisita. Why is he being dragged into the hacienda’s issues?

This is one of the most common questions asked in the 2010 elections.

To find the answer, GMANews.TV traveled to Tarlac and spoke to Luisita’s farm workers and union leaders. A separate interview and review of court documents was then conducted with the lawyers representing the workers’ union in court. GMANews.TV also examined the Cojuangcos’ court defense and past media and legislative records on the Luisita issue.

The investigation yielded illuminating insights into Senator Noynoy Aquino’s involvement in Hacienda Luisita that have not been openly discussed since his presidential bid. Details are gradually explored in this series of special reports.

A background on the troubled history of Hacienda Luisita is essential to understanding why the issue is forever haunting Senator Noynoy Aquino and his family. [28]

The use of phrases such as “being dragged”, “one of the most common”, “troubled history”, and “forever haunting” [29] would seem to be inappropriate and should have been excised from a piece of straight reportage. Not only are they tonally charged, they also pivot on undisclosed assumptions about how Senator Aquino is bound up with and implicated in the issue of Hacienda Luisita.

The announced intention of discovering why Senator Aquino is “being dragged” into the issue, for instance, is, at bottom, predicated on a spurious hyperbole: because the issue is supposed to be “forever haunting” him, though it was previously stated that this same issue is the root of “one of the most common questions asked in the 2010 elections” [30]. The pentapartite series, then, seems to be based on a question for which the author already had a kind of blueprint or outline of answers before even beginning the research process, which may explain why it is seriously flawed, as I have already shown.

What is most significant about the excerpt above, however, is the third paragraph: GMANews.TV pointedly did not interview anyone from the Cojuangco family or any Hacienda Luisita official, preferring instead to consult old court documents, media reports, and legislative records, despite, as earlier mentioned, the fact that three months’ worth of research was supposedly put into the series.

This is a strange decision for at least two reasons: first, farm workers, union leaders, and union lawyers were directly consulted; and second, Dychiu does not make the conventional statement that the Cojuangcos or the officials of Hacienda Luisita refused to be interviewed, which implies that they may have been willing, had they been asked. Did Dychiu, or anyone from the GMANews.TV team, even attempt to interview these people? If so, how did they respond? Why are their responses not noted?

Moreover, after three months of research—research that was conducted under the supervision of Severino, a veteran journalist, to boot—it is unbelievable that Dychiu could only find one scholarly tome on the subject—a tome, I might add, that is nearly two decades old. Equally unbelievable is her seeming lack of initiative or interest to investigate the extensive list of references at the end of A Captive Land, when the list could have pointed her toward resources with which her study could have been deepened and enriched.

What is most difficult to accept about Dychiu’s work is that it presents itself as reportage—a type of journalistic writing that ideally seeks to put forward facts corroborated by reliable primary and secondary sources, as well as a balance of multiple viewpoints—when, upon close examination, it deliberately imparts only one perspective.

That nothing can or should stop Dychiu from taking up and defending a position that is at odds with CARP, with the SDO, with the handling of Hacienda Luisita, or with Senator Aquino and his family should be obvious enough. This, however, does not give her, or GMANews.TV, for that matter, the liberty—at least from a professional, ethical perspective—to declare that her work is reportage when, from the very beginning, it is obvious that she is determined to be one-sided, even at the cost of distorting and misrepresenting her sources, such as Putzel’s book.

What is the purpose behind her insidious insinuations? Why, when she could come clean about her biases instead—a move that would indicate an openness to dialogue, a willingness to be challenged—does Dychiu avoid showing her true face?

While I do not think that this piece will be met with unanimous agreement, I believe that I have given the astute reader enough material such that he or she will at least entertain a healthy skepticism about the work of Dychiu and the standards of GMANews.TV sets for itself as a media organization.

If, as I mentioned earlier, the currency of the trade of journalism is information, dare any critical, ethical reader have faith in and use the information that has Dychiu provided, particularly when she cannot even report the smallest details accurately? How can her larger claims be trusted when she cannot perform the simple act of quotation properly, instead willfully warping data—including data from her chosen expert—to suit her prejudices, which she has conveniently failed to disclose?

I began this essay with two questions, which I will repeat here:

  1. Has Dychiu used Putzel, a recognized development expert, responsibly, with due regard and care for what he is actually saying?
  2. Insofar as the Hacienda Luisita series is concerned, can Dychiu be said to have upheld the code of ethics of Philippine journalism that has been formulated by the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and the National Press Club (NPC)?

I am sorry to say that my answer to both questions is a resounding, “No”.

*

Notes

  1. Luis V. Teodoro, ed., “About the Site”, Eye on Ethics, n.d., Center for Media Responsibility and Asia Media Forum, http://www.eyeonethics.org/about, accessed 18 March. 2010.
  2. James Putzel, A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila U P, 1992.
  3. Stephanie Dychiu, “Hacienda Luisita’s past haunts Noynoy’s future”, GMANews.TV, 18 January 2010, GMA Network, Inc., http://www.gmanews.tv/story/181877/hacienda-luisitas-past-haunts-noynoys-future, accessed 22 March 2010.
  4. Stephanie Dychiu, “Cory’s land reform legacy to test Noynoy’s political will”, GMANews.TV, 22 January 2010, GMA Network, Inc., http://www.gmanews.tv/story/182195/corys-land-reform-legacy-to-test-noynoys-political-will, accessed 22 March 2010.
  5. Stephanie Dychiu, “The Garchitorena land scam”, GMANews.TV 22 January 2010, GMA Network, Inc, http://www.gmanews.tv/story/182211/the-garchitorena-land-scam, accessed 22 March 2010.
  6. Stephanie Dychiu, “How the Cojuangcos got majority control of Hacienda Luisita”, GMANews.TV, 22 January 2010, GMA Network, Inc., http://www.gmanews.tv/story/182212/how-the-cojuangcos-got-majority-control-of-hacienda-luisita-under-carp, accessed 22 March 2010.
  7. Dychiu, “Hacienda Luisita’s past haunts Noynoy’s future”, op. cit.
  8. Dychiu, “Cory’s land reform legacy to test Noynoy’s political will”, op. cit.
  9. Dychiu, “The Garchitorena land scam”, op. cit.
  10. Dychiu, “How the Cojuangcos got majority control of Hacienda Luisita”, op. cit.
  11. Putzel, op. cit., p. 382.
  12. Stephanie Dychiu, “After Luisita massacre, more killings linked to protest”, GMANews.TV, 11 February 2010, GMA Network, Inc., http://www.gmanews.tv/story/183662/after-luisita-massacre-more-killings-linked-to-protest, accessed 22 March 2010.
  13. Dychiu, “Hacienda Luisita’s past haunts Noynoy’s future”, op. cit.
  14. Putzel, op. cit., pp. 146-8.
  15. “World Notes: Jan. 13, 1986”, TIME.com, 21 June 2005, Time Inc., http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1074933,00.html, accessed 18 March 2010.
  16. Putzel, op. cit., p. 148n222.
  17. Dychiu, “The Garchitorena land scam”, op. cit.
  18. Putzel, op. cit., p. 315.
  19. Dychiu, “Cory’s land reform legacy to test Noynoy’s political will”, op. cit.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Putzel, op. cit., p. 335.
  22. Ibid., p. 335n119.
  23. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ, “More on Hacienda Luisita”, A Living Constitution: The Cory Aquino Presidency, Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2000, pp. 215; 218.
  24. Dychiu, “How the Cojuangcos got majority control of Hacienda Luisita”, op. cit.
  25. Putzel, op. cit., p. xxiii.
  26. Philippine Press Institute and National Press Club, “Journalist’s Code of Ethics”, Eye on Ethics, n.d., Center for Media Responsibility and Asia Media Forum. http://www.eyeonethics.org/journalist-code-of-ethics-in-asia/journalists-code-of-ethics-philippines, accessed 18 March 2010.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Dychiu, “Hacienda Luisita’s past haunts Noynoy’s future”, op. cit.
  29. Ibid., italics original.
  30. Ibid.

Works Cited

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—. “Cory’s land reform legacy to test Noynoy’s political will”. GMANews.TV. 22 Jan. 2010, GMA Network, Inc. 22 Mar. 2010. <http://www.gmanews.tv/story/182195/corys-land-reform-legacy-to-test-noynoys-political-will&gt;.

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—. “How the Cojuangcos got majority control of Hacienda Luisita”. GMANews.TV. 22 Jan. 2010, GMA Network, Inc. 22 Mar. 2010. <http://www.gmanews.tv/story/182212/how-the-cojuangcos-got-majority-control-of-hacienda-luisita-under-carp&gt;.

Philippine Press Institute and National Press Club. “Journalist’s Code of Ethics”. Eye on Ethics. n.d., Center for Media Responsibility and Asia Media Forum. 18 Mar. 2010. <http://www.eyeonethics.org/journalist-code-of-ethics-in-asia/journalists-code-of-ethics-philippines/&gt;.

Putzel, James. “Agrarian Reform in a Captive Land”. Introduction. A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines. By Putzel. xix-xxiv.

—. A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila U P, 1992.

Teodoro, Luis V., ed. “About the Site”. Eye on Ethics. n.d., Center for Media Responsibility and Asia Media Forum.  18 Mar. 2010. <http://www.eyeonethics.org/about/&gt;.

“World Notes: Jan. 13, 1986”. TIME.com. 21 Jun. 2005, Time Inc.  18 Mar. 2010. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1074933,00.html&gt;.