MEL STA.MARIA | The 4th Estate, the Press: Last democratic institution standing?

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Physical restrictions at a key media event, as seen in InterAksyon file photo.

Abdication, demise, disintegration – words that seem to describe the present direction of our great institutions. Following the Supreme Court’s surrender to the Executive in its declaration of Martial Law, now it is the turn of Congress (both House of Representatives and the Senate) to officially capitulate through a joint session.

The opinions of the majority of the Supreme Court justices’ were disheartening. To many, they eroded the Supreme Court’s claim as the bulwark of constitutionalism. As to the decision of Congress, it was not a surprise. Many of its members have attained a rubber-stamp-reputation anyway. What is stunning is their mindset – revealed in their one-minute speech justifying their “yes” vote – of still possessing that martial-law-panacea-mentality like the fanatic admirers of the Marcos dictatorship. These developments are perilously portentous.

Government power was intentionally dispersed by our Constitution in three great branches of government so each one can check the other against possible abuses. Now, the heart of that constitutional safeguard – the check-and-balance system – is well-nigh defunct. We are in a danger zone where autocratic rule through institutional connivance is not only probable, but easily and alarmingly achievable.

So, what and who are left? Only the Fourth Estate – the press – it seems.

There is a reason why, aligned with all the other great fundamental freedoms – expression, speech, association and religion – the press is embedded in the Bill of Rights: that part of the constitution which, as a general rule, provides rights which are off-limits to government intrusion. The tension between the press and the government must continue. It must not wane. There is no way for democracy to survive but for the press to be provocatively curious, compelling inquisitive, antagonistic, disturbing, skeptical, and annoying to politicians and the whole government machinery. Only a robust and critical press can provide the citizenry much impetus to be genuinely and consistently concerned with public affairs.

And I hope the press and journalists will not be the next casualty of submission – following the lead of the Supreme Court and the Congress.

Still, there seem to be danger signs. Vocal legitimate critics seem to have retreated and replaced by shallow hate-talkers trying to curry favor with the powers-that-be. Soundbites and oversimplification of political issues which, by their very nature, are complex, are gaining ground. Appeasement and favor-seeking moves by media-entities toward the government are not so subtle anymore, whether done directly or through some individuals close to officialdom.

News delivery seems to be devoid of any socially-redeeming advocacy on the pretext of being “neutral”. There seems to be no underlying thrust to win the “hearts and minds” of the people to a more rightful, enlightened and moral cause, especially when the very foundation of the democratic system is at stake. Marguerite Duras, famous French writer said:

“Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A journalist is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others. She cannot do her work without judging what she sees.”

Madam Marguerite Duras is right. A person claiming to be a journalist without any uplifting perspective is nothing but a gong – just making noise and not taking advantage of the greatness of this profession to truly educate the people.

But I put much faith in our legitimate press people. Somehow I think that, remembering the prostituted press during the Marcos dictatorship, they will always fearlessly speak up when needed even in the face of harassment, bad-mouthing and ridicule by powerful officials. Borrowing the hopeful words of Thomas Jefferson: “Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the press can be protected, we may trust to them for light.”

The protection of the legitimate press is the people’s burden. Let us all keep it standing – working for all of us, for democracy. Given the institutional collapse of the Supreme Court and the Congress, the Fourth Estate may be the only effective sword-and-shield we can trust and use to check any authoritarian adventure by any person or group.