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Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice, and the Rule of Law



By Ramon R. Tuazon

Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication


Many media studies and forums worldwide have identified and examined some of the common issues that breed the practice of impunity in the killing of journalists. Foremost among the issues cited is a dysfunctional justice system manifested in the breakdown of the rule of law. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons for the theme of the 25th World Press Freedom Day celebration chosen by UNESCO — Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice, and the Rule of Law.

This year’s main celebration will be held in Ghana on 02-03 May 2018. According to UNESCO, this year’s forum will discuss issues of media and the transparency of the political process, the independence and media literacy of the judicial system, and the accountability of state institutions towards the public. The relevance of these issues to Philippine setting are too glaring not to be noticed.

But a question I would like to raise is this: What is it in the big picture that perpetuates the “practice of impunity” in the killing of journalists and other media workers worldwide?

The bigger picture that has yet to be seriously examined is the political economy. My theory is that the prevailing political economic system has preserved the power of ruling elites (in business and government) and has bestowed on them a sense of entitlement — those who deny or threaten these entitlements are expendable or should be excluded at all costs. Perhaps this is the untold story of the infamous Maguindanao Massacre.

In his recent book, Who Rules the World?, Noam Chomsky (2016) argued that there is compelling evidence from previous studies in the USA that “provide substantial support for theories of economic elite domination and for theories of biased pluralism.” Perhaps recent discussions on the “diminishing civil society” can be related with Chomsky’s thesis.

Recently, we have also heard of growing public frustration or disenchantment with the failures of the current politico-economic system. Such frustration is also attributed to the rise of populist leaders whose messages, regardless of their inanities, resonate with the majority. These messages resonate because they promise to “disrupt and disturb” the status quo perceived to be iniquitous.

Many of these populist leaders also reserve their most virulent verbal attacks for mainstream news media,thereby demonizing media and further eroding public trust in a sector that ironically has to “sell” public trust in order to survive. Such attacks do not only invite violence but also condone violence. Even before the emergence of these so-called populist leaders, public apathy toward the killings has been observed in many countries,manifested in the lack of public interest and disbelief in crimes against journalists.

Could it be that there is public apathy in places where the people are over entertained and under informed because of too much media commercialism? Is it a case of commercial media being a victim of its own excesses?

Does the political economy breed impunity? Perhaps it is about time to introduce an alternative media system where authentic people’s voices are expressed and heard in channels or platforms that can compete with vested interest media.

An observation in recent discourses on impunity is the “dropping” of the word “culture.” It is now rare to hear the phrase “culture of impunity.” For me, this is a welcome development, as there is nothing cultural in killings. Rather,the killings are political and may be explained by the wrong sense of entitlement among perpetrators.

Perhaps another threat not given much attention is how millennials appear to be less interested in mainstream media. As they have the power to create their own media platforms, such as their own YouTube channels, they appear to be more engaged in being media content creators themselves. Is this part of the lack of civil scrutiny, especially by young people, that some researchers believe?

I suggest that media researchers examine how millennials and the younger Generation Z view the killing of journalists and give recommendations on how we can inspire the youth — who are broadly (and at times unfairly) characterized as self-absorbed — to take the defense of the news media as an advocacy.Young people need to understand that if theyremain indifferent to attacks against press freedom, they are also endangering the privileges they receive from the use of social media.

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