SPJ Reading Room
Open Access Overseas
In the provinces of the Philippines, law enforcement is often ineffective, and local governments are closed and corrupt, making for a dangerous and even deadly environment for Filipino journalists. As a result, organizations are forming to aid the media, further freedom of information and assist the development of the forming democracy.
By Katie O'Keefe
It's 5 a.m. The daily paper just hit newsstands. On the front page is your article exposing an underground drug ring led by high profile, local kingpins. The story lists names of corrupt police officers, government officials and crime leaders linked to the operation. Published in another country, the public would hail your work as exemplary, investigative journalism - an asset to society.
But as you read the headline, your only concern is whether you will make it through the day alive.
This scenario might seem outlandish for journalists in a thriving democracy such as the United States. But for reporters in Filipino provinces, the situation is all too real. While the country struggles to break away from its past dictatorship, journalists work in the absence of open access legislation - utilizing whatever sources are available. Having total control of the information allows local, corrupt governments to function with little or no accountability.
For too many, the result is fatal.
Last year, 13 journalists were killed in various cities of the Philippines. As of early July, there already have been six deaths this year. Since 1986, 69 journalists have lost their lives for gathering and publishing information critical of local government or dangerous organized crime leaders, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
Although the public's right to access information is guaranteed in the 1987 Filipino constitution, often times the liberty is tainted with the possibility of severe and even deadly consequences for publishing it. Consequences that, in turn, can negate the intended function of freedom of information.
"The Philippines project an image that it is free, that there is press freedom and all that. All that is just veneer," said Carlos Conde, a journalist for the International Herald Tribune in the Filipino capital city Manila. "At least in China or Burma, we know that the governments there are repressive. Here, the government projects itself to be free, but a different thing is going on behind the surface."
As the Philippines fights to shed the remnants of its authoritarian past, organizations are forming to aid journalists and speak out against corruption. These groups strive to bring about change - to increase government transparency, create safe environments for journalists and gain respect for the profession.
From dictatorship to democracy
At a time when the Filipino media banded together to speak out against the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, one female journalist used her talent for writing to express her views of the government to thousands of readers.
Melinda Quintos de Jesus tested the limits of the dictatorship, exposing corruption with her political columns criticizing the regime. To avoid ramifications, mainstream papers quickly phased out her articles.
Afterward, de Jesus joined the alternative press publication Veritas Newsweekly as an associate editor and columnist. This publication helped intensify the protest against the dictator, eventually leading to the popular rebellion and Marcos' exile in 1986.
Following the collapse of the dictatorship, the Philippines was able to enjoy a free press. Media were able to publish information with few restraints.
"A society which hadn't known what a free press was like simply turned with enthusiasm to the explosion of free media," de Jesus said. "We closed Veritas Newsweekly because a weekly could not compete with the dailies crowding the new market."
Unfortunately, with few rules of ethics or responsibility to guide them, journalists operated with their own set of principles. Aspects of journalism, such as truthfulness and accuracy of information, suffered within publications.
"I have always thought that freedom is only the first step," de Jesus said, "and the hard work of making sure journalism serves public interest in a democracy lies ahead of any society breaking away from its authoritarian past."
In 1989, this mindset motivated de Jesus to become involved with a new not-for-profit, non-governmental organization called the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility. During the past 16 years, CMFR has been an organization for journalists to look toward for advice regarding ethics, job training and issues facing the profession. With its resources, CMFR hopes to gain respect for the profession and train future journalists to hold their work to high principles, de Jesus said.
CMFR publishes PJR Reports (formerly the Philippine Journalism Review) to continuously critique the content and coverage of Filipino media. The organization distributes more than 500 copies of the publication to journalists throughout the country, including professors and scholars at universities.
For its efforts to raise the standards of Filipino journalism, CMFR recently won a second-place prize of $5,000 in the 2005 Templeton Freedom Award for Ethics and Values. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation presented the award in Florida during its Liberty Forum in April. The international contest awards not-for-profit organizations that work to strengthen free enterprise - whether this be through revealing corruption, exposing unethical practices or pushing for more transparent governments.
"It is a very long-run strategy," said Jo Kwong, the Atlas director of institute relations. "They try to train ethical journalists who are following good practices, ethical practices. The more they do that, the more they clean up the profession - the more they take away from being viewed as the bad guys."
The hazard of a headline
Compared to its neighboring countries, the Philippines is progressive in terms of allowing the public access to government information. In thriving urban areas of the country, public officials spend time giving interviews on the radio, on television and for newspapers. Journalists in these areas are not only able to access information freely, but they have the ability to influence change in the government.
This environment has led the society in general, including the press, to feel that further FOI legislation is unnecessary, de Jesus said.
But journalists outside these urban areas are not as fortunate.
In the small towns of the provinces, disclosure of information is often at the discretion of public officials, which leads to widespread request denials. Even though the 1989 Republic Act No. 6713 establishes a general code of ethics for government officials, obliging them to make documents available to the public, nondisclosure remains the favored course of action.
Granted, there have been some efforts to improve government transparency and to hold agencies accountable for disclosing information. During the past five years, policy-makers have made numerous attempts to pass freedom of information legislation. Unfortunately, none of the bills have passed through the Senate, falling to the wayside in the wake of other laws legislators hope to pass, de Jesus said.
As a result, provincial governments have become secretive and corrupt - operating without national agencies' examinations. In these areas, the court system is poor, the justice system is flawed, gun culture flourishes and politicians are often crooked.
Even when a journalist is able to access government information, what might happen after publishing it shows how far the Filipino democracy needs to develop before having a truly free press.
Conde began his career as a journalist 12 years ago as a proofreader at a newsmagazine in Manila. Today he writes for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Fortunately, his location keeps him safe from most dangers facing Filipino journalists. But Conde said he is well aware of how difficult the profession is for those in other areas of the country, such as the provinces, where the criminal justice system is the weak.
"They are poorly paid journalists who don't have the resources those in Manila have," Conde said. "They operate in an environment dominated by local kingpins, drug lords, gambling lords - elements of society who invariably have connections with those in power such as politicians, the police and the military."
Journalists able to access information and publish articles disapproving of these powers could put themselves at extreme risk.
"These people do not like criticism," Conde said. "They have no qualms about shooting a journalist if he happens to criticize or report on, say, an illegal gambling operation in a small town or city. This happens all the time."
Most citizens in the provinces do not respect Filipino journalists, and those who do often are afraid to protest against the killings, Conde said. Without societal outrage or a national movement to stop the violence, this intimidation carries the possibility of negating any freedom of information guarantees a reporter might have.
"The killings haven't stopped Filipino journalists from doing their job," de Jesus said, "but there is a chilling effect when the local powers that perpetrate violence cannot be checked by national agencies."
To raise awareness of this problem, Conde and his organization, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, have started a business called Bound Books. Individuals and groups can donate books to Bound, which sells them for money. These profits help finance office space for NUJP and toward the families of killed journalists. In addition, both CMFR and NUJP have created databases to track the mounting death toll of Filipino deaths to bring the issue of violence against the press to the attention of the Filipino police and national government.
Despite the violence, some journalists feel that continuing to work in the Philippines is one way to help spur change - to one day oversee the workings of the government with the means to access information and to publish it without the fear of deadly repercussions.
"I have no plans on leaving the country," Conde said. "Aside from the fact that I work for excellent newspapers, I feel that remaining here and writing about what's happening here is one of the ways to change this predicament. If I leave, if we all leave, nothing will happen to this country."
Implications for the United States
Many journalists in the United States will never experience working in a foreign country. Thomas Crampton, on the other hand, is familiar with reporting in areas all over the world. As a foreign correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, Crampton has spent many years as a reporter in communist countries of Asia. There, he said, he learned to never self-censor when faced with possible repercussions.
"Behave as if it is the last trip you will ever make to that country," Crampton said. "When you go to China, or Vietnam, or wherever it is, you do as much reporting as you can and report it exactly as you see it. If the government doesn't let you in again, that isn't something that should affect what you write. Never."
While working in Asia, Crampton experienced his share of government control of publications. Once, he has had a country's authorities come to his apartment regarding an article he wrote criticizing the king. Another time, he had government officials follow him to supervise his interviews.
Accustomed to operating under these strict conditions, Crampton said he was amazed when he came to work in the United States for the first time last year.
"It was quite surprising the stuff you could get through freedom of information," he said. "That is a method of reporting that does not exist in pretty much every country in Asia that I have worked."
Compared to working in countries with no mechanism to request access to governmental documents, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act was refreshing. While the system has its faults, he said both journalists and citizens should not take FOIA for granted.
"The United States, fortunately for the citizens, has a system in place," Crampton said. "That doesn't mean that system is perfect or that it will work. It is nice to have it as a starting point. In these other countries, you don't even have this as a starting point."
For some countries, having a censorship-free press and open access to information are two liberties of a distant future. But as more individuals and organizations collaborate to fight for freedom of information legislation, many countries are one step closer to having more democratic environments.
"There are bits of progress," Crampton said. "You always grab onto that and hope that things are going better. As these Asian countries democratize more, it is an inevitable trend. It won't happen overnight. You can't wave a magic wand. You know, I am an optimist and believe that eventually free flow of information is the benefit of all."
The lack of open access in one country can create a rippling effect capable of spreading throughout the world. Limiting the flow of information to journalists of one country restricts the amount and quality of information those publications are able to distribute to other areas of the world. Because of this, experts say increasing the free flow of information should be a global effort.
"(At Atlas), we try to increase the transparency, promote and help the journalists who are doing honest and courageous work," said Alejandro Chafuen, president of Atlas. "It is very important in the United States. It is tremendously important all over the world."
Crampton said each country he has worked in has one thing in common: no government enjoys releasing information. It is the role of the citizens to push for more open government and gain more access to what the government officials are doing and saying, he said. Even though other countries might be doing less to open their government, he stressed this is "no justification" to limit information access to U.S. citizens or stop reforming FOIA.
"We need to push for it, as hard as we can," Crampton said. "Free access is a battle you fight every day. It is like freedom of expression; you can never stop. That some countries are ahead of other countries is sad. We have to fight our battle wherever we are."