Searching Out the Truth
The Konrad Adenauer Center for Nationalism, Ateneo de Manila University, Rockwell Center, Makati City
June 8, 2000
ABOUT A MONTH AGO, World Press Freedom Day was marked around the world. Marked with fanfare in democracies; observed in secrecy with sadness in dictatorial regimes.
As expected, the statistics on journalists killed or jailed were trotted out, as this remains the most graphic indicator of the health of press freedom and the perils of the profession. Part of the day's reflection dwelt on the hundreds of journalists in prison or in danger of losing their lives, from China to the narco-democracies of Latin America.
The perils of journalism were brought home to us here in the Philippines in the hostage crisis in Mindanao. Journalists seeking closer contact with the hostages and the hostage-takers – to put it plainly, seeking a scoop – got more than they bargained for at $1,000 an interview. They themselves became hostages. They were stripped of their expensive watches, expensive shoes, expensive laptops, of nearly everything. Even their cameras were it not for the intervention of a rebel commander who had to pull the pin out of a grenade to get the attention of his comrades. Without the equipment, he explained, they couldn't be in the news.
But even before that incident, the work of the Philippine and foreign press covering the conflict was in the spotlight as the public tried to make sense of the conflict that had again caused pain and suffering to people in Mindanao.
Aside from the safety angle, other questions have been raised.
Are reporters telling what they see or what they think readers will pay to read?
Do they understand what they see?
Are they talking to the right people or are they just retailing propaganda?
Do they know their geography before hyperbole paints all of Mindanao as engulfed in the conflict?
Are they aware of the various religious, political and cultural nuances in whose context the conflict is taking place?
Has the fawning tone of most reportage – done to ensure future access to the Abu Sayyaf – projected the group as it wishes to be seen, as an authentic Islamic group with a program that deserves to be heard, or as it is: a band of bandits?
Do journalists seek out danger to get at the truth or to call attention? For the, thing is not whether you almost got yourself killed but whether you got the story.
One can deduce that any assessment of the media must revolve around the three main concerns of safety, competence, and ethics. I hazard the view that a diminution in any of these three concerns impairs press freedom as much as a dictatorial decree.
For it is as bad to distort the truth – for ego or ratings – as it is to suppress it altogether. In fact, the first is more dangerous for it calls into question the worth and rationale of a freedom so prone to abuse.
IT IS IMPORTANT to agree on these three factors before we can attempt to understand the direction of a school like the Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism at the Ateneo. The Center takes upon itself a noble but also a very complex mission.
Journalism is one of those professions that are ironically captive to change while stimulating it. In covering the right side of a conflict, journalists may find themselves one-sided in their treatment of the news. In covering the wrong side in the name of objectivity, they may be helping entrench an evil and reconcile the world to it.
Journalism is also one of those professions which must adhere to an absolute impartiality. And yet it must hold certain values as beyond question and go out of its way to advance them.
Real journalism is not possible under a dictatorship. It may pretend to impartiality by accurately taking down every lie the dictators say, as well as every rebuttal whispered by the opposition. But the first only publicizes the excuses of evil; the second may become evidence in the prosecution of the good.
True journalism does best in a democratic setting; the fine examples of dissident journalism under dictatorship are not tributes to such regimes but attacks on them in the name of democracy. The practice of journalism in a dictatorship must tend toward its abolition and the enlargement of freedom.
Journalism turns on the promotion of certain constants – such as freedom and justice, and contempt for cruelty, greed, arrogance and deception. Above all, it must cultivate that capacity for feeling without which the journalist cannot succeed, in his principal task, which is to tell a story that will engage the reader or the viewer. Even contempt for wrong is not enough, for after that is only cynicism. The other side of the coin must be concern for what is right.
Indeed, the task this center sets itself is probably one of the hardest stories that journalism can cover and make sense of. But the effort is well worth making. For the sum of human effort is to get at the truth and no other profession takes on so large a province of the truth as journalism.
Law may seek the truth in a particular case and medicine about a particular ailment, but only journalism searches for it throughout the human condition, wherever lies have made it worse.
I UNDERSTAND that the Center aims to provide an intellectual haven, not only for Filipino but all Southeast Asian journalists. This raises tremendously the level of the challenge. Differences in settings compound the difficulties presented by the variety in cultural perspectives. Add to that the Asian crisis, whose grip on the region has been worse than anywhere else.
In the past two years, we have seen cataclysmic changes in Indonesia. We witnessed an event as unlikely as the election of a black man as president of South Africa. Elements of the Indonesian armed forces loosened their 30-year grip on the country and even stepped up to protect the students who were calling for the armed forces to step down.
Less than a year, after the first truly democratic election, the armed forces chief was sacked without trouble.
As the world entered the new millennium, we saw the painful rebirth of East Timor as the newest independent, and Christian nation.
Democracy took a giant step forward in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, though it seems to have tripped with an elected regime that has protected crime and corruption, thereby calling discredit on the democratic ideal.
Democracy took a giant step backward when Asean accepted Burma under a junta that continues to treat its people like a conquered race and has structured its entire domestic policy to the isolation of a widow. I wonder where this fear of widows came from?
Many of these sweeping changes, largely for the worse, were connected with the economic crisis of 1997 and 1998.
When a whole region is being transformed – in part by a high-intensity, economic crisis, in part by globalization, in part by the winds of democracy – it is inevitable that journalism and journalists will also be swept up in the changes they a must report and interpret.
In the midst of change, much of it in the direction of that larger freedom in which journalism thrives, one old question has been raised with greater urgency:
Should journalists help struggling new regimes to stabilize by not rocking the boat, so to speak? Or should they indifferently report on a country's distress, even if such negative publicity compounds the country's problems?
I don't know the answer to that.
I have been both in opposition and on top of a government.
I know that the truth cannot take a backseat to another value like social order.
I have seen that there is never a better time to tell the truth than the moment it is discovered.
But I also know that a hasty fact can distort the larger truth and damage as much greater value of freedom.
In his homily in last Sunday's mass to celebrate the jubilee of the media in Rome, His Eminence, Roger Cardinal Etchegaray urged journalists "to struggle against the dictatorship of urgency, of instant news." For immediateness "is no guarantee of truth."
THE tricky phrase "Asian values" is still invoked, even after it was discredited for its contributions of cronyism and false appearances to the Asian crisis. Each country has its own truth, each government can have its own moral standards.
Here, I fear, the line must be drawn.
There are distinctive Asian manners but only universal values. Values like decency, compassion, truth, freedom, justice and fairness are the same everywhere whatever the language in which they are expressed.
That Asia has suffered under tyrants for thousands of years does not make a tyranny the preferred Asian way of governance. It just shows that Asia has had an unbroken string of bad luck with bad governments, while the West has been blest with occasional spells of freedom, from Athens to Monticello.
Speaking of Asian values, I told the United Nations General Assembly fourteen years ago that there are, indeed, many ways to govern countries but only one way to treat people – and that is with decency. I did not hear any objections.
Some things are beyond cavil, especially for journalists. Among them are the supreme and paramount values of press freedom and democracy.
Press freedom cannot be a handmaid to order; democracy cannot take a backseat to development. A government official who asks for both is not serious about establishing any order but his own demands, or achieving any progress other than his self-enrichment.
Press freedom is the principal pillar of democracy. Jefferson felt that democracy could do away with almost every freedom but that of expression. And history shows that democracy and not authoritarianism is the most compatible with authentic development.
I don't know where else the notion of distinctly Asian values can go from here, but I do know that the highest value for a journalist is the truth. The truth as he honestly sees it, the truth as he apprehends it in his best light. I cannot imagine that lying can ever be part of any value system, Asian or Western.
It is this capacity for searching out the truth that the Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism must develop foremost.
Will the new technology result in better journalism?
Will it merely increase the paraphernalia and price of doing journalism, without improving the product?
I've heard of reporters beating the competition by using a pay phone instead of punching a cell phone in frustration because of "network failure."
It is not yet clear if the new technology offers a viable alternative to the traditional ways of putting out the news. What is clear is that pseudo-news in the guise of "infotainment" is infecting how real journalism gets, packages, and presents the news.
This and other concerns relating to new advances in technology must a likewise be addressed by the Center. But, at the end of the road, its major endeavor must be to help journalists do their basic job better and that job is to tell the story.
The story is everything; the story of people, of their lives and hopes and dreams – as individuals, as groups, as a nation. It is for their stories that people turn to newspapers, to TV and radio. The self-important views and endless analysis to the point of paralysis should come later, after the story based on the facts.
I stress this because my late husband, whom most of you remember as an opposition senator, started out as a reporter. He went to Korea, as the youngest war correspondent ever, they say. He went there to look for the story. It is upon the series of stories he sent back from the front that he first established his reputation.
Even after he became a politician, he kept on telling stories. Because that is also what the work of government is about: the story of problems and the story of solutions.
At the hustings, he told about the growing corruption of the regime. In the Senate, he told about its growing ambition to perpetuate itself beyond the legal limit. And from his prison cell he told about what was happening to a nation gagged and blindfolded by martial law.
The last thing he talked about was not, however, a story but rather a hope. A hope that what he most feared would not unfold. He feared a power struggle among the quarrelling heirs of the dictator and a social revolution that would push the nation into a worse oppression. When hope met reality, Ninoy Aquino lay in his own blood on the tarmac.
But that and what followed became the greatest story ever told about our country.
As I said, in the last analysis, we come to the story. This is the job of journalism.
Tell it so that people will sit up and pay attention. Tell it so that they can relate it to their own lives. Tell it so that people are moved to supply a better ending if it is a story of evil. Or add another chapter if it is a story of good.
People will say that there are as many ways to tell a story, as there are storytellers. Then let each one tell it his way. But do not twist or suppress a single, pertinent fact. And if you would expand the story, don't do it with just the help of your imagination. Get more facts.
The story is what counts, the story and how it is told. This is as true of journalism, as of law, medicine and even of accounting, which is simply the story of money: where it came from, where it went.
I hope that, if the Center succeeds in teaching just one thing, let it be how a to find the story, how to verify it, how to complete it, and how to tell it well. For it is through stories that we are able to connect with each other, and achieve the all-embracing community in which we were meant to live, in peace and harmony.
I wish the Center all the luck and every success; it couldn't have found a better partner than the Ateneo. Thank you and good day!