From Philippines

A sad day for Philippine journalism

Newsbreak, one of my favorite magazines in Manila, has gone to a web-only publication. (I’m biased, I contributed to the magazine while I lived there, and have enormous respect for the magazine’s founders and editors.) While I’m trying to remain optimistic that the rumors of a possible underwriter for a continuation of the print version are true, I’ve also seen many small publications die a quick death after the shift to web-only versions.

It’s difficult to describe Newsbreak’s importance to Philippine journalism without a little context. It wasn’t a news source with broad appeal, like the shows the network I worked for, ABS-CBN, produced. It was for the movers and shakers, the politicians, businessmen, investors, the intelligentsia.

Philippine journalism has a reputation — and that reputation is not always a good one. Since Marcos fled the country in 1986, the country has enjoyed a free press – a pretty big accomplishment for an Asian nation. But as is often the case, when it comes to press freedom in the Philippines, the definition of “freedom” is not so clear.

For years the country held the unenviable title of the most dangerous country for journalists – and journalist murders still make the news on a regular basis. A lot of journalists in the Philippines brush the killings off when the journalists killed are not considered legit – they’re on the take, they pay for radio air time to blast politicians they consider corrupt. But other victims are legitimate journalists working on stories about corruption, professionals who will not take money to stay quiet. In the 21 years since people power, only two people have been convicted of murder for journalist killings. So how free is a press where reporters, photographers, cameramen and editors are threatened and killed on a frequent enough basis as to make most people immune to the story?

But blaming only the party responsible for the killings or government inaction doesn’t look at the full story. The Philippine press, if famous for being free, is also famous for being rife with corruption. Reporters who don’t take money from sources are often considered stupid by their peers. Reporters and cameramen at the nation’s largest stations are paid very little – and the bribes are considered a perk of being in the business – supplementary income that some of the employees desperately need. The act of taking money from sources even has a name — “envelopmental” journalism — named after the envelopes of cash handed to reporters.

Newsbreak’s stories were well-researched, thoughtful, agenda-setting pieces in a sea of one-source newspaper stories with bizarre headlines and brief TV news clips littered with inaccuracies. The editors and writers I met at Newsbreak were motivated and passionate. More important, they were outspoken about and have denounced the unsavory practices of the Philippine press. They’ve been threatened, they’ve been taken to court on libel charges, they’ve been arrested, and, according to their Web site, they’ve been working for a while without pay. I’m hoping they can keep up their passion and dedication long enough to resurrect the print publication — it would be a shame to lose such an important contribution to the Philippine press.

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Here’s more commentary on Newsbreak’s shift to a web-only publication。