How to cut a talking head
One of the things that struck me during a visit to Davao City a few years ago was a live interview with then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte on a late afternoon local TV news program. There was nothing urgent about the topic but Duterte just talked and blabbered in his usual style until it lasted about an hour with the anchor unable or perhaps unwilling to stop him. This delayed the whole program and affected those that followed.
But I was told that this was normal there. No one would dare interrupt the Mayor when he was speaking, certainly not the media. And Duterte is someone who really loves to talk.
I thought at that time that this would never happen to Cebu, where the local media claim to be independent and always critical of politicians. One advantage is diversity. Cebu has three major English broadsheets, two tabloids in Cebuano, and quite a number of TV channels and radio stations. There was just no way that politicians could control all of them.
This growth and diversity emerged only after the period of Martial Law and the Marcos dictatorship, which saw the closure of some local media outfit and the persecution of journalists critical of the administration. Veteran journalists who went through those dark times understand the importance of free speech and role local press has to take to keep it alive even amid threats of state repression.
When democracy was restored following the expulsion of the Marcoses from the Philippines in 1986, the common cry among the Filipino people was “never again!” Local journalists echoed it as they went back to their newsrooms and broadcast studios to resume the task of informing the people and being their watchdogs.
It was in this spirit that journalists here in Cebu began celebrating the Press Freedom Week held during the week when the nation also marks the declaration of Martial Law on September 21, 1972. The yearly celebration is an occasion for members of the media to bond and celebrate the freedom that has been regained through years of struggle. It has united the local media in the common goal of promoting press freedom and defending democracy. Fun and games have bonded these competing outfits into a community, a family.
The celebration of Press Freedom Week is unique to Cebu. Nowhere else in the country can you see members of the local media coming together in a yearly event to party and also recall history and learn its lessons. It has made Cebu media strong.
Today, the local media are up for more challenges ahead. There is the dwindling readership and audience as newspapers and broadcast media now compete with the ever-rising social media as source of news and entertainment. But perhaps the greatest challenge is the rise of the former Davao mayor who is now the President. The big networks have learned that they cannot simply stop the foul-mouthed President when he speaks his mind in public.
He has shown contempt for dissent and admitted many times his conviction that what this country needs is a dictator. During his speech when he last visited Cebu, Duterte conditioned the public once again to accept a dictator like Marcos to succeed him rather than let the elected Vice President, whom he considered incompetent, to take over as the Constitution requires.
So, as we celebrate Press Freedom Week this year, we wonder if members of the local media still have in their minds its original spirit amid the rise of authoritarianism. Should we continue to defend free speech for everyone or reserve it only for one man, the President who talks too much?
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