The state of Philippine media in the digital age has become complex and multifaceted. The rise of social media made it easier for false information to spread and in recent years, the media landscape has been plagued by disinformation where citizens who barely understand how journalists work turn the table and accuse the media of peddling false information or being biased in their reporting.
The proliferation of “fake news”, propaganda, and misleading information has led to public confusion and mistrust in the media, aside from creating a highly polarized citizenry. Disinformation and trolls – individuals or groups that deliberately provoke and harass others online – have undermined the credibility of journalists and media organizations. The way trolls deliberately spread false information online has casted doubt on the accuracy and reliability of legitimate news sources, including journalists and media outlets.
Journalists in the Philippines have faced intimidation and harassment from trolls, who engage in cyberbullying, online attacks, and threats of violence. Their acts of intimidation and harassment have created a hostile environment for journalists and at some point, discouraged some from reporting on certain topics or expressing their opinions freely.
The disinformation perpetrated by trolls to serve particular interests or ideologies contributed to the polarization and division of the Filipino audience and has complicated the journalists’ efforts to report objectively and impartially, especially when they face backlash and accusations of being biased from different sides of the polarized discourse.
Disinformation has contributed in the eroding public trust in journalism and media organizations and a continuous threat to the credibility and legitimacy of journalism as an institution. When public trust in the media is low, it makes it more challenging for journalists to fulfill their role as watchdogs of democracy.
These challenges, among the other concerns faced by the media, underscore the need for efforts to combat disinformation, promote media literacy, protect journalists’ safety and rights, and uphold the principles of press freedom and free expression.
Because of these challenges, self-regulation has emerged as a crucial mechanism to restore public trust in the media.
Self-regulation through media-citizen councils
Media self-regulation is not a new concept in the Philippines. In fact, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the country’s leading media watchdog, has been calling on institutions and journalists to police themselves by adhering to the highest professional and ethical standards since democracy and free press were restored in 1986.
In this challenging environment, brought about by the massive shift to digital media where disinformation abounds, self-regulation can help combat the spread of false narratives, rebuild public trust, and ensure that the media continues to play a critical role in shaping a well-informed public and an organized society by promoting transparency, accuracy, and fairness. Most importantly, public trust is enhanced if journalists allow themselves to be criticized by the public if they commit abuses or breach their code of ethics.
There is no better body that can regulate the media than the journalists themselves. The idea of media self-regulation is for journalists to uphold the highest professional and ethical standards to discourage outside forces, mainly the State, from interfering in their job by imposing policies that would regulate the practice of their profession.
Self-regulation in media can be done through the creation of media-citizen councils, also known as citizen-press councils, or simply, the press councils. These are bodies established to facilitate communication and interaction between media organizations and the public. Media-citizen councils are independent, non-government entities composed of journalists, media organizations, and representatives from the public that aim to promote transparency and accountability in the media.
The composition and structure of media-citizen councils vary depending on the specific context and purpose. The councils may include representatives from the academe, civil society organizations, the legal profession, and the business community, among other sectors.
In the Philippines and around the world, the specific roles and functions of media-citizen councils vary depending on their mandates, structures, and contexts, but the ultimate goal is to promote transparency, accountability, and public engagement in the media landscape.
Media-citizen councils can perform various functions, among which is the monitoring and oversight roles by observing media organizations to ensure they adhere to journalistic standards, ethics, and guidelines. This function can involve reviewing coverage, editorial decisions, and other aspects of media operations to ensure that they are fair, accurate, and unbiased.
Media-citizen councils can also advocate for transparency and accountability in media organizations, including their ownership structures, funding sources, and editorial policies to ensure that media organizations are transparent about their operations and accountable to the public they serve.
Most importantly, media-citizen councils facilitate public input and feedback by providing a platform for citizens to air their concerns and give their suggestions and feedback about media coverage. Among the notable functions of media-citizen councils include receiving and addressing complaints from the public about inaccuracies in reports or those who feel they were unfairly treated in the news.
Media-citizen councils can act as mediators in case of disputes between media organizations and citizens and facilitate dialogue between the two parties. This can help address grievances, resolve conflicts, and foster mutual understanding between media organizations and the public.
Media-citizen councils can also engage in initiatives to promote media literacy and education among citizens such as the conduct of workshops and other initiatives that help citizens develop critical thinking skills and discern reliable information from misinformation.
The Kordilyera Media-Citizen Council and other councils
As it should be, efforts to come up with media self-regulatory bodies in the country have been primarily driven by media practitioners themselves, with the involvement of civil society organizations and local communities.
The pioneering press council in the Philippines is the Cebu City-Citizens Press Council, which was established in 2005.
In the Cordillera, a relatively young media self-regulating body is the Kordilyera Media-Citizen Council (KMMC). Formed in 2021, it aims to serve as a bridge between communities and decision-makers through truthful and responsible reportage of relevant and credible information.
The KMCC is a forum for media issues and a platform for citizens to air their grievances on matters relating to inaccuracies in media reports. It provides an avenue for individuals or institutions to give their side to published or broadcast stories and for communities to make their voices be heard by taking part whenever possible, in the media decision-making processes.
The KMCC was formed through the efforts of Peace and Conflict Journalism Network under the Initiative for Media Freedom, which was funded under the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Internews-Philippines.
Because it is still in the infancy stage, the KMCC, like the other media self-regulating bodies that were recently formed in other areas in the country, is focused on advocacy and awareness campaigns to promote the concept of media-citizen councils among the public, media practitioners themselves, and other stakeholders.
It is also working on expanding its membership to add publications, broadcast outlets, academic institutions, media organizations, indigenous peoples’ groups, and members of the vlogging community.
The other newly established press councils, formed with the help of the Philippine Press Institute and partners are the Batangas, Central Luzon, Iloilo, and Davao media-citizen councils.
Opportunities offered by media-citizen councils
By serving as media watchdogs, media-citizen councils can promote greater transparency and accountability in media practices. Journalists become more grounded and adhere to their ethics when citizens can air their concerns about media coverage and hold media organizations accountable for their actions, an avenue that the press councils provide.
The media-citizen councils can also help ensure that the interests of all sectors of society, including the marginalized groups, are represented in the media. Through the councils, the public can bring concerns that may not be given prominence in the news, but are equally important issues.
On a more profound role, the media-citizen councils can also take on the advocacy for press freedom and raise awareness among the public about the importance of press freedom and its role in a democratic society.
The media-citizen councils can develop and implement media literacy programs aimed at educating citizens about the critical evaluation of news and information sources. These programs can provide tools and resources to help citizens identify disinformation and misinformation. By doing so, the council can empower citizens to be informed and discerning consumers of news, reducing the spread of disinformation.
The media-citizen councils can facilitate public dialogue on media-related issues, including press freedom and disinformation, by organizing public forums, debates, and discussions to raise awareness, gather input from citizens, and promote informed and constructive discussions on the challenges and solutions related to media freedom and disinformation.
Self-regulation in media: The Swedish model
Sweden has been consistently ranked as one of the world’s freest and most democratic countries. Press freedom in the country has also consistently been topping the Press Freedom Index, which is compiled and published by the Reporters Without Borders.
Sweden ranked second out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index in 2018 and consistently placed third to Norway and Denmark in 2019, 2021, and 2022. It ranked fourth in 2020 in the index that measures the degree of freedom enjoyed by journalists, media organizations, and citizens in a country and the efforts done by authorities to res-pect this freedom.
The country, through the Swedish International Development Agency, has also been implementing the International Training Program for Media Deve-lopment in a Democratic Framework, which trains journalists and civil society organizations from various parts of the world on how to improve self-regulatory and regulatory frameworks for the media.
Sweden has a robust system of media self-re-gulation that can provide a model for other countries, like the Philippines, seeking to improve their media landscape. The Swedish Media Council, the first in the world, was established in 1916 as a self-regulatory body for national news organizations and a forum for public complaints or queries about news coverage and ethics.
One unique feature of the council is the presence of a Media Ombudsman (MO) who first handles the complaints from the public against newspapers, magazines, or broadcast companies. The MO determines if a media outlet warrants a criticism or if the complaint should be dismissed, upon giving both parties the chance to first settle the concern.
If the MO dismisses a complaint, the aggrieved party may appeal the decision to the Media Council.
Former MO Ola Sigvardsson said if a publication or a broadcast media outlet is found to have breached good journalism practice, it must publish the criticism or the decision of the Media Council and pay an administrative fine.
He added nothing prevents a complainant from elevating his concern to the court if they are not satisfied with the decision of the MO and the Media Council.
Sigvardsson, however, said complainants are most likely to lose when they sue publications and broadcast companies because with the nature of freedom of expression and of the press in Sweden, “almost everything is allowed.”
Also, a minimal number of complaints led to criticism of media outlets because they are quick to correct their errors or they acknowledge the complaint’s right or reply.
Transparency in governance and a free press
Sweden has a strong tradition of transparency and openness in its governance, which has a positive impact on the media’s ability to access information, investigate, and report on matters of public interest.
In Sweden, government agencies and public officials are required by law to provide access to information and documents, subject to certain exceptions for privacy and national security concerns. The culture of transparency enables journalists and media organizations to obtain information and data necessary for their reporting and investigative work, which ensures that the media can act as a watchdog by holding the government and public officials to account for their actions and decisions.
Also, the Swedish government, as part of acknowledging the role of the press in a democratic society, provides subsidies to media outlets, as long as these are mainly involved in providing news coverage, regardless of their content and form of distribution.
The Swedish Press and Broadcasting Authority, which is under the Ministry of Culture, is the one responsible in distributing financial subsidies to the news media. Although it is under the government, the Swedish Press and Broadcasting Authority works completely independent and is free from State interference. Under it is the Media Subsidies Commission which purpose is to ensure survival of journalism and allow the public has access to a diverse media sector with high quality editorial content. The decision whether to grant the subsidies, the Press and Broadcasting Authority assures, is determined if the editorial content of the media outlet is news and opinion pieces, not their political standpoints.
Ensuring the survival of the Philippine media
The Philippine media is facing a lot of challenges from within and from outside forces. As disinformation and threats to press freedoms remain, the situation is not hopeless. Ensuring the survival of the media in a country where practitioners are faced with attacks perpetrated by peddlers of disinformation and a government that is indifferent or worse, does not respect press freedom, is a tough job, but is not impossible to achieve. For as long as the public is willing to collaborate with the media in ensuring an environment that fosters freedom of expression, the efforts to make media self-regulation work through the media-citizen councils could offer a silver lining to the bleak scenario of the country’s media landscape.