Use + Remix

Lapdog or watchdog? The media under Marcos

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr wants to raise awareness of disinformation and the ways to combat it despite he and his family whitewashing his father’s dictatorship. : Rey Baniquet/ Presidential Photo/News And Information Bureau CCBY4.0 Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr wants to raise awareness of disinformation and the ways to combat it despite he and his family whitewashing his father’s dictatorship. : Rey Baniquet/ Presidential Photo/News And Information Bureau CCBY4.0

After six years being sapped by Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines media is now struggling to hold Ferdinand Marcos Jr properly to account.

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr must have been stung by his own words at times.

During the launch of a national tax campaign, he asked the public to “pay the amount of taxes on time” to support economic recovery and expansion. His appeal could be construed with irony, not of statesmanship. Marcos owes the government 203 billion pesos (USD$3.6 billion) in estate taxes. Marcos and his mother, Imelda, are the administrators of the estate of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr who was ousted by an uprising in 1986 and died in Hawaii in 1989. The estate taxes remain unpaid since 1998.

Marcos, through a spokesperson, also announced an ambitious digital media literacy campaign for vulnerable communities so they acquire the knowledge and tools to be “discerning of the truth”. Accordingly, the government will hold a media literacy summit, create laws on media literacy and identify fake news peddlers. Perhaps Marcos should look no further than his own circle.

In the 2022 elections, fact-checkers noted that the Marcos campaign used disinformation as a strategy to rehabilitate the legacy of his father and attack opposition candidate, former vice president Leni Robredo.

Through a network of influencers, bloggers, trolls and misinformed voters, Marcos tried to overrun social media platforms with historical falsehoods. The latter included claims there were no human rights abuses, corruption, censorship or political repression during the 14 years of martial law under his father.

In both incidents, the media would be expected not only to report on the statements of Marcos and his associates but also to provide context to the stories. Enterprising reporters could access estate tax documents from the Supreme Court as these are public documents.

As for media literacy proposal, journalists could hold the government to account for hypocrisy. Marcos wants to raise awareness of disinformation and the ways to combat it despite he and his family whitewashing his father’s dictatorship.

However, the media’s treatment of the controversial statements was mixed. Some news organisations included the information on the unpaid estates taxes but others didn’t bother. It was the same with the story on media literacy even though there is enough evidence the Marcos family has been pushing the narratives on martial law contrary to what historical records show.

The Marcos presidency tests the media’s resilience in dealing with a source with a freight of historical ill will.

At the beginning of Marcos’ term as president, some newsrooms reportedly struggled whether to use “dictator” to refer to his father. Eventually, the word was dropped, in favour of “former president”, “strongman”, “Marcos patriarch”, and the like.

This terminological dilemma indicates economic and professional constraints in media. Economic constraints refer to the ties of media owners with the Marcoses and the shrinking revenue sources that affect newsroom operations.

For example, the Manila Standard is owned by the Romualdez family, in which House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez is a member, and whose interests include mining and media. Romualdez is a cousin of President Marcos Jr.

The imperatives of economic constraints could lead journalists to look for stories that align with their employers’ idea of what news should be.

Writing a story is like putting a frame on a picture — some parts get highlighted while other parts are left out.

Framing is a process through which a journalist defines, interprets and morally evaluates an event. In this regard, threats to press freedom, job security, and safety could narrow the news frame. These threats are present in the media in the time of Marcos, sometimes not overt but in some indistinct ways.

For instance, Marcos has reduced the number of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s exemptions on what documents and information should not be released to the public, under so-called Freedom of Information laws. From a total of 166 exemptions, Marcos designated only nine.

However, doubts were raised on the sincerity of the government to become more transparent. The Philippine Daily Inquirer‘s request for documents of Marcos’ constant foreign trips, during his first 100 days in office was denied.

The six months of Marcos presidency has not restored the media’s confidence to perform their watchdog role that was sapped by Duterte.

Bloggers, pro-Marcos influencers and far-right media and their supporters are still invited to cover presidential events, a practice inherited from the Duterte administration.

The ABS-CBN network remained shuttered under Marcos after the Duterte-dominated Congress did not renew its franchise in 2020.

Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa, a Nobel laureate, still face various cases although they have won some. Two journalists were killed in the first six months under Marcos. One was Percival Mabasa, popularly known as Percy Lapid, apparently for his critical commentaries. While suspects in Mabasa’s slaying were brought to court, the chilling effects persist. Calls for the release of community journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, after three years in detention on made-up charges, continue to be ignored by the government.

When it comes to relating with the media, the difference between the Duterte and Marcos administration is superficial. Marcos’ style of speaking is unlike Duterte who cursed, rambled on, and was incoherent. Marcos dutifully reads the script and this makes it easy for reporters to write the speech story. The Marcos speeches are replete with cliches and generalities delivered uninspiringly, sometimes with little detail and without much meaning.

However, their blandness appears to be easiest to manipulate to a particular point of view by pro-Marcos media and trolls because this effect relies on the relationship between an indifferent leader, misinformed citizens, and the kowtowing section of the media.

Judging from the recent workshops, agreements, and forums to discuss the plight and hone the skills of journalists, it appears the media is trying to regain its bearings after spending six years under Duterte and almost a year into Marcos, all of which entails a cautious balance between asserting press freedom and pulling through under a popular authoritarian president.

It’s safe to say journalists were transformed by the experiences so there’s a reason to be upbeat.

Ma. Diosa Labiste is an associate professor in the journalism department of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “Press freedom” sent at: 01/05/2023 12:18.

This is a corrected repeat.

Maria Diosa Labiste

Ria Ernunsari
Senior Commissioning Editor, 360info Southeast Asia

Chris Bartlett
Deputy Editor, 360info Asia-Pacific

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