October 7, 2007

Juan L. Mercado

Mistaking bicycles for civilization

(Ferdinand Marcos padlocked the press on Sept. 21, 1972. And every third week of September, the competitive media in Cebu get together for a unique “Press Freedom Week” – a cycle of lectures, exhibits, papers, parties—even a parade. Below is an updated paper this writer presented—JLM)

Far too many journalists, the irascible George Bernard Shaw once groused, are unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.

GBS did not know it. But he may have sketched out a “job description” for us in the turbulent years ahead. And that job is: (1) daily, to spike the overload of trivia—call it wowowee pap—in media; and (2) focus our limited resources on reporting radical change.

These “deep-running currents” of change pose survive-or-perish questions. These range from clipped life expectancies to changing national security threats. Our ossified newsbeats obstruct their sustained coverage.

Consider skewed life expectancies. Even grizzled colleagues ho-hum this issue. The $329-million broadband contract now dominates headlines. And primetime news is cornered by jockeying for either pardon or amnesty for Erap. “Scandal is not like bread,” says an African proverb. “There is never a short supply.”

Yet, disparities on nutrition, health care and schooling slice the life expectancy of a Tawi-Tawi child down to only 51 years – at par with Africa’s dirt poor Djibouti. In contrast, a child, in Pampanga, will live to 72, comparable to Hong Kong.

Few journalists see life expectancy tables as death sentences on the poor. But that is what they are. “Does this wholesale sentencing of vulnerable people to premature graves mean our miniscule elites have acquired a franchise to life itself?” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali asked.

Indeed, human life is the threshold at which all other hopes begin. But do we, in the press, work by such basic human yardsticks?

Out of every 1,000 live births here, 26 will die before reaching one. That’s a vast improvement over 56 in 1970. But it’s a far cry from Korea ’s infant mortality rate of 5. “Our most violated human right here is the infant’s right to celebrate his/her first birthday.”

We efficiently report spot stories, like Senate investigations. But we could do better in reporting issues of significance. Importing a ton of rice, for example, implies buying thousands of liters of water used to raise the grain. “Grain has become the legal tender which governments use to make up deficits in their water accounts.”

We need to point out consequences. It is not enough to report we’ve breached sustainable fishing limits since the late 1980s. We must explain to our audiences that depleted fishing grounds merely shift unmet protein needs, from the seas, to over-burdened farms.

We should also try to discern what lies over the horizons. “He who does not take thought of what is distant,” Confucius warned, “will find sorrows well at hand.”

Never in our history has the Philippines had a population of 89 million. But that is what some demographers think the results of our latest census (overdue by two years) will show. This could crest at 93 million by 2010.

Now running at nearly 3,000 a day, migration may see almost two million Filipinos working abroad by then. “I’m sorry sir,” the secretary at the endocrinologist’s office replied. “The doctor migrated for the US two weeks ago.”

Pressure will ratchet on our stocks of food, shelter, schools, but especially on the educated men and women whose skills are essential to run a modern country. That would alter the political dynamics and re-define what constitutes “national security”. The traditional “People’s War” of an aging Joma Sison or Ka Roger will give way – to what?

We, in the press, have a poor track record is raising the tough questions. Yet, isn’t that our role too? “The press duty is to challenge, not to entertain,” CBS Carol Marin once said. “Our task is to tell people things they can’t ask for in a survey.”

So, it should not come as a surprise that some of our reporting is blind to what Harvey Cox of Harvard University calls: “the human propensity to prop up teetering positions of privilege with the pain of vulnerable and impoverished people.”

World and Asian Development Bank surveys, for example, show that malnutrition sends more Filipino children to premature graves than poorer countries like Bangladesh, Kenya or Tanzania. Far too much of our budgets are frittered away by officials for perks. Look at Commission on Audit tallies of local government cash advances for honoraria, travel, entertainment and food.

This is a country “where the rich exact what they want and the poor grant what they must.” The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for example, documented how corrupt Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao “leaders” enslave people of their common faith.

The 1987 Constitution has a provision that would curb miniscule Filipino elite from battening off on the weak. It reads: “The use of property bears a social function…(And) it is the duty of the state to promote distributive justice and to intervene where the common good so demands.”

No crystal bowl is needed to see that the future will be a period of emerging scarcities and tense social pressures. Tomorrow will not be another today. The press will have to articulate, far better than we managed so far, the constitutional principle that the marginalized have the single most urgent claim on our attention.

Failing that, we’ll bring down on our heads GBS indictment of confusing collapse of civilization for bicycle mishaps.

(E-mail: juan_mercado@pacific.net.ph)

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