It makes sense for this government to ban a contingent of foreign media workers simply because they asked President Noynoy Aquino some uncomfortable questions. This is, after all, the same government that can convict and remove a Supreme Court chief justice in less than a year—but which cannot even finish the prosecution of the perpetrators of the mass killing of media workers known as the Maguindanao Massacre five years after the commission of that heinous crime.
The Department of Foreign Affairs is now scrambling to contain the fallout of that boneheaded prohibition imposed by the Bureau of Immigration on nine Hong Kong journalists, whose only offense was to interview Aquino about an embarrassing incident last year. Perhaps DFA knows that the ban on foreign journalists is a first; even Ferdinand Marcos at the height of his dictatorial powers never stopped the entry of members of the foreign press, despite his crackdowns on local practitioners.
The irony, of course, is that Aquino has invariably said that foreign press outlets have always treated him better and reported so much more accurately on his achievements, compared to their local counterparts. But for asking Aquino questions on the bloody Rizal Park hostage-taking in 2010, the Hong Kong-based journalists were banned from covering the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which will be held in Iloilo next year.
I suppose that when the Aquino administration finally bows out with a whimper a year and a half from now, press freedom advocates will look back on its track record and ask: How did the son of a supposed icon of democracy who was himself propelled to the presidency by media become such an enemy of the press?
That Aquino is a product of media should be beyond dispute. Only a big-media conspiracy to foist upon the electorate a political nobody like Aquino solely on the basis of the death of his much-loved mother, after all, could catapult him to the presidency in so short a time.
If the media outfits that decided Aquino should be the next President prior to the 2010 elections had not gone the whole nine yards for Cory’s only son, I am certain he would have lost—and lost horribly. But never was the power of the media to sell a candidate used as unsparingly as it was in the last presidential election —and never for such an ill-prepared, undeserving candidate, either.
Of course, when Aquino assumed his high office, he showed that he was determined to remain there by vastly improving upon and continuing to harnessing the power of media—the government propaganda machine, which worked together with administration sympathizers in the mainstream media to keep him in Malacañang until today. If nothing else, Aquino and his handlers know how to use media (both traditional and online), not only to gain power but also to sustain itself through propaganda.
* * *
And yet, it is also a truism that Aquino simply cannot stand criticism from the sectors of media that he does not control. I don’t know if someone has actually kept track of the number of times Aquino has publicly lashed out at some members of the press for criticizing him; but I’m sure that, collectively, his media critics come in a close second to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her administration in the number of mentions in Aquino’s public pronouncements about the cause of all his troubles and the enemies of his rule.
For a media creation, Aquino really comes off as an ungrateful beneficiary of the power of the press. For instance, Aquino keeps fending off allegations that the number of media workers killed during his watch has kept on rising by insisting that the motive for the recorded killings is not job-related.
But Aquino has never bothered to prove the preposterous claim of his that the journalists who died violent deaths during his term met their fate for reasons other that their possession of a press card. Aquino seems to assume that just because he says it, it is so—and the people had better believe him.
Of course, the time is long past when Aquino could make even the most baseless assertion and the media —like it was part of the Malacañang press office—would simply presume that he was correct. Even some of the most prominent members of the pro-Aquino press, in fact, have already started to regularly criticize the President.
But if I were among the nine Hong Kong journalists who have been banned from entering Manila, I wouldn’t come over even if the prohibition is lifted. Aquino’s track record when dealing with the press is probably on the same level as that of the worst dictatorships—even the most intrepid of journalists know when the risk is just too great compared to the importance of the story.
For the local media, the rise and coming fall of the Aquino administration should serve as a cautionary tale about the power of the press. I can only hope that, in the future, the media will not lose its way and work to serve the people, instead of just the narrow interests of the political elite.