Friday, July 07, 2006

The "Teflon King" of Iloilo

A recent Agence France-Presse report entitled "Singaporean blogger suspended after government criticism" once again brought worldwide attention to Singapore's autocratic policies towards its local press. Apparently, a popular Singaporean blogger codenamed "Mr. Brown" was stripped of his column at the TODAY newspaper for writing a satirical article about the rising cost of living in Singapore. His offending entry believe it or not was entitled "Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!" Earlier, in April 2006, Singapore imposed restrictions on political discussions in blogs and websites.

I thought of citing the above news story to illustrate the widely contrasting conditions in Singapore and the Philippines. Singapore and the Philippines seem to represent two extremes. On one hand, you have Singapore which has one of the highest per capita income in Asia but has a "gagged" media and on the other hand, you have the Philippines which has been long known as the "Sick Man of Asia" but has one of the "freest" press in the world. While Singapore time and again has been criticized for its curtailment of press freedom, the Philippines has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world, next only to Iraq (if I'm not mistaken).

According to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), a total of 81 journalists were murdered since 1986. The group has since advocated for the arming of mediamen so that they could supposedly fight back assassination attempts and reprisals against them. Since a large percentage of the murdered journalists come from the ranks of provincial media, many observers attribute this to the “different” way journalism is practiced outside Metro Manila.

Take for example here in Iloilo. In Iloilo, the most famous and perhaps the most "successful" journalist is Daniel “Danny” Fajardo. Danny Fajardo is the long-time publisher and now Chairman of the Board of Panay News, the leading daily newspaper in the region. A veteran journalist, Danny Fajardo was hailed by Manila Times columnist Dan Mariano as the “Hero of Hometown Journalism” and several national media associations consider him as a respected media practitioner.

Danny Fajardo likes to brag about the numerous libel suits filed against him. He claims to have faced a total of 146 libel suits. And he loves to boast to whoever is listening that he was found innocent in all but two of his 146 cases. He often shows off his numerous libel suits as if it was a badge of honor or a mark of how good a journalist he is. Incredibly, out of his two convictions, Fajardo was able to wangle a Presidential pardon for both cases! In local circles, Danny Fajardo has acquired the monicker “Teflon King” because no case can be made to stick against him and that he seemed "untouchable." All local politicians were afraid of him. That is, until Secretary Raul Gonzalez came along.

Most of his libel suits arose from the things he wrote in his “Lapsus Calami” column in Panay News. “Lapsus Calami” is an opinion column written without a byline that specializes in innuendos (huring-huring), scandals, “kucho-kucho” (rumors) and the latest political developments in Western Visayas. As Ilonggos love to read about chismis, "Lapsus" is probably one of the most closely-followed opinion columns in Iloilo today and is the main draw of Panay News. Fajadro has used his Panay News column as a bully pulpit, viciously attacking public officials and local businessmen who have incurred his ire.

Lately, Fajardo’s pardon has been revoked and he may finally see the inside of a jail cell. Kung sa Ilonggo pa, malapit na siya makahikap sang matugnaw nga rehas. He has attacked incessantly his nemesis, DOJ Secretary Raul Gonzalez, Sr. whom he suspects was the one who instigated the revocation of his pardon. He has also trained his sights on Secretary Gonzalez’s two sons, Congressman Raul Jr. and Book Board Chair Dennis Gonzalez. Fajardo has repeatedly called the two various names like “hermaphrodites,” “morons” and “imbeciles” in his column. (Read samples here, here, and here.) Despite his libelous attacks, the Gonzalezes have refrained from suing him in court largely because Fajardo might use it to gain public sympathy and come off as a “martyr.” Danny Fajardo’s long-standing and well-publicized fight with Secretary Gonzalez has been the subject of much discussion in Iloilo and local denizens are anxious to see who will be the last man standing.

Philippine media has become very powerful because it influences public opinion and could manipulate people’s perceptions. Hence, they can make or break a politician’s career (although Iloilo City seems to be an exception because adverse media coverage has never seemed to affect the Gonzalezes’ here). And as the case of Danny Fajardo clearly demonstrates, journalists who print libelous remarks do not get punished (his two arrest warrants have yet to be served) and that it has become so easy to destroy peoples' reputations in Iloilo.

While press people in Singapore live in constant fear of being censored, the Philippine press is not only unafraid but has traditionally adopted an adversarial attitude towards government officials. So much so that a friend who is a very keen observer of Philippine politics once quipped: “Kung ang parokyano hadlok sa pulis, ang mga pulis hadlok sa pulitiko kag ang pulitiko naman ya hadlok sa media." He adds further; “Kung ang pulitiko ga-pangotong sa parokyano, ang media naman ya ga-pangotong sa pulitiko.”

Most of our local journalists here in Iloilo are decent, hard-working and well-meaning individuals. Despite the meager income, many still persist in practicing their profession solely for the love of journalism. It is the few, rotten ones who give local journalism a bad reputation. While I am for press freedom and condemn in the strongest terms the killings of journalists in the country, I can also see why people somehow have become apathetic to media killings in the country. While I want to support NUJP's campaign against media killings, I hesitate to join their public protests because I don’t want to be identified as fighting for the rights of rogue journalists like Danny Fajardo. So long as the people see that abusive media practitioners are not punished, they will continue to be apathetic to media killings in the Philippines. Philippine media, therefore, must be able to discipline its ranks for it to win the public’s trust and confidence.

1 comment:

vic said...

The libel and slander had long been considered a Tort instead of criminal offense in most countries now including canada. I think it is easier to put the rogue journalists and those who disregard the ethical conduct by punishing them monetarilly when they are guilty of libel and slander. the reason why our journalists here are very careful with their mouth and mouse. otherwise they'll be visiting the bankruptcy court in just one hit. Or is that your justice system that is still rotten?