Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism,

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, in their Investigative Reporting Magazine, created valuable commentary on the state of Philippine, vin de siècle journalism; however, they certainly made things difficult for me to find their 1999 article, Reghis Romero: Man of the Times, by Chay Florentino-Hofilena and Ian Saysin, proving themselves to be, perhaps, only moderately as corruptible as the capitalists they pass judgment on.

The July-Sept. 1999 issue contained an article, The New Lords of the Press, which ended with two links to other articles---one, a lengthy expose, William Gatchalian: From Plastics to Paper, by Yvonne T. Chua in the same issue, and a dead link to "Reghis Romero: Man of the Times," which, as it turns out, was also from the July - Sept 1999, Vol. V, No. 3 issue.

The index itself returns zero results for Reghis Romero. But God blessing my labors at, I found the first two pages of the Romero article, and even truncated, it seems like quite a lot. Once such things, if they were good enough, fell down the memory hole---even if printed in a hardcopy. I wonder how many pages was Messrs Florentino-Hofilena and Saysin piece, and did they save their best business for the last? Before it ends abruptly, Mr. 40/10, Robert Aventajado, secretary of the "Flagship Committee" is introduced....

July - Sept 1998,, Vol. IV, No. 3, Sequestration Blues, by Yvonne T. Chua,
July-Sept. 1999,, Vol. V No. 3, Reghis Romero: Man of the Times, by Chay Florentino-Hofilena and Ian Saysin,
July - Sept. 1999,, Vol.. V No. 3, The New Lords of the Press, by Sheila S. Coronel,
July - Sept 1999,, Vol. V, No. 3, William Gatchalian: From Plastics to Paper, by Yvonne T. Chua,
Oct - Dec 1999,, Vol. V, No. 4, That's Not News, That's Entertainment, by Luz Rimban,
July - Sept 2000,, Vol. VI No. 3, A War Made for TV, by Ed Lingao,
Jan - March 2001,, Vol. VII No. 1, PUBLIC EYE — The Multi-Billion-Peso President,
April - June 2001,, Vol. VII, No. 2, Journalism's Underclass, by Tonette Orejas,
April - June 2001,, Vol. VII No. 2, The Third Party, by Luz Rimban,
Oct - Dec, 2001,, Vol. VII, No. 4, Video Voyeurism, by David Celdran,
January - March 2002,, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Hard Times for the Media, by Luz Rimban,
April - June 2002,, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Tactile Television, by Alecks P. Pabico,
Oct - Dec 2002,, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Multiplying Village Voices, by A. Lin Neumann,
Jan - March, 2003,, Vol. IX No. 1, Checking the Airwaves, by Yvonne T. Chua,
July - Sept 2004,, Vol. X, No. 3, Let's Talk about Sex, by Cecile C.A. Balgos,
July - Sept 2004,, Vol. X, No. 3, Media - The Twilight of Newspapers,
July - Sept 2004,, Vol. XII, No. 3, Asserting the Right to Know, by Sheila S. Coronel,

July - Sept 1998,, Vol. IV, No. 3, Sequestration Blues, by Yvonne T. Chua,

Sequestered media companies are mired in legal tussles.

IBC-13 BROADCAST network executive Roberto del Rosario suddenly turns wistful when talk turns to industry top dog ABS-CBN.“Ganito posibleng nangyari sa amin (This could have happened to us),” he says. That is, he explains, if government had kept its word long ago to privatize sequestered and government-owned media companies like IBC-13.

The network was sequestered in 1986. Two administrations have come and gone since, but IBC-13 remains in government hands.

After the EDSA uprising, the Aquino government had seized the shares of the associates of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Bulletin Today (now Manila Bulletin) andJournal group of companies. Also sequestered were several companies owned by one of Marcos's friends, tycoon Roberto S. Benedicto, such as the Philippines Daily Express, RPN-9, IBC-13 and Banahaw Broadcasting Corp. (Channel 2).

Of all the shares and companies taken over by government, only two corporations are now back with the private sector. One of them is the reincarnated ABS-CBN, now Channel 2, which has become the biggest and most profitable network in the country.

Fate has not been as kind to the other sequestered media companies. The PCGG closed down Daily Express a year after sequestering it. The rest are now entangled in a web of lawsuits and inter-agency squabbles. What used to be among the more successful corporations during the late 1970s and early '80s have also had their assets dissipated, their finances in disarray.

IBC-13, for example, has had its worst years yet in the time that it has been under state control. At one point, government nominees ran the station to the ground—deliberately, some insiders insist. Today, the network operates on a hand-to-mouth existence. And its ratings are nowhere near those it enjoyed in the early to mid-80s, when a "Pinoy masa" programming—which characterizes ABS-CBN programs today—made it Number One.

Yet after having trod the trail of broken promises, hopes now run high among employees of sequestered and state-owned media companies—IBC-13, RPN-9 and the Philippine Journalists Inc. (publishers of the Philippine Journal, People's Journal, People's Taliba, People's Tonight and Women's Tonight)—that the firms would be privatized. After all, President Joseph Estrada has said the three will be sold within his first 180 days in office.

The government is serious about privatizing RPN-9, IBC-13 and the Journal, stresses Press Secretary Rodolfo Reyes, whose office is monitoring the firms' operations. "I have driven into the heads of the directors (of the three media companies) that they are there to stay for just a brief period and their primary mandate is to privatize the companies."

By privatizing these and other state-run firms, Estrada hopes to raise the badly needed funds to run his government, which faces a projected P70-billion deficit this year. It would also put an end to what Reyes says has been a string of abuses committed by some of the companies' officials, including the government's own nominees.

"If you look into the case of the sequestered media companies, they really had been milked by the people who were put in charge," says Reyes. "They abused the privileges."

But he and other government officials admit that getting these firms privatized in six months is unlikely. The realistic time frame, they say, is at least a year, maybe even two.

LEGAL PROBLEMS HAVE EMERGED AS THE biggest obstacle to the media firm' privatization. The most important unresolved issue is ownership, even at IBC-13 and RPN-9, both of which had been classified as government corporations when Benedicto ceded them under a compromise agreement he signed with the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) in 1990.

IBC-13 was nearly sold in 1996, when the PCGG put it up for sale at a P2-billion floor price. But the network's ex-general manager Jose Jalandoon went to court laying claim to 20 percent of the shares.

The compromise agreement had said Benedicto held 100 percent interest in IBC-13. Valued then at P352.5 million, IBC-13 owned a 41,000-square meter lot at Broadcast City in Quezon City, lands and buildings in the provinces, five television stations and nine radio stations.

In a joint manifestation before the Supreme Court last March, Jalandoon and the government finally agreed to privatize IBC-13, provided that proceeds corresponding to Jalandoon's alleged 20 percent shareholdings are put in escrow until the Securities and Exchange Commission decides on his claim.

But newly appointed IBC-13 chair Boots Anson Roa has cautiously estimated that the network’s privatization may take a year or two to happen, given the uncertainty over when the Supreme Court would lift its temporary restraining order. Besides, says Roa, IBC has a long string of legal, labor and fiscal cases—91 at last count—in addition to the Jalandoon case.

THE SITUATION is more muddled at RPN-9, where Benedicto has left the government guessing just how much he owned of the network. Consisting of eight television stations and seven radio stations, RPN-9 was one of 34 corporate assets where Benedicto consented to assign and transfer to the government his rights, interest and participation, "if he has any."

In 1996, the PCGG asked the Sandiganbayan to order the cancellation of RPN-9 stock certificates in the name of Benedicto, his relatives and nominees, and the issuance of stock certificates in the name of the Republic of the Philippines.

The PCGG calculates that the state owns 9,494,327.5 or 72.4 percent of RPN-9’s 13,113,540 outstanding shares.

Of these, it says 4,161,207.5 shares or 32 percent as personal shareholdings of Benedicto and his 18 nominees.

The remaining 5,333,120 shares form 83.33 percent of the 6.4 million shares (49 percent) held by Far East Managers and Investors Inc (FEMII). Because FEMII is a property holding firm where Benedicto and two of his nominees hold 83.33 percent equity, the PCGG says 83.33 percent of its RPN-9 shareholdings should go to the government.

Benedicto and FEMII have gone to court to stop the PCGG from claiming these shares. Their basis: FEMII happened to be one of the 22 companies that the PCGG released from sequestration under the compromise agreement.

In opposing the turnover of its shareholdings to the government, FEMII also said these are "corporate properties and do not belong in fractional or proportional part to FEMII's individual stockholders."

According to the PCGG, Benedicto has failed to turn over any stock certificates in RPN-9 despite repeated demands and a writ of execution. The businessman has also not surrendered titles and stock certificates in some of the firms he had agreed to cede to the government, says PCGG finance director and RPN-9 comptroller Danilo Daniel.

The headaches the government currently has with Benedicto were what then Solicitor General Francisco Chavez had warned about in the early 1990s, when he opposed the compromise agreement.

"Nowhere in the agreement," said Chavez, "did Benedicto furnish solid evidence, at least by way of affidavits or confession or admission, unlike Jose Y. Campos, that all assets he has turned over to the government are by his own acts of ill-acquisitions and that the same are ill-gotten so that the government may, at least, in case other parties claim the same assets, put up the valid defense that the government is a transferee in good faith and acquired ownership for the turned-over assets by 'operation of law.'"

WHICHEVER WAY THE COURT DECIDES THE cases, the government is at least assured of 80 percent ownership of IBC-13 and 32 percent of RPN-9. This is not so with the Journal, where a court defeat would end the state’s presence in the company.

The government owes its continued hold on the Journal mainly to a 1993 Supreme Court order stopping the holding of a stockholders’ meeting to elect the board’s members. With the TRO still in force, there has been no stockholders’ meeting in the last five years. The board’s composition changes only when vacancies arise. That’s when the government, through the Asset Privatization Trust (APT), names its nominees.

It is this odd arrangement that has thwarted Estrada's attempt to put in an entirely new board that will include former Malaya publisher Jose Burgos Jr. As no board member has resigned—or been formally asked by either the President or the APT, according to one board member—there is no vacancy to fill.

The APT has been asked to intervene to end the impasse between Malacañang and the current Journal board. The APT has assured Estrada it would get his appointees in two or three at a time, says Reyes.

When the TRO will be lifted will largely depend on the resolution of the ownership of the shares of stocks, according to Journal vice president and publisher Guillermo Santos.

The cases are pending before the Sandiganbayan. They pit the registered stockholders, supposed nominees of Benjamin Romualdez, brother of former First Lady Imelda Marcos, against the APT and the PCGG.

The PCGG sequestered all of Journal's outstanding shares in 1986. Today, only 20 percent remain sequestered. In 1991, the Supreme Court freed the rest from sequestration after the PCGG failed to implead the affected stockholders in the ill-gotten wealth case filed against Romualdez before the Sandiganbayan. The court also stopped the PCGG from voting the sequestered shares.

Notwithstanding the PCGG's setback, the government has managed to continue controlling the Journal primarily through the APT. The APT has been claiming full ownership of 67 percent of the voting rights after declaring the Journal in default on payment of two supposedly "behest" loans.

The Journal had borrowed $121,000 from the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). It took out a $1.7-million loan from Mellon Bank, with DBP as guarantor. A Journal printing press and 3,350 or 67 percent of Journal's common shares were set aside as security. The Journal accounts were later turned over to the APT as non-performing accounts.

In 1994, the Sandiganbayan declared the Journal loans as having been fully paid as of October 31, 1992, and even directed the APT to return a supposed overpayment of P13.8 million to the stockholders. Last March, the Office of the Ombudsman declared that the loans obtained by the Journal were not behest loans.

The APT appealed the Sandiganbayan decision, saying the loans remain unpaid. It has computed the Journal’s unpaid obligations at P216.8 million as of October 31, 1992. In the company’s 1997 financial statements, the obligations have ballooned to P458.6 million, owing to the devaluation of the peso.

When the Sandiganbayan ordered the holding of a stockholders' meeting in 1993 to be presided over by a registered stockholder, the APT went to the Supreme Court for the TRO. It has since continued to operate the Journal through its nominees.

ONE ITEM THE Ramos administration had hoped to accomplish under its plan to privatize RPN-9 and IBC-13 was to redevelop Broadcast City, where the two networks are located. But the PCGG did not have the title to the lot; it was in the possession of the IBC board. When the PCGG asked for it, the board, then chaired by Tomas Gomez III, refused, sparking a tug-of-war that eventually found its way to the Sandiganbayan.

Gomez insisted on the power of the IBC-13 board to dispose of the ceded assets in the ordinary course of doing business as a government-owned and ceded corporation. President Ramos fired off several executive orders to remind Gomez that the PCGG not only had supervision and control over the network, but had also been designated to privatize both RPN-9 and IBC-13. Gomez was later replaced by retired general Emiliano Templo, who recognized the PCGG’s authority.

Insiders say squabbles at RPN-9 have been just as intense as those at IBC. When RPN-9 was sequestered in 1986, it had defaulted on the payment of P238.6 million in various loans it obtained from the Philippine National Bank. Consequently, the bank transferred the accounts to the APT. The APT, in turn, foreclosed the mortgaged properties—radio and television equipment—between 1989 and 1991.

In an agreement later entered into by the APT and RPN, the network agreed to pay a monthly operating fee equivalent to 2.5 percent of its net sales for the continued use of the foreclosed properties.

Despite the foreclosure of RPN-9 properties to settle the accounts, the APT said the network still owed it money, which it said amounted now to P1.28 billion. RPN-9 had also incurred another debt for which a lot it owns on Panay Avenue, Quezon City, where the RPN transmitter and tower are located, has been mortgaged, according to the APT.

As RPN-9’s single biggest creditor, the APT is the most logical agency to privatize the network, argued APT chief executive trustee Gonzalo T. Santos Jr. and RPN president Rex D. Lores in a 1997 memorandum to Ramos. This prompted PCGG Chairman Magtanggol Gunigundo to send the President a memorandum restating two 1996 Ramos directives that designated the PCGG to privatize Benedicto’s surrendered shares, and a 1997 Committee on Privatization directive approving the PCGG’s privatization of RPN-9.

Caught between the APT and PCGG, the RPN-9 board last year commissioned its own study on how to privatize the network. The board said it hoped "to secure a mechanism for privatization that will avoid the sale of assets that do not really belong to the Republic of the Philippines, like the Fan Jet Falcon that was sold by the PCGG without the exercise of due diligence, the lawsuit that it spawned, and the multi-million dollar liability, instead of income, that it generated for the government."

As a result, RPN-9 now has three valuation figures: P1.3 billion by the PCGG, P2 billion by the APT and P2.4 to P2.8 billion by the RPN-9 board.

PETTY SQUABBLES AND LEGAL PROBLEMS ARE not the only plagues on the houses of IBC-13, RPN-9 and the Journal group. Mismanagement, corruption and souring management-labor relations have also become marks of the companies' years under state control.

The most visible of the officials' abuses, says Press Secretary Reyes, is the excessive travel by Journal and RPN-9 executives during the Ramos presidency. He notes, "If you just consider the Times Journal executives, my God, in every foreign trip of the President (Ramos), they were always there. I don’t know when it actually should be a reporter."

The Journal's Santos, for example, uses a ubiquitous presence in all of Ramos's trips. Describing himself as a hands-on publisher, he says, "The consideration is, what is your output from the coverage? Are you better than the other guys who covered it? Definitely, yeah." But Reyes retorts: "If he's (Santos) a hands-on publisher, then there's no sense sending a reporter and an editor."

RPN-9 executives, meanwhile, have gone to nearly all the screenings in Los Angeles to shop for foreign shows for the network, says Reyes. Where most stations would send one or two representatives, Channel 9 sent six. "The last time, they sent nine," Reyes says.

The press secretary says the network's executives have also given themselves fat allowances and bonuses. He says RPN officials had drawn "dubious" representation allowances to work on the network's application for a legislative franchise. Yet, he points out, "they have nothing to show for it. Channel 9 still has no franchise."

At the Journal, a 1992 audit report by Carlos J. Valdez and Co. showed that senior officers received allowances classified as special, sundry and other allowances/benefits that totaled P30 million in 1987 to 1992 alone. At least two officers then were each drawing an annual pay of more than P1 million, after only less than three years of stay, said the report. A number of the allowances and benefits had no approval from the board, it said.

A special audit of the then financially distressed IBC-13 by the Commission on Audit also found that managerial employees up to the position of general manager and PCGG comptroller were paid P833,578.51 between late 1994 and early 1995 in educational assistance and Christmas bonuses, equivalent to four months gross pay, including representation and transportation allowances, even without proper board authorization.

COA also learned that various officers got salary increases totaling P595,132.70, again without approval of the board and the president—and even as IBC-13 failed to remit P6.7 million premiums to the Social Security System and P12 million in withholding taxes. Not surprisingly, IBC employees went on strike in 1995.

Several government nominees have also turned the sequestered media companies into employment agencies. For instance, the Journal at the time of its sequestration had only 300 people. By 1992, it had 615. A manpower analyst hired by the Journal board recently concluded the company could operate with just 300.

Abao also says RPN-9 now has 600 people, about 100 more than when the government took over. But since RPN has substantially cut back on station-produced shows in favor of foreign shows, including telenovelas, the big labor force is no longer justified.

"When Channel 2 restarted, it made do with 260 people," says Abao. "Channel 7 employs between 300 and 400 people. But these companies have a sales picture of P5.8 billion (Channel 2) and P1.8 billion (Channel 7). In our case, we're smaller and should therefore have fewer personnel. Probably 200 people will do."

But it is how the past governments had brazenly used the media companies as their mouthpiece that convinces Reyes that it is time to turn them over to the private sector.

"The idea of people in keeping them is to manipulate the news and use them for propaganda," he says. "These are the people who want to latch on to power. I don't believe in that. In my case, I don't want to prostitute the profession (journalism)."

Reyes knows whereof he speaks. As part of the Ramos campaign in 1992, his camp had benefited from the manipulation of state-owned media companies, at the expense of the opposition parties, to push President Aquino's candidate. Last May, though, Reyes was with the camp of opposition candidate Joseph Estrada. "What happened," says Reyes, "was the shoe was on the other foot."

He singles out the Journal as having a most questionable coverage of the May polls. "They completely threw out any sense of fairness, which is a cardinal principle in journalism," he says. "I won't mind if they took a certain position editorially and endorsed openly a candidate, that's very understandable for an administration paper and even for a private commercial paper, but to go hammer and tongs and even use the news columns against the opposition, I think that's unacceptable."

In general, say officials at RPN-9 and IBC-13, the Aquino and Ramos administrations left them alone. When government exerted pressure, they say, they could always reason out. "We took their own word of democratic space," says Abao.

STILL, RPN-9 news manager Norlie Agrazada says instructions to be all-out government would indeed come from the board. "The Palace, of course, expected the sequestered stations to toe the line. I was getting calls from board members who claimed direct access to the president. May tawag rin from Malacañang and OPS (There were also calls from Malacanang and the Office of the Press Secretary). If Malacañang wanted a story killed, they could." Agrazada says it is to the credit of her predecessors like Edwin Fargas that RPN kept government meddling at a minimum in the news and current affairs programs.

IBC’s del Rosario himself came under a lot of pressure from IBC-13 president Templo on how to run his department. "Whether there were instructions that came directly from Malacañang to be more strict, I'm not really aware," he says.

On September 22, a day after the news department ran stories on the anti-charter change rally, Templo removed del Rosario as the news manager. Templo also moved the news program from its 4:30 p.m. time slot to midnight, a dead hour. Under Templo's presidency, IBC-13 also ran a 30-minute program on the President's daily activities.

The Journal, though, makes no apologies about being a government newspaper through and through. This especially holds true during elections: Journal publications went all out for administration candidates Fidel V. Ramos in 1992 and Jose de Venecia last May.

"The government owns it," says Santos. "I know whoever owns the paper, you must follow the principles and policies of the owner. There are no ifs and buts." But he says the Journal gave the opposition space in its newspapers in the May polls. People's Journal editor Tony Mortel says reminders "to be friendly to the administration" are issued every planning session. "There's nothing written, no memos for the sake of posterity. The instructions or oral: You have to be pro-government."

Mortel believes the pro-government stance has exacted a severe toll on the Philippine Journal, the broadsheet that should be the Journal's flagship paper. Surveys on circulation no longer include it because its figure has become insignificant. But Santos says the Philippine Journal's small circulation is not a consequence of the editorial policy but rather part of the paper's repackaging as a "second paper" in households.

But the pro-government stance's effects on the Journal staff is what really worries Mortel. "It stifles editorial creativity and has stopped reporters from digging deeper into the story. They've become benign and have stopped taking a critical look at stories," he says. "In many instances, we would just accept stories from Malacañang lock, stock and barrel."

Mortel also says the Journal's editorial position has resulted in self-censorship among some editors, including himself. He recalls how he had wanted to run Senator Juan Flavier's warning to Estrada in light of the series of ambuscades following the President's declaration of war against criminals as the headline. "'Sinusubukan ka na' would have been catchy," he says, "but why bother?"

PRIVATIZATION IS NOW CONSIDERED BY THE sequestered media companies' employees as the only hope for the firms to have a future. As it is, the buildings and equipment of the three firms are in disrepair. Yet massive investments have been impossible.

IBC-13, for instance, subsists on two contracts with VTV that assure the channel a monthly income of P19 to P21 million. But the income is quickly eaten up by salaries and wages, retirement benefits and payment of a P150-million loan to Banco Filipino, to which the Broadcast City lot has been mortgaged and its frequencies have been assigned.

IBC still owes its workers P28 million in backpay. The station has also relied on exchange deals to procure expensive camera and editing equipment, says del Rosario, explaining why it now uses various systems that have hampered news operations.

So cash-strapped is IBC-13 that Roa has found herself doubling as president and chairman of the board and general manager of the network—for no extra pay.

At RPN-9, poor programming during the sequestered years, brought about largely by management's insistence to produce its own shows, has caused losses of up to P86 million in one year alone. RPN began to turn around only in 1996, thanks to the phenomenal "Mari Mar" and "Maria la del Barrio" telenovelas and other foreign shows.

While the network posted a net income of P297 million in 1996 and P139 million last year, its cash position (P42.7 million as of last January) may not as yet support the large-scale upgrading of equipment RPN needs to compete with other stations. The answer, Abao says, is for RPN-9 to take out a loan. But he adds: "In the last 12 years, we could not even borrow. No bank would lend us the money because the ownership is unclear."

In contrast, the Journal has surprisingly remained profitable, reporting a P48-million income from 1997 operations. PCGG’s Caesario del Rosario says the Journal has P500 million cash in the bank, although the firm's 1997 financial statements shows it has only P103.8 million.

Unlike their counterparts at RPN-9 and IBC-13, Journal employees enjoy 17-month pay plus a retirement fund. But little has been done to upgrade its offices and equipment, including its presses, owing to the court cases on the company's ownership. Journal officials fear courting charges of dissipating the Journal assets should they embark on massive capital expenditures. The most they can do right now is set aside the money.

The employees are confident that when the three companies are back in private hands, the new owners would operate them efficiently and finally pay attention to the many things that have been overlooked in the last 12 years. As del Rosario put it, privatization is the "light at the end of the tunnel."

Oct - Dec 1999,, Vol. V, No. 4, That's Not News, That's Entertainment, by Luz Rimban,

CALL IT THE Media Midas Touch. When it came to news and current affairs programming, it seemed everything broadcast leader ABS-CBN touched turned to gold, at least ratings and revenue-wise. Shortly after reopening under the control of the Lopez family in 1986, the network had quickly captured the fancy of the then newly empowered masa with "TV Patrol," the first Filipino language newscast on pre-primetime TV. Then came the public service program "Hoy! Gising!" whose loud and loquacious badgering of erring local officials met the audience's demand for government accountability. In recent years, the infotainment show "Balitang K" has been keeping late afternoon viewers glued to their sets with stories that served to entertain more than anything else. TV and media critics carped about the shows' contents, but the numbers were all too glowing for the network's officials to care about anything else.

And so when ABS-CBN bigwigs last August 16 replaced the award-winning "The World Tonight," Channel 2's late evening news show, the expectation was the new program would be yet another audience and cash magnet. Derived from an old "TV Patrol" segment that examined the public pulse on current issues, "Pulso Aksyon Balita" was to be the station's wake-upper in a sleeper of a timeslot—11 to 11:30 p.m.

But "Pulso" is rankling viewers more than it is raking them in. Rather than heralding another new trend in broadcast news, the all-Filipino news show appears to be proving that the local TV audience can only take so much from the so-called idiot box.

Media critics say "Pulso" signals the downward slide in the late evening news, the dumbing down of Philippine television. Viewers themselves are howling, saying that at the very least, they expect a news program to tell them the news. But that seems to be asking too much of "Pulso," where reporters race through even the heaviest of issues in one minute flat, or the world news in a breathless 60 seconds. What makes it harder to take anything in the show too seriously is the penchant of anchors Ted Failon and Korina Sanchez to pepper the air with their unsolicited opinions.

"Pulso" even ends with a segment called "Kontra Bersya," where the duo debates on the burning issue of the day. This is capped with a telephone survey that counts viewer opinion on current issues. Ponder this and phone in your answers now: How do you think Cebu Judge Martin Ocampo died? Press 1 if by suicide or 2 if by foul play. Whose rally are you attending on August 20, Cory Aquino and Cardinal Sin's or Mike Velarde's El Shaddai? Failon's verdict on the results of that one: If the Church and Cory votes win, it is probably because Sin and Aquino supporters had telephones.

The result is that "Pulso" has so repulsed viewers that some have even taken to calling it palso (a failure). In recent months, newspapers have published letters from people disgusted with the program while the network itself has been deluged with letters and phone calls asking for the return of "The World Tonight."

But the most tangible proof of the show's loss of viewership has been the household ratings, which by its second month had dipped to seven percent from its start of 18 percent. Even advertisers stayed away. By mid-October, "Pulso's" nightly commercial load plunged to as low as a minute and 45 seconds, possibly one of the lowest posted by any ABS-CBN news program ever. Even at its bleakest showing, insiders say, "The World Tonight" could muster at least three minutes of commercials.

ABS-CBN executives, however, are either unfazed by the reactions or as yet unwilling to accept defeat. "Birth pains," is how "Pulso's" creator and ABS-CBN's self-proclaimed ideas man Jake Maderazo calls the negative feedback. The network's corporate communications head Patricia Daza, for her part, would rather describe the dissenters "the loud minority" among the loyal "World Tonight" viewers, the uppercrust AB audience who, she says, have the time and the capacity to write letters or make phone calls to Channel 2.

These people are not really "Pulso's" audience, insists Maderazo, adding, "They are few but they're the thinking people, the crowd of 'The World Tonight'."

HE FAILS TO say if he means those who watch "Pulso" don’t think. What is undeniable, however, is that in the last few years, ABS-CBN and its rivalGMA Channel 7 have devoted almost all of their airtime to entertaining the middle- to lower-income segment of the population that is known in the industry as the CDE audience. Except for the Latin American telenovelas and Japanese animation features, Channels 2 and 7 are now filled all day long with locally produced dumbing and numbing variety shows, talks shows, soap operas and situation comedies or re-runs of Tagalog movies.

The late evening slots, the last bastion of the networks' claim to "serious" programming and once the domain of news and public affairs programs, have likewise been reformatted to attract the predominantly Filipino-speaking CDE audience. Hence the shift to Filipino as the medium of reportage.

There have been other noticeable changes in news and current affairs programming in the late night hours. Anchors like Dong Puno, Cheche Lazaro, and Loren Legarda metamorphosed into colloquial Filipino-speaking hosts. In ABS-CBN's case, English language news was relegated to its cable news division, ABS-CBN News Channel, or its UHF station Studio 23. On GMA, English language reporting has disappeared completely.

What is considered news is no longer the same as well. While news events affecting the public profoundly, such as oil price hikes, have merited no more than one-minuters on both "Pulso" and "Frontpage," GMA's new news program, titillating showbiz tidbits like sexpot Rosanna Roces’s revealing wardrobe or starlet Anjanette Abayari's arrest for drug possession in Guam have been given all-out coverage. No less than Sanchez herself flew to Guam to do live reports on Abayari’s travails for "Pulso," while Channel 7's ace reporter Jessica Soho did the honors for her network.

"Of course when you send somebody to cover AJ in Guam, that tends to eclipse the amount of effort, resources and manpower you throw behind covering what happens in the Senate or Malacañang," admits Mike Enriquez, president of GMA's regional network. "But then again, there's AC Nielsen and other studies which show that this (AJ) is what people watch."

AC Nielsen Philippines is the media research organization that conducts the People Meter Survey, the only ratings data available in the country and the veritable bible of the broadcast industry. Released every Monday, the ratings survey tells the networks, advertising agencies and advertisers what television shows are most watched by whom. More than anything else, it is the advertisers' road map to the rugged terrain of television: It tells them in clear numbers where to put their precious advertising budgets.

The ratings also tell the network just how big a paycheck their performers and other broadcast talents should get. Maderazo says he tells ABS-CBN news and current affairs programs' writers, producers and hosts: "If your program rates poorly, it reflects on your performance. Your bonuses will be affected."

If television networks have forsaken the "thinking audience," therefore, a large part of the blame lies with ratings that indicate this segment of the population is no longer watching the free TV channels. The AB viewers are thought to be instead channel-surfing in cable, where viewing choices are almost limitless.

But it is one thing for TV news aimed at the masa to shift to Filipino, the national language—a move many say was long overdue, anyway. It's another thing to stereotype Filipino newscasts as shrill, sensational and shocking, not to mention patronizing and overbearing.

Take "Pulso," which from any angle cannot be seen as anything more than a token news program. Its main format and selling point is the anchors' debate toward the end of the show, where Failon and Sanchez role-play opposing sides to the day's hottest issue, regardless of their own personal beliefs on the subject. The clincher is the telephone poll, which Maderazo admits is "part of the entertainment format."

The debate is actually a reprise of what Failon and Sanchez do each morning in their radio show on DZMM. While what they say on air is not scripted, both are told beforehand which side they will take, to avoid having them agreeing by accident. In other words, they act out their being adversaries.

Maderazo confesses that there is a danger in having anchors role-play a debate. "When you allow newscasters to speak their minds, you can only show two things: their ignorance or their brilliance," he says. "At some point, you'll see that they're brilliant. At others, you'll see that they're stupid."

Which begs the question: why make them take that risk, especially when Failon and Sanchez appear to lack the gravitas for anything they say to have a modicum of significance? While both are among ABS-CBN's stars, with legions of fans hanging on to their every word, neither one has gone beyond being a very opinionated talking head. Maderazo calls them "heavyweights" but it is unclear in which field they would merit this description. To be sure, more than their erudition, it is their ability to reach high decibel levels that has attracted attention. Media critics have even taken Sanchez to task for using the airwaves to lash out at her enemies-—including the company that loaned her money so she could purchase a Benz.

Failon, meanwhile, can hardly make claims on remaining clear-eyed on issues that directly involve the government, since week after week, he fawns over President Joseph Estrada on the program "Jeep ni Erap." That makes Failon, says Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros, "the biggest PR agent of the President at this point," and thus someone whose presence in a news program constitutes a breach of journalistic ethics.

Some media watchers thought ABS-CBN had already gone overboard having radio listeners wake up in the morning to the voices of the dueling duo, and then having viewers see and hear them late in the afternoon as well, albeit separately, on their respective TV shows "Hoy! Gising!" and "Balitang K." But ABS apparently believed the public could not get enough of Failon and Sanchez, and put them in "Pulso," where they are now hounding hapless viewers late into the night.

Unfortunately, frantic clicking on the remote may bring little relief for those with no cable service, unless they start looking for news an hour or so earlier, when a couple of the smaller networks have English-language newscasts. But viewers who want news that late at night have no alternative to "Pulso." Some 30 minutes earlier, they may even just end up with Channel 7's "Frontpage," which is almost "Pulso's" clone. The GMA show's kicker says it all: "Headlines bukas, ngayon ang broadcast (Tomorrow's headlines broadcast today)." To its credit, it delivers what it promises-—all in a whirlwind 15 minutes.

THAT THESE shows all have the sound and feel of radio is no accident. With the lifestyles of Metro Manilans getting more and more fast-paced, network executives probably figured that many people are resorting to multi-tasking just to keep up with what has to be done. Radio already enabled people to be updated with the news while preparing for work in the morning or cooking dinner at night. Why not, TV executives must have thought, have television news programs that kept people company while they did other things?

This explains why three years ago, ABS-CBN put up "Alas Singko Y Media," initially a two-hour early morning news and current affairs program that worked more like televised radio. It had traffic updates, call-ins, bits of news and information wedged in between talk. It was an instant hit, quickly eclipsing GMA's early morning programs that had been around for years. Today, "Alas Singko" still has the same segment mix, but has been extended to three hours, the better to catch even the late-rising executive. It is what AC Nielsen analysts call passive TV viewing because it does not require the viewers' undivided attention. "Now you could do your ironing and you could fix breakfast," says Gabriel Buluran, AC Nielsen's associate director for operations. "It's telling you the news while letting you do all these other things."

This also seems to be the thinking behind the early evening infotainment shows, although these are shorter and more visually interesting, perhaps to help viewers who manage to make it home that early to relax. By the time the late evening news programs are on, the viewers are too tired and too sleepy despite all the things still on their to-do list. And so while everything in the newscasts is kept short, extra effort is exerted to keep the viewers' attention, even if it means having the anchors practically shout the headlines or pretend to argue over an issue.

In the past, the lives of broadcast news people were much simpler. As Buluran points out, they didn't have that much to worry about since "people didn't have much choice. After 12 midnight, there wasn't anything to watch on TV." But cable TV has changed all that, and network executives are now twitching nervously. So far, AC Nielsen's study of audience share shows that more than 20 percent of TV-viewing households are tuned in to cable late in the evening, eating slowly into the ABS-CBN's commanding 40-percent share.

The bright boys at the networks console themselves with the thought that the numbers could easily swing back, depending on what's showing where. But they are sweating heavily nevertheless, given the aggressive marketing of cable companies, which offer low monthly subscriptions, deferred payments and even free TV sets. As it is, the estimated number of cable subscribers nationwide has reached 1.2 million, more than double the 1996 total. Industry insiders say a significant chunk of cable viewers may be made up of the CDE audience, which remains the target of much of the cable companies' marketing strategies.

Despite all these, ABS-CBN is still number one among the networks when it comes to snaring advertising revenues. This year, it has taken more than a third of the P10 billion advertisers have paid the networks so far. Growth in television airtime revenues and other entertainment-related businesses gave ABS-CBN a 20-percent growth in earnings in the first half of 1999 alone. Its strong financial showing in fact powered its latest venture into the corporate arena. In early October, the Lopezes created ABS-CBN Holdings, the vehicle they used to offer Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) in the stock market for foreign investors who cannot buy into existing ABS-CBN stocks.

On the day it was listed, ABSH raised P6 billion, which has since been plowed back into the network for its expansion into—surprise, surprise—cable with its ABS-CBN Cable Network. Part of the funds have also been used to strengthen sister companies such as the movie outfit Star Cinema, and UHF Channel Studio 23. An ABS-CBN release quoted its chairman Eugenio Lopez III as saying that he expects ABS-CBN to "continue its dominance as it moves to becoming a total media company."

But for ABS-CBN to continue to dominate, its shows must rate. Laggards cannot be tolerated, since these are perceived to hurt the company bottom line. According to Maderazo, keeping a show like "The World Tonight" was a "sacrifice" the company could no longer afford to make. He says the news program no longer "connected with the audience," as proven by its diminished ratings and revenues.

THEN AGAIN, JUST who is this audience TV programs are supposed to connect with? The ratings, after all, are Manila-centric. The numbers are actually culled from a sample of 250 households representing the two million TV-viewing households in Metro Manila, which is the advertisers'—and therefore the networks'—priority area.

It is the tastes and preferences of this sample that dictate how networks program their television hours. Hence, when ABS-CBN decided to cancel "The World Tonight," the network did not take into consideration the six million other viewing households outside Metro Manila. The news show's former executive producer, Ging Reyes, also notes that most of those who protested or lamented the loss of the program were viewers from the provinces. She confirms, "They're not reflected in the ratings."

Network executives do not even try to hide that they are not interested in what viewers outside Metro Manila want. Says Maderazo: "Your revenues are not in the provinces. They are here in Metro Manila."

In truth, the networks bring the provincial viewers in only when it suits them. When the networks sell advertising, one of their come-ons is that they are beamed nationwide. A 30-second commercial spot on a top-rating program on ABS-CBN, which reaches 98 percent of the Philippines, costs more than P100,000. GMA's reach is almost equal that, but it loses out to ABS-CBN in terms of signal and clarity of reception in some areas.

In the wake of the fiasco that is "Pulso," however, media watchers, network insiders and advertisers are all wondering who really constitutes the local TV audience. Many are mulling in particular over who does stay up watching television late at night. Asks Philippine Star columnist Alfredo Yuson asks: "Is there really a substantial audience that prefers its newscasts in Tagalog at that late hour?" Reyes, who remains at ABS-CBN, paraphrases the question: "At 11 pm, what are CDE audiences doing? They have to sleep because they have to wake up early the next day. They are not company CEOs who can wake up late and go to work in a chauffeur-driven car."

There are many other questions that perplex network bosses, news executives and broadcast journalists. Among them: Why is there an audience for the documentary series "I-Witness" on GMA or "The Correspondents" and "Assignment" on ABS-CBN, despite their requiring viewers to sit through news features that last 10 minutes each at a minimum or discourses on issues that can go on for an hour. Granted, of late, these shows have gone through some considerable "softening" as well. But if there is an audience for such programs, why assume that late night news viewers have short attention spans by giving them minute-long newsbits on the likes of "Pulso" and "Frontpage"?

Certainly, the AC Nielsen survey, or any other ratings survey for that matter, will be hard pressed to come up with answers to these queries. For all the polling carried out and the charts and graphs crafted in efforts to come up with its profile, the television audience remains an intangible, invisible mass whose tastes and preferences are subjective and change constantly.

Writes Australia-based media and culture expert Ien Ang in her book Desperately Seeking the Audience: "'Television audience' is not a static, stone-like object whose characteristics can be described once and for all, but is a continually changing, dynamic object that always seems to elude definition. The fact that the production of ratings is an ongoing, never-ending practice testifies to this slipperiness: even the most factual, objective characteristics of 'television audience,' its size and its composition, cannot be assumed constant, and have to be established again and again, day after day. Ratings are very fleeting products: they become obsolete almost instantly."

But without anything else to hold on to, the networks have no choice but to rely on the ratings. And for the past few years, those ratings have established that late night audiences have been increasing dramatically, probably because the demands of urban living have been making people reach home late and stay up even later.

Among the networks' responses to this trend has been to stretch primetime hours of seven p.m. to 10 p.m. as far as they can. TV stations have pushed back the late evening newscasts into later timeslots to allow for extended entertainment programs. In an industry where punctuality is a cardinal rule, the networks have been on Filipino time as far as the late evening newscasts were concerned.

The bottom line is that news is no longer as important to network executives as it used to be. And if they could replace it with entertainment, they would.

By the looks of "Pulso Aksyon Balita" and "Frontpage," they already have.

July-Sept. 1999,, Vol.. V No. 3, Reghis Romero: Man of the Times, by Chay Florentino-Hofilena and Ian Saysin,
HE SAYS HE thought he was doing the troubled newspaper a favor by saving it from extinction. But when he forked over P20 million to buy the trade name of the Manila Times, Reghis M. Romero II got a near hostile welcome from some members of the media who saw him as an administration stooge. Weeks later, at an informal meeting with some of the ex-editors of the Times, Romero was still insisting that all he wanted to do was buy a paper.

But what did he expect? The paper whose name he paid millions for had been sued for libel by no less than President Joseph Estrada. Its owners had been forced to apologize in exchange for the withdrawal of the suit, an incident that only made Estrada look like a bully. By buying the Times name only, Romero was not only ending its owners’ financial headaches, as he says he was doing. He was also putting the paper’s 180 employees out of work, and shutting down a daily that the government had looked upon as being overly critical of its performance.

That he was a virtual non-entity to most in the media industry certainly did not help Romero’s case, even after lawyer Katrina Legarda, who was at the forefront of the Times purchase, finally presented him as the mysterious buyer of the Times. But when details of his previous business achievements began to spill out, the suspicions merely mounted. Romero, after all, is a construction magnate who seems to specialize in government-funded projects. He even describes one of these, the rehabilitation of the Smokey Mountain dumpsite, as his crowning achievement. That project, however, is now the subject of a congressional inquiry.

Perhaps taken aback by the hostility and suspicion that greeted his entry into the mainstream media, Romero has evaded journalists. But he did answer some questions at the press conference where Legarda introduced him as the new owner of the Times. He hosted another press conference later at the New World Hotel, but it was cut short after tough questions began to be thrown at him. Subsequent requests for interviews that came not long after were turned down. He has said, though, that he had actually been eyeing the Philippine Post even before Legarda dangled the prospect of buying the Times. He has yet to say, however, why he wanted to own a paper in the first place.

TO BE FAIR, HE ISN'T THE FIRST businessman to venture out of his field and try his luck in publishing. The Gokongweis, from whom Romero bought the Times, were themselves strangers to the newspaper business before they purchased the daily a decade ago.

At the time, Romero himself was too busy building his construction empire to even entertain thoughts about anything else. An ambitious entrepreneur who started out as a nobody in the construction industry, Romero strayed into the field after graduating from the University of the Philippines in 1973, with a degree in foreign service. Just two years out of college, he was already a sales manager and then project coordinator at the Concept Builders Corporation.

Concept Builders then had accounts with government agencies such as the National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Systems (MWSS). It was there that Romero apparently learned the importance of persistence and political connections in making it big in the construction industry. He would even go to the NHA himself to collect what was due the company, eventually becoming friends with key officials of the agency. By the time he left Concept Builders in 1983 and helped set up Pentad Development Corporation, a construction and development firm, Romero had already established strong ties with officials of the NHA and other agency-clients. Industry insiders say that this networking skill was something Romero would later almost perfect.

Romero held the title of vice-president for marketing at Pentad, a subsidiary of AVG Holdings, which was owned by a former classmate of Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado. Two other Concept Builders alumni joined Romero at Pentad: Edmond Sese and Pat Yuzon, a relative of Romero’s first wife. Yuzon says he moved out of Pentad to help Mercado, also a relative, campaign for a seat in the Batasan in 1984. Yuzon eventually became Mercado’s chief of staff when the latter won as senator. But when Romero decided to establish his very own firm, R-II Builders, Inc., in 1988, Yuzon joined him in the venture, together with Sese.

Of the R-II Builders triumvirate, only Sese is an engineer. He is now president of the R-II Group of Companies. But Yuzon, presently the head of Romero’s environmental and waste management firm, Philippine Ecology Systems Corporation, says he and Romero learned the construction ropes through direct experience. "Regie," he adds, "can out-talk any engineer."

Romero, a Marian devotee, considers September 8, the birthday of the Virgin Mary, as his "lucky" day. This is why he chose Sept. 8, 1988 as the incorporation date of R-II Builders, a "pure construction corporation." When it began, R-II Builders had an authorized capitalization of P5 million. By July 1997, its capital had risen to P600 million. Its phenomenal success was attributed to the company's extraordinary ability to bag government-funded housing projects and complete them on time.

But this was not unusual for a company that had a reputation for doing things quickly. Indeed, just three years after it was set up, R-II already had the much sought after Triple A classification, which allowed it to undertake any project that costs over P3 million.

According to an industry insider, it takes resources, organization and equipment to be able to consistently undertake large projects that can earn a contractor his Triple A stripe from the Philippine Contractors Accreditation Board. Unlike a corporation that decides to venture into construction, the insider says, an individual can take as long as 20 years before he makes it to the big league—assuming his work and his contracts are steady.

Today, just 11 years after he set up R-II Builders, the 49-year-old Romero is chairman and chief executive officer of R-II Holdings, Inc., a conglomerate he built around his construction firm. Besides R-II Builders, R-II Holdings owns two other subsidiaries, Smokey Mountain Holdings and Harbour Centre Port Terminal, Inc. These, plus six other firms, make up the R-II Group of Companies.

His friends say Romero worked hard to make his company succeed. By the early 1990s, R-II was busy with Pinatubo resettlement projects, such as one in Bamban, Tarlac and another in Angeles, Pampanga. But the biggest government contract R-II would land would also give it its biggest problems.

Of the 13 contractors invited to bid for the Smokey Mountain Development and Reclamation Project, two qualified for the final bidding in May 1992: New San Jose Builders and R-II Builders, Inc. In October 1992, the government chose R-II Builders as its joint venture partner in the project, which sought to rehabilitate Smokey Mountain, the 21.2-hectare garbage dumpsite in Tondo, Manila that had been long used by the foreign and local media to depict an impoverished Philippines. But it would take almost three more years and one stadium before R-II was allowed to begin work on the project.

As the winning contractor of the Smokey Mountain project, R-II Builders was required to provide on-site housing for over 3,500 squatter families, as well as employment and livelihood opportunities. In addition, it was to clear more than two million cubic meters of garbage that had accumulated and transformed Smokey Mountain into a "national showcase." The project was an image battle that the Ramos administration wanted badly to win—except that government did not have the cash to bankroll it.

The transformation of Smokey Mountain was admittedly a difficult, risky and complicated undertaking. Because the government had no money to finance the project, the private partner was expected to raise the needed funds from the sale of land that it was to reclaim. The contractor was also to deal with no less than 11 state agencies overseeing the project.

At the very least, the rehabilitation of Smokey Mountain was a bureaucratic nightmare and a contractor who was willing to take on the job was evidently a risk-taker. Which Romero was—and is. As Yuzon puts it, "Regie is a fighter, matiyaga, matibay ang dibdib (patient, bold)."

Industry insiders say Romero also knows which cards to play. As the government dragged its heels in giving R-II the go-signal for the Smokey Mountain project, Romero turned his attention to other contracts, one of which was the construction of the Narciso Ramos Stadium in Lingayen, Pangasinan, home province of then President Fidel V. Ramos. The stadium, named after Ramos's father, was built within a "record-breaking 60 days," in time for the 1995 Palarong Pambansa. President Ramos was so pleased that he complimented R-II Builders, referring to Romero's group as "miracle-builders." In the same month that the stadium was completed, R-II was given the long-awaited notice to proceed for the Smokey Mountain project.

AND SO IT was that a self-styled doer became involved in one of the Ramos administration's more grandiose schemes. But the man who prided himself for swift action became reckless with Smokey Mountain. Romero readily undertook additional work and changes in the work contract without requiring the government to tell him how much and how he would be paid. By most indications, construction industry insiders say, he was confident his political investments would pay off.

As many insiders tell it, Romero was a favored contractor during the Ramos administration. But Yuzon denies this. "Hirap na hirap nga kami (We had a hard time)," he says. "We are not even a crony of Ramos. Regie was never invited to any Malacañang affair, he was not invited when the President brought businessmen abroad...We worked and worked and worked, we were not a crony of anybody...We were malakas (chosen) because we did our job, not because we were a crony."

But Romero seemed to be counting on his political investments, and appeared so sure of returns that he let his firm advance several millions for the Smokey Mountain project. According to Yuzon's rough estimates, R-II has now spent at least P6 billion for reclamation, temporary and permanent housing, land development and construction. Of this amount, P3.3 billion was supposed to come from the sale of the land and advances made by R-II. The balance of P2.7 billion was to be funded by the sale to investors of "asset participation certificates" issued against, and backed up by, an asset pool created by the NHA and the developer.

The pool was to consist of the site itself, the reclamation area set at 79 hectares, the development and improvements on these areas, the proceeds from the certificate issuances, and revenues from the sale of the reclaimed area. The Home Insurance Guaranty Corporation was to extend bond guaranty coverage over the certificates issued, while the Philippine National Bank was to act as trustee of the funds.

Following the results of a public hearing conducted by R-II Builders, the company used steel and concrete instead of wood for temporary housing, and expanded the living area from 20 square meters to 32 for permanent housing. Other mitigating environmental measures such as the installation of protection and gas venting systems to collect gas generated by the remaining waste caused the project cost to balloon from P3.46 billion to P6.69 billion.

Flagship Projects Committee Undersecretary Manuel Gaite says that what were supposed to be low-cost houses have ironically ended up with a P900,000 per unit price tag. It is the Flagship Committee that is currently reviewing the Smokey Mountain project.

To complicate matters for Romero, the project's Phase II was scrapped. This phase included the use of an incinerator to dispose of the garbage on site. But the Presidential Task Force on Solid Waste Management prohibited having an incinerator within a kilometer radius of a residential area. Debates on the Clean Air Act, which sought to ban incinerators, had also begun by then.

Toward the tail-end of the Ramos administration, Romero sought the approval of a supplemental agreement that would have authorized the additional work needed to complete the project. This work was supposed to include an offsite garbage disposal, the use of pile foundations buried at least 24 meters deep, the construction of a flyover to address the anticipated traffic problem within the site, and the provision of water and sewage facilities for the 30 permanent housing buildings. As payment, R-II would be allowed to reclaim an additional 220 hectares, which would obviously entail even more expense.

R-II, however, did not wait for the amended agreement to be signed. Apparently anticipating approval, it proceeded with the extra work. This included putting in the pile foundations for nine permanent housing buildings, even if the move meant an additional "P5 million per building," says an NHA official.

But Ramos never signed the amended agreement. Members of the Presidential Management Staff were wary that the President would be accused of approving a midnight deal, and recommended that Ramos consider passing on the decision on the R-II case to the next administration. Ramos did just that, and Romero began having troubles. According to a Malacañang official who has dealt with Romero, the Smokey Mountain fiasco caused the erstwhile lucky contractor to run into more problems, this time with his creditors.

Yuzon says Romero was upset over the government's treatment of their company. Echoing Romero's thoughts, Yuzon muses, "Why was it that the government that asked us to do something was now hitting us? We are supposed to be supported, and not supposed to be hit. Government cannot do it alone."

But having dug themselves into a very expensive trench, R-II officials could not just give up. Soon after Estrada became president, they tried presenting their case to Karina David of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinator Council, which supervises the NHA. She was not too sympathetic. R-II officials somehow wound up with the Flagship Committee headed by Secretary Robert Aventajado.

Aventajado, whom Yuzon describes as "objective," has been tagged as Romero's new patron in the Estrada government. Romero's camp, however, insists the association was not contrived. R-II's case, company officials say, just fell on Aventajado's Flagship Committee for review.

The outcome of Romero's troubles is still uncertain. But what is clear, according to some government officials who know him, is that Romero's problems could not have put him in a financial position to buy a newspaper. Romero, they add, was in no condition as well to absorb another major headache—unless he saw the Times purchase as another political investment no different from Smokey Mountain.

July - Sept 1999,, Vol. V, No. 3, William Gatchalian: From Plastics to Paper, by Yvonne T. Chua,

William Gatchalian, presidential adviser and ex-plastics king, raised eyebrows when he bought into theSun Star.

IF HE HAD only chosen to let his son do all the talking, perhaps Chinese-Filipino businessman and presidential pal William Tiu Gatchalian would have been given the benefit of the doubt by members of the embattled local media, and the fact that he had bought into a fledgling broadsheet at a very critical time would have ceased to be the subject of speculation by now.

True, it had struck many as curious that, on the heels of the controversial sale of the Manila Times and the pull-out of movie ads from the Philippine Daily Inquirer by President Joseph Estrada's producer-friends, Gatchalian and his son Sherwin had suddenly confirmed the purchase of 10 percent of the shares of the Sun Star Manila. But the explanation offered by Sherwin for the acquisition itself was not that implausible. It could very well be that the purchase was not, as the younger Gatchalian told Cebu newsmen last July, part of the "so-called Malacañang plot to silence the critical press." According to Sherwin, his 50-year-old father's foray into the Sun Star was actually part of a five-year-old company plan to invest in the media to complement its airline and hotel businesses, nothing more.

But then William Gatchalian chose to speak up as well, not only to confirm ownership of the shares. Apparently, he also felt he had to explain exactly what he expected from his investment.

In a television interview, the man more known as the "Plastics King"—a monicker earned for his dominance of the local plastics industry—said that he wanted any newspaper he owned to "support" the Estrada administration and "future administrations." He added that his investments in the media were for his children. "Hopefully," he said, "my next generation, they will be involved in politics or other activities. This newspaper is for their future."

Earlier in the interview, Gatchalian had also denied the charges of some members of the press that his buying of Sun Star Manila shares was part of a Palace attempt to control the media. But to many, his subsequent statements only heightened doubts that he understands the nature of newspapering, and may not be averse to using the publication as a political tool, if necessary.

Gatchalian could not accommodate i magazine's request for an interview. Yet if he does end up doing what many in the media suspect him of planning to do, he would hardly be unique. Indeed, many tycoons before him had realized that owning a newspaper could further, as well as protect, their business interests. Not a few found their newspapers handy in persuading legislators to pass laws favorable to their business activities, either by using the threat of unflattering stories about lawmakers or by practically turning the paper into their very own bully pulpit, campaigning for policies that would enhance their companies' operations. The reward for the cooperative politicos was columns upon columns of "good press," and support against any adversary.

Gatchalian is also not the first Chinese-Filipino businessman to venture into newspaper publishing. Others have done that in the last 10 years or so, and it is not unlikely that many of them saw their media company more as a weapon for business than a profit center.

But not all of these Chinese-Filipino businessmen have been successful in their media experiments as many of these produced more headaches than advantages, and hemorrhaged money in the millions. And so while the Go family and Emilio Yap remain entrenched in the Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin, respectively, others like Roberto Coyiuto, Alfonso Yuchengco, Alfredo Ramos and John Gokongwei have since gotten out of the business. Coyiuto's Manila Chronicle and Ramos's Daily Globe closed amid financial and labor problems, while Yuchengco and Gokongwei sold their papers.

"Many people are under the impression that if you have a newspaper, you have clout and the paper will bring you protection," affirms an editor of a leading daily. "But that does not hold anymore. We've seen it in the Gokongweis. There's no point in buying a newspaper."

Then again, Gatchalian is hardly a John Gokongwei, who, while wily, is a known political fence sitter and appears uncomfortable hobnobbing with politicos. In contrast, by the time Gatchalian began to get interested in investing in a newspaper—Gokongwei’s Manila Times was said to be one of his earlier targets—he was already well-entrenched in the Estrada circle of friends, and had even landed an appointment as presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

But Sun Star Manila publisher and editor-in-chief Hector Villanueva scoffs at insinuations that Gatchalian would be able to parlay his minority share in the paper into political clout, much less power.

Villanueva, who was press secretary during the Ramos administration and Lakas-NUCD spokesman, also clarifies that it was he who invited Gatchalian to invest in Sun Star Manila. He even says Gatchalian has been with the paper when it began publishing in February.

The barely six-month-old paper has big ambitions. Although it is currently circulated only in Metro Manila, it intends to go nationwide soon. Says Villanueva: "We needed an airline. We wanted a safety net. If we didn't have Gatchalian as an investor, there would be no airline to carry Sun Star during crunch hour."

Gatchalian-led companies also represent potential advertising and circulation revenues for the new paper, he says.

Sun Star Manila is published by the Sun Star Publications Network, a chain of 21 community newspapers and three magazines, including Sun Star Daily, a widely circulated daily in Cebu. The Sun Star Publications is owned by the family of Jesus Garcia Jr., a transportation and communication secretary under President Fidel Ramos.

The Garcias are known to hold 60-percent interest in most of the papers in the Sun Star chain. In the case of Sun Star Manila, they hold the biggest chunk of shares, but it comes up to only 30 percent. "They don't have the money to bankroll the paper," says Villanueva, which was primarily why the likes of Gatchalian were invited to join the venture.

But Villanueva says the participation of other investors, including Gatchalian, has each been limited to 10 percent of company shares or one board seat to ensure that nobody can sway editorial decisions.

Not that Villanueva believes anybody could. Sun Star Manila, he says, tries to emulate the policies of Sun Star Daily, the chain's flagship newspaper, whose editorial section has remained independent enough to attack even the Cebu City mayor, who is one of its owners. Although Gatchalian is a very well known friend of the Palace, Villanueva says he will receive no special treatment from the paper either.

Villanueva concedes, however, that he was taken aback by Gatchalian’s disclosure of his holdings in Sun Star Manila. "As much as possible," he says, "we didn't want the identities of our stockholders known."

SUN STAR MANILA, in fact, is not the only publication Gatchalian has shares in. He has also bought into Sun Star Horizon, a monthly travel magazine that is also published by the Sun Star Publication Network. In this case, though, he is now majority shareholder, and the magazine has been transformed into the in-flight publication of Air Philippines, the airline founded by Gatchalian. It has been rechristened Air Philippines Horizon.

Business Holdings of William Gatchalian

Wellex Industries Inc.
Omico Holdings
Air Philippines International Corp.

Plastic City Industrial Corp.
Rexlon Industrial Corp.
Plastic City Corp.
Kennex Corp.
Pacific Plastic Corp.
MPC Plastic Corp.
Inland Container Corp.
Wellex Industrial Corp
International Polymer Corp.
Ropeman International Corp.

Waterfront Philippines Inc.
Davao Insular Hotel
Fort Ilocandia

Petrochemicals Corporation
of Asia Pacific (Petrocorp)
Air Philippines Corp.
Philippine International Airways
Silangan Airways Inc

Philippine Estates Corp.
Recovery Development Corp.
Pacific Rehouse Corp.
Orient Pacific Corp.
Rexlon Realty Group Inc.

Philfoods Asia Inc.

Sun-Star Manila Publishing

Express Savings Bank

Forum Exploration Inc.
Cophil Drilling Inc.
Cophil Drilling Limited
Wellex Petroleum Corp.

In the past, Gatchalian had also publicly acknowledged his investment in the Star Publishing Corp., which owns the presses for the Star newspapers, including the Philippine Star. But the bemoustached businessman whose pompadour rivals that of the President appears to have been less than forthright about his interest in the publishing house.

Bobby de la Cruz, executive editor of the Philippine Star, says Gatchalian did invest in Star Publishing Corp. long before the newspaper opened. By the time the daily began to appear in news stands in 1986, though, Gatchalian was already out of the Star. According to de la Cruz, the late Betty Go-Belmonte, whose family owns the Star publications, had paid him his investment plus income.

It thus puzzles Star owners and employees why Gatchalian continues to create the impression that he still partly owns the Star Publishing Corp. In the case of Go-Belmonte, she had kept hoping that Gatchalian would set the record straight, says de la Cruz.

But he has yet to do that, perhaps because, as some observers point out, it is certainly to his advantage that people think he has some control over one newspaper or another, and can influence whatever kinds of stories these publications would churn out. Such perceived clout could impress not only business associates and potential partners, but even government officials, especially those who take the word of fawning hangers-on with little question and who feel tormented by the press.

Another possible reason for Gatchalian’s reticence about Star Publishing, though, is that he has been busy attending to his growing empire, especially in the past year. Like many other businessmen, Gatchalian's business activities, especially in real estate, had slowed at the onset of the financial crisis in 1997. Months after Estrada became chief executive in June 1998, however, Gatchalian's businesses began to pick up. He has since been on a buying binge, snapping up mostly hotels and casinos, signaling a major change in his business tack.

Gatchalian was still a college student when he began manufacturing plastic twines and recycling plastic, an offshoot of his earlier buy-and-sell of plastic scraps business. That was in the late 1960s. In the succeeding years, he moved from being a salesman and warehouseman to a small-scale importer of plastic materials. In 1973, he set up Wellex, which went into the manufacture and marketing of plastic raw materials. Wellex expanded rapidly to become the Wellex Group, consisting of 10 firms, by 1979. Gatchalian soon branched out into agriculture, then real estate and banking.

By the mid-1990s, Gatchalian had diversified into aviation and set up Air Philippines to service domestic routes. The airline experienced turbulence in its first few years and had several of its aircraft grounded after failing inspection. But its operations have improved since. Today, it is doing better than ever.

The last decade also saw Gatchalian buying majority interest in several publicly listed companies that he subsequently renamed and whose primary purpose he changed.

Gatchalian's Wellex Group, for instance, bought into Cophil Exploration Corp, which in turn was renamed Forum Pacific Inc. and later Air Philippines International Corporation (APIC). From a firm engaged primarily in the exploration, development and production of petroleum and related products, APIC is now a holding company engaged mainly in investing, purchasing and acquiring assets of any kind and description.

Meanwhile, Republic Resources and Development Corp., registered as a firm with the primary purpose of engaging in mining and oil exploration activities, was renamed Wellex Industries Inc. and transformed into a holding company for manufacturing and marketing concerns. Wellex recently expanded into food processing. Philfoods Asia Inc., which is into the processing and sale of purified water, fruit juices, noodles, biscuits and other snack foods, has been included in its fold.

Then there's the Philippine Cocoa Estates Corp., which became the Philippine Estates Corp. Its primary purpose was changed from agriculture to real estate, specifically the development of office-commercial-residential condominiums.

Gatchalian also owns the Petrochemicals Corporation of Asia Pacific (Petrocorp) in Mariveles, Bataan, said to be the country’s first polypropylene plant, which he opened shortly before the 1998 elections.

In this era of Erap, however, Gatchalian's interests seem to lie more in leisure-oriented businesses. Last February, he bought from Malaysia's top stockbroker Chua Ma Yu 85 percent of Waterfront Philippines Inc., which operates the Waterfront Mactan Casino Hotel and the Waterfront Cebu City Casino Hotel. Gatchalian intends to build a water park in the province.

In the same month, he purchased 53 percent of Fort Ilocandia Hotel in Laoag. The hotel, which operates the Paoay golf course, also has an existing casino license.

In July, the Wellex Group became the new owner of the 36-year-old Davao Insular Hotel, paying the Ayala Group of Companies P500 million for the privilege.

Recently, Gatchalian snapped up two 12,000-ton vessels at $100 million each from Japan, for conversion into luxury liners that will ply the Manila-Palawan-Boracay-Manila and Laoag-Kaoshiung-Hong Kong-Laoag routes.

In addition, he bought into Omico Corp. and was elected chair in the publicly listed company controlled by Roman Cruz Jr., Estrada’s classmate. The firm has interests in mining and real estate.

Most of these purchases are believed to have been funded largely by the P2.45 billion he had raised from the sale of his 13-percent stake in the Philippine Commercial International Bank (PCIBank) to the late Eugenio Lopez Jr. in December 1998. He has been paid another P800 million under a clawback agreement that obliged Lopez to pay him the 50-percent difference between the buying and selling prices if the latter sold his equity in the bank at a higher price within six months.

Gatchalian, however, may be shopping some more soon. He has said he plans to acquire 10 hotels, and at last count, he had only four.

Yet at the same time, just how much of Air Philippine shares Gatchalian continues to hold onto has become the butt of speculation. Gatchalian’s Air Philippines International Corp. recently acquired only 25 percent of Air Philippines Corp., fueling market talk that Lucio Tan has gained 75 percent in exchange for the airline's debts. In his column last September 1, Victor Agustin of the Philippine Daily Inquirer even wrote that Gatchalian and son Sherwin have already been "eased out" of Air Philippines for forming the rival Philippine International Airways, Inc (PhilAir). Other incorporators of PhilAir, of which Gatchalian has been appointed treasurer, include Neptali A. Gonzales, Franco V. Puzon, Abraham F. Sarmiento, Arthur M. Lopez, Donato C. Almeda, and Mangharam S. Talreja, another Estrada pal.

THOSE WHO know Gatchalian from way back say he has always had a knack for outwitting people and could be expected to come up with unorthodox solutions to whatever problems he found himself facing. One long-time friend recalls that when they were still in college, Gatchalian somehow solicited enough money for members of the University of the East Filipino-Chinese Association to take a tour of Taiwan. He even chartered a plane to take them there.

But Taiwan authorities refused to let the plane land because Gatchalian failed to obtain landing rights. Gatchalian was unperturbed, his friend says. He ordered the pilot to keep circling the skies until the aircraft lost fuel. Taiwan authorities were left with no choice but to authorize an emergency landing, and the tour went on as planned.

Old acquaintances are therefore confident that Gatchalian can overcome whatever is happening (or has happened) to him at Air Philippines. But even if he doesn’t, he would still be far from being idle. As it is, the regional newsmagazine Far Eastern Economic Review has described Gatchalian as one of Estrada’s supposed "cronies" whose companies have been rising well above the rest of the market. Opposition congressman and former investment banker Oscar Moreno has also identified Gatchalian's Wellex Industries and Waterfront Philippines as among the companies that "are making a killing largely because of their special ties with the president."

Of course, Gatchalian's recent streak of good fortune—the rumors about Air Philippines notwithstanding—and the coming into power of Estrada, of whom he is undeniably an ally, if not a very good friend, may well have been coincidence. But his detractors see more than luck and perseverance behind the fact that just two months after the 1998 elections, Air Philippines finally obtained from the House of Representatives its much coveted franchise to establish, operate and maintain domestic and international air transport services. By last March, the Civil Aeronautics Board had given Air Philippines approval to operate international flights to Kaoshiung, Taipei, Seoul, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Osaka and Fukuoka.

In truth, though, many leaders of the ethnic Chinese community consider Gatchalian to be part of the second layer of Chinese-Filipino businessmen friends of President Estrada. "He and the President don't go a long way back like Lucio Tan or Dante Go (of Sugarland) do," says a prominent Chinese-Filipino. Tan and Go have known Estrada since he was mayor of San Juan.

But by the time Estrada became vice president, Gatchalian had moved into the inner circle. He would even join the vice president on some of his personal trips, including one to Italy. Now that he is presidential adviser on OFWs, he is a perennial member of the business delegation that joins the President on every foreign trip.

According to the Review, Gatchalian is also among the pals and senior aides Estrada huddles with at night, after his formal duties are done, at the President’s residence in Malacañang.

Gatchalian is said to be popular in the House as well. According to some of his long-time acquaintances, Gatchalian typifies many Chinese-Filipino businessmen who rely heavily on compradazgo to ensure the survival of their companies from one administration to another, and is known to contribute to campaigns of legislators.

This also isn't the first time Gatchalian has become a supporter of a leading political figure, having contributed a hefty sum to Corazon Aquino's presidential campaign. He is said to have even lost P3 million to a Hong Kong businessman when he wagered that Aquino would win in the 1986 snap elections, based on the count of the defunct Batasang Pambansa.

Ironically, his confidence in Aquino and his generosity toward her campaign failed to stop accusations of being a “fake” Filipino to be hurled his way halfway through the Aquino administration.

Gatchalian's case generated unusual attention because it looked like he was a victim of a bitter fight between Aquino's executive secretary Joker Arroyo and her economic advisers, who were collectively known as the "Council of Trent." The case was supposedly instigated by then Trade and Industry Secretary Jose Concepcion, who accused Gatchalian of being a key figure in a campaign that criticized financial arrangements for the $370-million Luzon Petrochemical Corp. project. Arroyo, who the Council said lawyered for Gatchalian during the Marcos years, had led the campaign against the project. Because of the controversy, Arroyo was subsequently dismissed as chairman of the Philippine National Bank and Philippine director to Asian Development Bank.

Arroyo, however, said he was already executive secretary when he met Gatchalian for the first time. The introductions, he added, were made by an Aquino campaign fund-raiser. Arroyo said the next time he met Gatchalian was when Betty Go-Belmonte's husband, Feliciano, brought the businessman to the Palace to request a meeting with Concepcion. According to Arroyo, it was actually Belmonte who was Gatchalian's lawyer during the Marcos years.

Although the episode was most probably upsetting for Gatchalian, he may have already been used to being called a non-Filipino by then. He wasn't born one, to start with, and had arrived in Manila in 1961 as a 12-year-old poor immigrant from Hong Kong, in the company of an assortment of relatives. Immigration authorities soon discovered that the certificates issued in Hong Kong permitting entry of Gatchalian and his relatives to this country were based on a cablegram bearing the forged signature of the Philippine foreign secretary at the time. The family would spend a good part of its early years here fighting deportation proceedings. In 1973, however, Immigration Commissioner Victor Nituda reversed his bureau's ruling that Gatchalian was not a Filipino.

Sixteen years later, the Aquino administration declared that Nituda had no authority to issue the ruling because he had already resigned when he did it. Then the government unearthed an old Supreme Court ruling for the deportation of Gatchalian's brother, Pedro, et alia, which included William Gatchalian, who quickly became the object of a nationwide manhunt by the immigration bureau. The beleaguered businessman later surrendered and posted a P200,000-bail.

BUT BEING CALLED a fake Filipino was only the beginning of many more misfortunes suffered by Gatchalian under the Aquino regime. He was also accused of smuggling plastic raw materials and reportedly owed the Bureau of Customs P272 million in duties and liabilities. As a result, the Central Bank issued a directive to banks requiring that all import applications of Gatchalian's firms first be cleared with it. A warrant of garnishment was issued for his companies.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue also said he had P87.2 million in unpaid income, sales and compensating taxes based on a 1987 audit of his companies. In addition, he allegedly owed Meralco P49.8 million arising from 88 tampering cases since 1981.

In June 1991, however, the Supreme Court finally ended the row over Gatchalian's citizenship by declaring him a Filipino. The vote was eight to seven.

Gatchalian had a better time during retired General Ramos's term as president. Some acquaintances attribute this to what they say are his well-nurtured connections with the military, from whose retired ranks Ramos picked many of his administration's officials. During the Marcos days, it was common knowledge that Gatchalian was also close to General Fabian Ver. Today, the chair of Air Philippines Corp. is retired Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lisandro Abadia, who is also a director in the Philippine Estates Corp.

But what turned his rather tattered public image around was his P1-million donation to Sarah Balabagan, the teenage domestic helper who was originally sentenced to die in the Middle East for stabbing dead her rapist-employer. Amid much fanfare, the donation was given soon after Balabagan arrived home in August 1996.

Gatchalian's generosity, though, has never really been a secret. Journalists themselves have been witness to it, as Gatchalian does not hesitate to hand "coffee money" to reporters. During the President's visit to Japan, Gatchalian gave $6,000 to a TV cameraman, intending it for distribution to members of the Malacañang Press Corps who covered the trip. Last Christmas, he was among the biggest donors to the Palace press corps, sending a lechon and plane tickets that were raffled off.

He also made an unscheduled "donation" during the President's Thailand visit. A Palace staffmember, who was with the official entourage, had wanted to buy a necklace. But she had run out of money, and so she requested Gatchalian to pay for it. The necklace's price tag: $1,000.

The curious thing is that despite his seeming willingness to share his fortune, he has not made many friends in business circles. One plastics manufacturer who has known Gatchalian since high school notes that although he is acknowledged as a top player in the plastics industry, he never got elected officer in the industry's official association. That, says the manufacturer, only shows that Gatchalian is not popular among them.

But these days, it seems hard to imagine William Gatchalian as lacking in friends.

July-Sept. 1999, The Investigative Reporting Magazine, Vol.. V No. 3, The New Lords of the Press, by Sheila S. Coronel,

Presidential friends are casting a covetous eye on the media.

IT IS NO exaggeration to say that the structure of press ownership in the Philippines is far from ideal. ...

For all the bitterness and mutual recriminations that mark Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada’s relationship with the media, the president actually has a keen appreciation of the power—and the vulnerabilities—of the press lords. The way the wealthy Gokongwei family has been brought to heel and pressured by Malacañang to sell the Manila Times last July reveals, more than anything, how well Estrada understands the realpolitik of press ownership. Erap has turned traditional wisdom on its head and showed the powerful media barons, through the closure of the Times and the advertisers’ boycott of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, just exactly who is boss.

In what seems to be the second round of the epic battle between Estrada and the Press, Malacañang is also tacitly encouraging the entry of presidential friends into the media business. The recent purchase by businessman William Gatchalian, Estrada’s buddy and presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers, of a chunk of Sun Star Manila is one indication of what seems to be a trend toward the president’s business allies buying newspapers.

The purchase of The Manila Times by low-cost housing contractor Reghis Romero is somewhat murkier. Former Times editors say that it was another presidential friend, the shadowy Mark Jimenez, who negotiated with the Gokongweis for the paper’s sale.

Romero was brought into the picture later, when Jimenez’s attempt to buy the Times made front-page news and the alleged Erap crony came under siege by various Malacañang factions for his many business deals. Whether Romero was a willing front for the Jimenez purchase or an innocent brought into the deal at the last-minute, as he claims, is yet unknown. What is evident is that yet another businessman who lives off government contracts has ended up owning part of a newspaper.

While Romero’s current associations are with the Ramos boys, for whom he built some of the more ambitious Ramos-era projects, the businessman also has a history of surviving regime changes by developing the right political connections. In the Estrada era, one way to curry favor with Malacañang seems to be to buy a problematic newspaper.

All these shadowy deals point to one thing: a lack of transparency that is doing damage to the press’s credibility. Already, the Times is off to a rocky start because of rumors about who its real owners are. The same shadow of doubt lingers over the Philippine Post, a recently launched broadsheet that is both Estrada’s apologist and Eduardo Cojuangco’s attack dog.

July - Sept 2000,, Vol. VI No. 3, A War Made for TV, by Ed Lingao,

Media coverage of Mindanao yielded vivid images but contributed little to an understanding of the conflict.

THE MAJOR networks ran their choice cuts over and over: our brave men in uniform in Mindanao, in stances that would have made John Rambo quite proud, blasting their assault rifles from the hip. On other occasions, soldiers were shown crawling on their bellies on special missions to save Philippine democracy. Extraordinary combat footage had never been so common, the video almost always action-packed, even entertaining. It was as if the Mindanao war was made just for TV.

And in many ways, it was. Indeed, a closer look at some of the footages would reveal startling anomalies. One TV station's footage showed soldiers snickering and looking at the camera in between bursts of "gunfire." Sometimes, they would crouch in a foxhole and empty an entire magazine of bullets at an unseen enemy, and then stand up as if the enemy were not even there. Another TV station spliced the sound of heavy fighting into some of the reports of its broadcast journalists, perhaps to give the reports an added spice. It was easy to tell -- the overzealous editor had also dubbed the sounds of battle into scenes that showed people just walking or standing around without a care in the world.

If secessionist rebels can bring their war to Manila, there's no stopping Manila from bringing its brand of journalism to Mindanao. Unfortunately, that has meant coverage of the conflict that is lacking in context, and sometimes even in simple accuracy.

Then again, that has been often been the case with stories on Mindanao, which, like the other regions, always runs a very poor second to Metro Manila. In fact, it has only been in the past decade or so that many broadcast and print institutions in Manila thought of setting up news bureaus in key cities in Mindanao, to cover the daily occurrences that make news in the smaller communities of the country. The bureaus, of course, also act as a guarantee that the parent company is not scooped by the competition in the event something big breaks out.

In broadcast, ABS-CBN leads the pack with the number of bureaus in Mindanao; it has major bureaus in Zamboanga, Davao, General Santos, and Cagayan de Oro, capable of going live anytime. It also has satellite bureaus, which have more limited newsgathering and editing capabilities. GMA, for its part, relies primarily on its sole Mindanao bureau in Davao.

Print media have generally had it better, not in the least because most print correspondents are hired as stringers, feeding stories as needed by Manila, with the minimum of capital outlay (read: ballpen, paper, and perhaps a camera). The Philippine Daily Inquirer is one of the exceptions; the paper has a fully staffed Mindanao bureau, with smaller offices in Cotabato and other key cities.

The system of local bureaus is generally efficient. More than anyone else, local reporters obviously know their areas of responsibilities and their news sources. Their familiarity with local culture, history, and even language and geography, gives the local reporters the added edge.

For the most part, this kind up of set-up runs itself -- at least until the next crisis gets Manila's eye. Then Mindanao suddenly finds itself playing host to a thundering horde from Manila. Despite their having local stringers or correspondents at the scene, Manila newsrooms have traditionally insisted on sending troops from the central office to cover a major conflict or crisis in Mindanao.

And so it was that journalists from the nation's capital were sent stampeding to Mindanao to file stories on the unfolding armed conflict in the central part of the region, as well as the holding of hostages of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, and then in Jolo. What happened next was not exactly unexpected. Some Manila reporters fell back on long-held prejudices and assumptions, with even veteran journalists grumbling in the newsroom about how "all Muslims are alike" and are "traitors." One Manila broadcast journalist even trumpeted that there was no difference between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf, that they were all related to each other and were conspiring to overthrow the government. He wasn't the only mediaman to do so -- some Manila publishers came to that inspired conclusion as well.

APPARENTLY, IT has been easier to gloss over the complexities of Mindanao than to understand the roots of the rebellion and the forces behind the antagonists. After all, some people who have lived in Mindanao all their lives still have difficulty explaining the reasons for the conflict. What more of journalists who had just jumped in to explain everything in a 90-second report?

Perhaps to avoid the onset of migraines (theirs), other newsmen decided to limit themselves to the body count. More specifically, how many rebels the military claimed to have killed for a particular day. It came to a point that the Mindanao coverage could have passed for an extended police report, including the police reporter and characters, with a bit of religious and ethnic color thrown in.

"It is a legitimate story," says journalist and PCIJ co-founder Marites Dañguilan-Vitug of the Mindanao conflict. "But there is much more, there is context."

Context can be derived from history, or from current events. But because they were not that steeped in either, here were journalists taking the government line a bit too easily after the military took over the MILF main camp Abubakre As-Siddique in Maguindanao, and reporting that the MILF had been defeated in the field.

"Now we are finding out that while the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) deployed 70 percent of its resources in Mindanao against the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, it only decimated three percent of the MILF forces," observes Vitug, who recently co-wrote the book Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao with Glenda Gloria. "That information came from the AFP itself."

In other words, the MILF only gave up ground, but lost little in terms of personnel. It also meant that the military mobilized two thirds of its resources, and used up thousands of rounds of ammunition, to kill a few rebels. Somehow, though, the media have been slow to deduce this. Or at least, no one has taken it up and explored it.

Curiously, the military takeover of Camp Abubakre also appears to have been severely underreported, in contrast to the amount of space and airtime given by Manila to the initial clashes in Kauswagan town in Lanao del Norte over the summer. The takeover of the main MILF camp and the MILF's model Islamic city may well be one of the biggest stories of the year, yet there was little attention given to it, how it fell, and why it fell so fast, and what happened to its former inhabitants.

Part of reason why this was so seems to be that as the war progressed, war fatigue set in -- not on the fighting troops, but on the network bosses. Suddenly, there was talk of Mindanao overload. Save for a token presence in central Mindanao, attention has now shifted to back to the Abu Sayyaf and their remaining foreign hostages.

But perhaps the larger reason is that, as Vitug points out, some of the reporters sent to Mindanao had only the vaguest idea of the issues involved in the conflict. For some of the Manila-based newsmen, it was enough that they knew that the MILF wanted its own Islamic state. The Abu Sayyaf, meanwhile, was just after more money. Everything else, from the 1976 Tripoli Agreement hammered out by the Marcos administration and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to the groundbreaking 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF, was judged extraneous.

"Their understanding of the situation is very broad, that the MILF is for secession," says Vitug. "If you have a story, give the background, and explain also the context of a rebellion. You owe it to the public."

She also wonders aloud, "Bakit sila ang pinapadala doon sa Mindanao? Hindi nila alam angsubject matter. (Why are these people being sent to Mindanao? They don't know the subject matter.)"

Jan - March 2001,, Vol. VII No. 1, PUBLIC EYE — The Multi-Billion-Peso President,

FOR ALL HIS audacity, Jimenez—an upstart with a sleazy past—could not have transacted with some of the country's biggest and proudest business families if he did not have the President's backing. The various Jimenez-brokered transactions show how the foremost Filipino business clans were willing to accommodate the less-than-legitimate demands of a greedy president.

Businessmen are always careful to curry favor with Malacañang. After all, the president as the ultimate executor of government policy can make or unmake businesses, providing openings and relaxing the rules for his friends, while putting the squeeze on their rivals. Says Enrique Razon, whose International Container Terminal Services, Inc. runs several of the country's ports: "If you have an adversarial relationship with the president, it's very easy to get squeezed. We have to be friendly with Malacañang to protect ourselves."

Moreover, the president has discretionary power over government or quasi-government funds. He can, for example, speed up or delay the release of allocations from the national budget. He also has the power to approve government contracts above P50 million. Although strictly speaking, state corporations and financial institutions are independent, the president can influence their decisions through the men and women he appoints to their boards. A phone call from the president can mean the approval of a hefty loan from a government bank or the restructuring of an overdue debt. It can mean a state firm, whose board is likewise appointed by the president, goes this way instead of that way.

Other presidents had allowed government financial institutions to favor the businesses of their kin and cronies. But Estrada went farther than his predecessors in the deployment of state pension funds for the purchase of shares in firms ripe for a takeover. He did this by getting the complicity of the heads of SSS and GSIS whom he himself had appointed. GSIS chief Carlos Arellano was one of his boyhood friends while SSS chief Federico Pascual once headed Allied Bank, owned by Estrada crony Lucio Tan.

Arellano and Pascual "were asked to see Mark Jimenez and deal with him with regard to the Equitable transaction," says Espiritu, whose official post gave him supervisory authority over all government financial institutions. "Inutusan sila (They were ordered). They knew about the deal." Espiritu says he himself had resisted the involvement of the two institutions. But the President, he says, merely set aside his objections, saying "Ed, hindi naman sa 'yo ang GSIS at SSS, 'wag mo na kong pakialaman rito (Ed, GSIS and SSS aren't yours, so don't meddle with what I'm doing.)"

"I was vehemently against the deal," says Espiritu. "Had GSIS and SSS done due diligence, they would have not lost so much money. After PCI merged with Equitable, the share price went down to an average of P98, and the present value is at P52 to P53. How would you justify that to the members? They lost a lot in the transaction. There was no excuse for that decision."

The biggest winner, of course, was Estrada. Within his first year in office, Jimenez's wheeling-dealing in just two transactions had netted some P6 billion in commissions. In addition, Estrada found in the merged Equitable-PCI Bank a willing laundromat for his ill-gotten wealth. As documents subpoenaed during Estrada's impeachment trial show, the bank became the repository of the fictitious Jose Velarde account, where P2.2 billion in apparent payoffs to the President were deposited. The bank also became the conduit for the jueteng money that was coursed through the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation.

The PLDT and Equitable deals also whetted the former president's appetite. Jimenez tried to broker more deals, such as the sale of government shares in Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), which is run by the Lopezes. Jimenez had already spoken to representatives of the family about negotiating a sale to a company that would be friendly to them, says Espiritu, who put his foot down on the transaction. The finance secretary argued that it wasn't wise to dispose of government shares until the Omnibus Power Bill had been passed. Nonetheless, several government financial institutions were instructed to buy Meralco shares in the market, but the transaction never pushed through.

At the very least, Jimenez should be credited for opening for Estrada new vistas of the presidency. "It was Mark who put it into Erap's head that he could make billions," says a businessman who was in Malacañang often enough to observe the goings on at the Presidential Residence. "It was Mark who convinced him that he could get away with anything as long as he is popular."

In the end, it was also Jimenez who would turn against Estrada, by offering in February to testify against the former president so that the fugitive businessman could have a stay on his extradition to the United States.

BUT JIMENEZ, had a point. In truth, Estrada's popularity during his first two years in office intimidated his critics. During that period, the institutions designed to check on presidential excesses were for the most part either bullied or bribed into submission: Congress, opposition political parties, even the press. Erap may have even gotten away with plunder if he had been less reckless in the way he made - and spent - his money.

The machinations surrounding the operation of the BW Resources Corp. and its affiliated BW Gaming and Entertainment Co. were probably the height of presidential recklessness. To begin with, Estrada was Dante Tan's secret partner in BW, confirms Espiritu. That was why BW became the recipient of so many government favors: an online bingo license given in record time by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), the state-owned gaming company; a P600-million loan from the Philippine National Bank that was approved even if the collateral was worthless land; and a contract from Pagcor that ensured the transfer of Pagcor operations to a building that BW was constructing in downtown Manila.

Moreover, as various officials attested during the impeachment hearing, Estrada intervened on behalf of Tan when he was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for insider trading and stock price manipulation. The President also ordered Jimenez and ethnic Chinese businessmen Wilson Sy and Willy Ocier, whose speculative play in the market was believed to have caused BW prices to fall precipitously in late 1999, to return the money Tan had lost to shore up BW prices.

"That was the version of Dante Tan when I confronted him about it," says Espiritu. "That version was also confirmed by the brokers at the Philippine Stock Exchange." Face to face with an angry president, Sy and Ocier agreed to reimburse Tan's losses, according to prosecution lawyers in the Estrada impeachment trial. The payoff was supposedly made not in cash but in 650 million shares of Belle Corp. worth P1.5 billion. The shares were turned over not to Tan but to Estrada, who then supposedly sold them to SSS and GSIS at a profit of P800 million.

Little wonder then that Estrada was splurging on luxury real estate. The billions were fattening up his bank accounts and he refused to take a loss on his investments in companies like BW. In fact, it can be said that as far as BW was concerned, he even made a profit on his loss.

But that wasn't all. On top of all these, Estrada was getting regular payoffs from businessmen. The Jose Velarde account gives some clues of just how much the ex-chief executive was raking in. It also gives some indication of the kinds of deals Estrada cut with his cronies. The account had deposits of P170 million in cash and nearly P2 billion in checks, all made in just a five-month period, from August 1999 when the account was opened to January 2000.

The biggest deposits, according to investigations made by prosecution lawyers with the help of sources in various banks, were from the accounts of Dante Tan, Estrada's partner in BW; Lucio Co, a suspected smuggler and owner of Duty-Free shops, who is also believed to be Estrada's partner in a Clark Air Base casino; Ramon Lee, a member of the board of BW; Jaime Dichaves, a long-time presidential friend who is believed to have made deals with telecommunications companies on Estrada's behalf; and a certain Kelvin Garcia, whom prosecutors believe is really tobacco magnate Lucio Tan.

In addition, a P40 million-deposit was made by Antonio S. Evangelista, Estrada's Ateneo high school classmate who has been reported as a shareholder of New San Jose Builders Inc., a company that has bagged multibillion pesos worth of government housing contracts. Evangelista, who owns Kanlaon Construction, also built the former president's "Boracay" house in New Manila, Quezon City and is constructing a Forbes Park mansion for Guia Gomez, one of Estrada's mistresses.

The mansions being built for presidential mistresses appear to be part of the accommodations from businessmen. These allegedly include the constructions done by Centech International, a firm run by Ramon Ang, vice-chairman of San Miguel Corporation (SMC). San Miguel chief Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco Jr., who became SMC chairman with the backing of government nominees to the company's board, was an Estrada supporter to the end. Centech built the P200-million house on Harvard Street in Wack Wack, Mandaluyong, supposedly as a gift for presidential paramour Laarni Enriquez, and was also the project manager for Gomez's Forbes Park mansion.

IT IS DIFFICULT at this stage to have a full picture of exactly how much Estrada made and to list down all the deals that he went into. Even the figure of P20 billion accumulated in two-and-a-half years is at best a rough estimate. But certainly, judging from the Velarde account, the former president took a share of the profits made by his various friends in enterprises that ran the gamut of all lucrative businesses, from smuggling to housing, telecommunications and gambling.

If investigated, other accounts in other banks could yield more clues. Prosecutors say that Estrada, using fictitious names, had accounts in Metrobank (believed to be close to P1 billion); RCBC, where another P600 million is reportedly kept; Asia United Bank, Bank of Commerce, and Allied Bank. In addition, he kept under his own name, $3 million in Citibank. He also had P143 million in a numbered account in Urban Bank, which he withdrew just before it closed in April 2000. Plus, there was the money that found its way to presidential mistresses, including Enriquez, whose account in PS Bank had deposits of P650 million, many of them from the same bank branches that were transferring money to the Velarde account.

The illegal profits from jueteng are well documented because of Ilocos Sur Governor Luis 'Chavit' Singson's exposé. We now know that jueteng collections, which totaled P500 million, were paltry in comparison to what Estrada made from other deals. We also know that most of the jueteng money ended up in Equitable-PCI. But the illicit gain from smuggling remains unknown terrain. There are indications that they were quite substantial. Espiritu, who was once the major shareholder of the now defunct Westmont Bank, says that a P58-million cashier's check deposited in the Jose Velarde account was transacted at Westmont and was traced to Manny Tan Kian Sy, a fertilizer dealer.

Kian Sy is believed to be involved in the smuggling of rice and sugar, and was among those that Espiritu declined to mention in his Senate testimony last January. Other suspected smugglers who were close to the Estrada were Co, Dichaves and a certain Johnny Sy.

Much more needs to be investigated if there is to be a full appreciation of the Estrada presidency and the flaws in the system that it made evident. Apart from a liberalization of banking secrecy and tighter regulation of banks, among the reforms that have to be considered are those providing checks on presidential powers and presidential appointees.

There should, for example, be more transparency in the operations of government financial institutions and other state entities. For one thing, the practice of investing state pension funds in private enterprises should be reconsidered. So should the involvement of government in commercial banking. There is really no reason why state banks should be financing enterprises which, if they were truly viable, could get money from private banks. The Estrada era has shown the urgency of professionalizing the leadership of government financial institutions to make them less susceptible to presidential influence.

In addition, there should also be mechanisms to allow for a closer scrutiny of the assets and business involvements of people in high office. Certainly, putting Estrada and his accomplices on trial and ensuring that justice is done would be a big step forward and would serve as a lesson to others.

Ultimately, however, the biggest challenge is how to make the conduct of business more open and accountable and less dependent on political connections and the blessings of the presidential palace. To do this, government entities must be allowed to evolve into autonomous regulators of business and impartial enforcers of policy. This in turn is possible only if the business culture is overhauled and a tradition of patronage and spoils is overcome.

Estrada plundered the country right under the noses of the courts, the Cabinet and Congress. He was the logical product of a system that provided a president such wide discretion that allowed him, in the words of sociologist Walden Bello, to "centralize crime under the presidency."

What people power achieved was to oust the Godfather. It was no mean feat, but the rest of the Mafia remains very much in place.

April - June 2001,, Vol. VII No. 2, The Third Party, by Luz Rimban,

FORGET the People Power Coalition and the Puwersa ng Masa. If there's one party that emerged victorious from the May 14 polls, it is Partido ABS-CBN.

The ABS-CBN bloc in the Senate is now formidable, with the election to the Upper House of former news anchor Noli de Castro, lawyer-radio commentator Francis Pangilinan and reelectionist Sergio Osmeña III (who is known to be close to the Lopezes, network's owners). The three senators join the network's public affairs host Loren Legarda and erstwhile ABS-CBN talent Rene Cayetano. At the Lower House, ABS is amply represented by its former news personalities: Teddy Boy Locsin, until recently the host of "Assignment" and now Makati congressman; DZMM news anchor Ted Failon, now Leyte representative; and reporter Gilbert Remulla who now represents the second district of Cavite in the House.

So what else is new? According to ABS-CBN insiders, what many don't see is the huge investment the network poured into the elections, an investment that will surely pay off handsomely in the years to come.

For example, the network gifted de Castro, Osmeña and their fellow ABS-CBN candidates with free commercial spots on primetime television. These cost P88,000 for every 30-second ad. The candidates were also given radio spots gratis. In addition, the network helped their campaigns by providing manpower, vehicles and various other logistical needs. As if these were not enough, there were cash contributions from the Lopez Foundation.

Returns on these electoral investments are expected from the new lawmakers when legislation affecting the Lopez enterprise comes up for deliberation in Congress. One of these is the power reform bill. It is no secret that the Lopez family has huge investments in the generation and distribution of electricity and its near-monopoly control of the power sector has been criticized by citizens' groups. Unless President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushes for an early approval of the bill—which means it is still the old Congress that will decide the measure—the ABS-CBN bloc is bound to make itself heard on this matter.

The talk, however, is that this early, the network is already aiming higher and looking to 2004, when its star anchor de Castro is expected to make a go for the presidency. ABS-CBN has been investing for years in the Senate topnotcher who started out in the network as an off-cam announcer for gossip queen Inday Badiday's program. Since 1986, ABS-CBN has made de Castro over and packaged him as a man of the masses. For 15 years, he was an omnipresent figure on television, where he hosted the top-rating evening news program "TV Patrol" from Monday to Friday and the prime-time public affairs program "Magandang Gabi Bayan" on Sunday. De Castro was a dominant presence on radio as well, as he had a daily morning program on DZMM, which is part of the Lopez stable. The buzz in the network is that while ABS-CBN is grooming de Castro for Malacañang, it is also hoping that Legarda, the network talent who topped the senatorial race in 1995, would be his running mate.

That team would likely be the one to beat in 2004. The last two elections have shown that popularity and media exposure are important for candidates running for national positions. That was true for Joseph Estrada. Voters did not see him face-to-face and it was largely his movie persona that they were familiar with and voted for. Observes Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros, "With the media, particularly television, invading the lives of Filipinos everywhere, guns, goons and gold had become a cost-ineffective way of winning votes on a national scale."

The same, however, cannot be said for local politics, where well-oiled electoral machines can defeat television or showbiz appeal. In the Quezon City mayoralty race, for example, action star Rudy Fernandez took a beating from rival Sonny Belmonte, a former congressman and Estrada impeachment prosecutor who has painstaking built a grassroots-based campaign organization in one of the country's biggest cities. Other first-time showbiz candidates suffered Fernandez's fate: Superstar Nora Aunor who ran for governor in Camarines Sur, action star Philip Salvador who wanted to become vice mayor of Mandaluyong and one-time matinee idol Tirso Cruz III who sought a city council seat in Las Piñas.

All three were political neophytes, but even those movie stars with political experience got trounced. In Cavite, Bong Revilla—who won the governorship by a landslide in 1998—claimed to have been cheated by rival Ireneo Malicsi in his reelection bid, although Revilla later conceded defeat with tears welling in his eyes. Movie star Edu Manzano, who was the Makati vice mayor, took his beating from comebacking mayor Jejomar Binay grim-faced.

Then again, there was Kalookan City, where Rey Malonzo, another action star, was reelected mayor despite facing the well-entrenched mass base of rival Macario Assistio, a veteran politician. But then Malonzo had latched on to the administration coalition. Lito Lapid, yet another one of those bang-bang actors, won a second term as Pampanga governor, but that was also because he had no a strong rival—and had the President's son for a running mate. And if comedian Joey Marquez laughed all the way to the polls in Parañaque, where he is now set to serve his third term as mayor, it was in no small part to his being a Lakas-NUCD loyalist.

What it boils down to at the local level is that popularity is still no match for money and machinery. This the likes of Alfredo Lim, Fernandez and Salvador, who tried to earn extra vote-earning fame through top-rating TV docudramas, now realize.

"You run for mayor, governor or congressman, you deal with an infinitely smaller geographical space," de Quiros says. And it's a space that can be controlled and won through an entrenched network - not the broadcast kind, but one of ward leaders and barangay captains who, at the local level, still determine the fate of a local candidate.

Meanwhile, trust ABS-CBN to show "goodwill," at least in places where it has interests. Like, say, Quezon City, where the network's main studios and transmitter are located. According to network insiders, Belmonte was one of a few select local candidates who got free commercial spots on the country's Number One TV station.

April - June 2001,, Vol. VII, No. 2, Journalism's Underclass, by Tonette Orejas,

HE'S HAD pistols poked in his face and has narrowly escaped being blown to bits by a landmine. But Ozamiz City-based journalist Merpu Roa has learned to take such things in stride, dismissing them as among the many hazards of covering Mindanao. As he said at a press forum held in April in Manila, "violence has always been part of (Mindanao's) evolving history. And chroniclers like us have to reckon with that reality on a daily basis."

That reality, however, is little appreciated in the Manila-based national media organizations to which provincial journalists like Roa, who is also editor of The Freeman Mindanao, report part-time as correspondents. Provincial correspondents have always been treated as second-class citizens in Manila newsrooms, receiving measly pay and almost no benefits. For the first time ever, they are complaining about this state of affairs and questioning the hierarchy in Manila's editorial offices where correspondents have for decades been at the bottom of journalism's totem pole.

Two years ago, a number of community reporters and provincial correspondents for national dailies got together to form Project Bonding, otherwise known as Bonding Together for Better Journalism and Better Communities. Last year, the group distributed a questionnaire among correspondents in various parts of the country to find out how the people on whom media companies rely on for news in far-flung places are faring.

Some 40 correspondents based in Pampanga, Subic, Angeles City, Legazpi City, Pangasinan, Ilocos, Isabela, Palawan, Iloilo, Capiz, Aklan, Antique, Guimaras, Davao and Cotabato responded to the survey. All the respondents actively work for national print and broadcast news organizations. The findings were validated with leaders of local press organizations in key towns and cities, confirming that the findings commonly affect correspondents not covered by the survey.

The results were disheartening, although not really that much of a surprise. Among the problems cited by the respondents were low remuneration, absence of security of tenure, delayed payment and the high cost of producing stories. They also cited lack of time and skills, as well as lack of support from their editors. Most told of being harassed by those upset by their stories, sometimes even by their own sources.

Except perhaps for that last item, most recognized that the root of all their difficulties was the absence of an employer-employee relationship with their news organizations. This practice frees the news organizations of responsibilities for the correspondents. Without an employee status, the correspondents are not guaranteed the coverage of labor laws. This practice has permitted what has become prevalent in the industry: the neglect and exploitation of correspondents.

Often, correspondents join news organizations without the benefit of signing a contract that clearly identifies the requirements, expectations and responsibilities of the company. But it doesn't take that long for correspondents to learn that they are expected to keep a dedicated coverage of their areas, submit news reports daily, keep stories exclusive and receive assignments on short notice. In other words, they function much like regular reporters - but without the security of employment and other benefits. Only a few, in fact, get Christmas bonuses. For most, there are no such things hazard pay, social security and medical and health insurance. And in most cases, correspondents do not get allowance for out-of-town coverage.

Correspondents have no specific beats, although most of their stories seem to be on crime, politics and governance and the environment. According to the survey respondents, the number of stories they each submitted per month range from a low of five to a high of 80. Of these, between two to 60 would be published.

Only a handful said they receive a monthly retainer's fee, which range from P2,000 to P5,000. For most, payment is often on a per-column inch basis, with the rate between P7.50 to P25.00 per column inch. A few say that if they exceed the 50-column inch quota per month, they are rewarded with a transportation allowance of P1,000. In the rare times that correspondents are paid per story, the rate is about P200. Their net income per month therefore can go through wild swings, and can range from P1,000 to P10,000 - which they get by check, and only after an average wait of one to three months.

Such sums are paltry even in the provinces, especially when correspondents often have to shoulder the costs of producing and sending their stories and photos, with little hope of reimbursement. (Those who manage to wangle reimbursements say they have to wait months for the money.) As a result, the ranks of full-time correspondents have been diminished. In the print media, it is estimated that there are less than 200 print correspondents who are into full-time writing, and who survive by churning out numerous stories beyond the standard quota of two or three.

Most are part-timers, relying on jobs outside of the media industry to sustain their families. Quite a number earn extra by writing proposals for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Many have sacrificed journalistic ethics by simultaneously engaging in public relations work for politicians while writing for national news outfits. Sadly, too, the low compensation has increased the vulnerability of correspondents to corruption.

YET THERE are correspondents who remain true to their profession and say they do have reasons for still doing what they do. According to those who responded to the survey, their being perceived as part of a big media concern earns them respect and credibility from the community. This even translates to immediate attention from the government agencies they cover.

The correspondents themselves admit to a sense of pride when they see their bylines or taglines in national newspapers. And for those who no longer consider being a correspondent their main source of income, whatever amount is welcome since in such cases, it would already be considered extra money.

Still, most say that they would like to see publishers and editors demonstrate more concern and sympathy for their plight. After all, they are the foot soldiers of the national news organizations in the provinces, the people who ensure that events and issues in places far from the Metro Manila are covered by the media. Because of them, the big media outfits can rightly claim national coverage and thus attract more advertisers.

It is very seldom, though, that publishers and editors commend their correspondents for a job well done, inquire about the difficulties of coverage, mentor on how to improve writing style or work conduct, point out inaccuracies in copies or reiterate journalism ethics. Obviously, apologies for a story garbled in the process of editing are also rare.

Moreover, news outfits hardly ever invest in their correspondents by offering in-house training. Perhaps that is why they find it necessary to send in the "regulars" in presidential coverage even when they have correspondents on the site—they simply see the locals in a lesser light.

The irony is that for all the correspondents' contributions to ensuring national coverage for major media outfits, there have been no national organizations that have sustained a campaign for their welfare advancement, rights protection and skills training. Generally, national and provincial press organizations have become social clubs or spring to life only during elections as campaign machineries of politicians. The few unions that exist within news organizations do not consider correspondents members.

At least though, correspondents know that when their lives come under threat for their exposés on the local powers-that-be, they would have better luck tapping on local press organizations like chapters of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, if not their own network of friends and colleagues, than on the news outfits that they work for. Their consolation is the knowledge that if they ever come up against a libel suit, the news companies do lend legal support.

IT NEEDS to be said, however, that despite their shortcomings, there are news organizations that actually maintain the ideals of fair, balanced and responsible reporting. Either as a matter of editorial principle or as a matter of marketing strategy, news organizations do opt for stories that make sense or have impact on individuals and communities. Within news organizations are editors who remain true to the ideals of journalism and they show their trust in their correspondents by publishing their work.

Meanwhile, there is much writing to do in the countryside. It has been observed that the media also thrive where NGOs proliferate or are active. In the Philippines, which just happens to have the most number of nongovernmental organizations in Southeast Asia (which is an indication of either poor governance or vibrant democracy), many NGOs are now in the provinces. These groups maintain a close scrutiny of local governments and how public funds are spent for social services. International funding and lending institutions as well as international humanitarian agencies decry how corruption in the Philippine government reduces the funds available for agriculture, education and skills training, environmental protection and infrastructure. All these obviously make for meaty—and important—stories.

In recent years, some local governments have also begun getting out of the rut of inefficient, corrupt governance. At the same time, communities have noticeably been taking active roles in dealing with local problems.

These trends within news organizations, in the national and local governments, in NGOs and in communities offer openings for correspondents to strengthen their roles in community development. But as they seize the opportunities to contribute to the continuing democratization process, they will need to be assisted in overcoming the problems plaguing their own sector.

Principally, news organizations will have to upgrade the status of correspondents to employees. As employees, correspondents will be guaranteed by labor laws to receive regular salaries, social benefits and training to develop their skills.

In improving the welfare of correspondents, news organizations strengthen their presence in the countryside. More importantly, by investing in correspondents, news organizations—if they are indeed institutions of democracy—invest in those who help make democracy work in the countryside.

Oct - Dec, 2001,, Vol. VII, No. 4, Video Voyeurism, by David Celdran,

"Reality TV" brings the raw edge of real life into Filipino living rooms.

TRUTH IS stranger than fiction. At no other time in recent years has this cliché been so accurate to describe what have taken place since January. 2001 will be remembered as the year imagination was overtaken by reality. And television was there to record every minute of it, and, in many cases, create it.

The year began with the televised courtroom drama of the Estrada impeachment trial and the stunning surprise of EDSA Dos. We were still in the midst of coming to grips with the events that transpired when we found ourselves glued to our TV screens once again, this time to catch the shocking third installment of People Power and the riots that followed in Malacañang—a sequence of episodes triggered by the televised arrest and incarceration of the former President.

But there was more to come. The Abu Sayyaf hostage crisis and the military siege of Jolo kept us stuck to our seats as images of warfare unfolded on screen, and with the help of obliging news reporters, re-created for us. But then the war dragged on and we began losing interest—only to be attracted to another battle that was raging in the Senate. For weeks, the media circus at the Upper Chamber played out as allegations and counter-allegations of drug smuggling and cell phone deals provided us with both shock and comic relief.

But for all these drama and spectacle, none would compare with that the world was about to see on September 11. There on live TV, we saw with our own eyes jets dive-bombing like Kamikaze fighters into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and watched slack-jawed as part of the once invincible Pentagon lay in smoldering ruins. Then came endless footage of rescue workers sifting through the rubble for survivors and features of how Americans were coping with the threat of Anthrax. Fear hit home when news anchors on primetime local TV warned of letters laced with Anthrax spores that were invading homes and offices and of exclusive schools being evacuated because of biological terrorism.

The year would end with the sensational murder mystery of respected actress Nida Blanca and all of us once more on the edge of our seats as we waited for the killers to be revealed. If indeed life has begun to resemble the movies that's because reality itself has become more interesting than fiction. No script, no hired actors, and no directors to stage the events for us—just the purest kind of entertainment you can find on this planet: life, unedited and live.

WHEN LIFE resembles fiction, reality becomes the biggest blockbuster in town. Aware of this, entertainment companies are scrambling to package this phenomenon called life on television. Just take a look at the growing number of reality-based programs offered by the two biggest networks and that are now competing for our attention: "Kakasa Ka Ba (Do You Dare Do It)?", "Sapul Ka D'yan (You're On Target)!", "Emergency," "Mission X" and "Verum Est?" If they sound like movies and may sometimes look like movies, that's because they are, in reality, movies written in the medium of life.

This television genre is called Reality TV, which encompasses news and talk programs, game shows, sports, comedy, horror and drama. In fact, each reality show is often a bit of all these rolled into one. Take ABS-CBN's new program "Kakasa Ka Ba?" Every week the show's hosts—network news reporters—take to the streets and dare viewers to test their skill in anything from physical challenges to mental calisthenics in exchange for a cash prize and short-lived celebrity. Or take the wildly successful documentary-drama "True Crimes," also from the same network. Once again, a news reporter revisits sensational crimes and shocking acts of terror through the increasingly common use of news footage spliced with drama sequences reconstructed for television.

Journalistic methods are combined with the techniques of entertainment to document true stories, and in cases where footage is unavailable, to simulate reality. So whether it's a game show like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (IBC-13) or an investigative newsmagazine like "Imbestigador" (GMA-7), the common thread that runs through these programs is the ability to capture reality unfolding in the raw and in real-time—or at least the impression of it.

Because human beings are a complex bundle of drives and instincts, Reality TV attempts to record, through the use of the omnipresent video camera (hidden or otherwise), how ordinary people, put under extraordinary situations, grapple with their primordial selves and succumb to or overcome greed, lust, fear, and the basic instincts of survival and self-preservation. The more faithfully these drives are documented, manipulated, or, in a growing number of situations, re-created, the more convincing the effect of reality. In "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," the thrill of answering questions is less important than the gratification the audience gets seeing contestants crumble under pressure or lured by greed. In investigative programs like "Mission X"(ABS) and "Imbestigador," how justice is played out is far less interesting to viewers than the titillation they feel watching petty criminals, sexual deviants, and social misfits "caught in the act" by hidden cameras and news reporters that barge into the scene of the crime. The confrontation that follows is Reality TV at its purest as the news reporter's and victim's righteous anger juxtapose against the criminal's humiliation and embarrassment—an extreme version of which is the much-awaited confrontation sequence in the police precinct between the victim and perpetrator: an almost ritualized scene where the victim brutalizes the suspect in front of the glare of TV cameras. This is reality: raw and in your face!

IN MANY ways, Reality TV is more than just a genre. It is a set of techniques that aim to simulate the real. Since not all events are captured on tape as it happens in real-time, what is not recorded is reconstructed. Today, a lot of effort is spent making video material look and feel like the original experience of living. If traditional television entertainment idealizes life with polished scenery and breathtaking camera work, Reality TV provides the opposite by approximating the viewer's imagination of the natural texture of reality.

The rough, the gritty, and the jerky are replacing decades of traditional camera and editing techniques. According to this "new" aesthetic (which was actually popularized years ago by MTV), the less "staged" a scene comes across to viewers, the more authentic the experience of reality becomes. Never mind the fact that humans experience life in color, and not in the grainy, black-and-white look habitually used by Reality TV producers. Or forget for a while that we go through each day without once hearing background music rise and fall with every emotion we feel.

Scoring and splicing—these are the other ingredients that are being employed to simulate life. Because reality unfolds in a timeline different from the limits imposed by television schedules, footage is spliced and reality edited into easily digestible sequences that pick the juicy highlights and leave out the uneventful rest. The material of life when recorded, edited and scored to the tune of the real thing produces an experience that is arguably more believable than the real. GMA-7's enduring program "Emergency" has mastered this formula to a point that viewers have a difficult time discerning footage taken from the scene with that recreated in the post-production rooms of the network—a phenomenon that has compelled GMA and other TV stations to superimpose the words "actual footage" on screen to help viewers differentiate fact from what has become known as "faction," or the reconstruction of factual events using fictional methods for visualization.

When the texture of reality cannot be simulated by footage and sound, it is reconstructed for the viewer by the reporter. A reporter's self-conscious narration and point of view has been around since the beginning of broadcast news where it has been used to point out detail and context otherwise not obvious in the report. But in Reality TV, reporters become the news event themselves.

You can catch a glimpse of this phenomenon in newsmagazines like "The Correspondents" (ABS) and "Brigada Siete" (GMA), where the story is sometimes subordinate to the reporter's reality. Why the emphasis on a reporter's inner conflicts and fears, innermost joys and epiphanies? In Reality TV, the viewer's experience of reality is made even more real when authenticated by the reporter's presence. When a reporter thinks aloud, it creates the effect that he or she is whispering to the viewer in a private conversation that resembles a secret among friends. This personalized approach not only verifies reality but also gives it a more exciting meaning. And by stepping into the lives of the reporters that cover reality, viewers can go beyond merely watching life—to living life—if only vicariously.

One can argue that such techniques of Reality TV are not different from traditional methods used by novelists and filmmakers. To be sure, the detailed style of an Ann Rice novel and the cinema-verité methods of the blockbuster suspense movie "Blair Witch Project" are only two examples of how recreating the texture of reality can make for convincing fiction. But the fundamental difference between reconstructing reality as fictional entertainment and reproducing it as news is often overlooked and underestimated. When fiction simulates reality and reality resembles fiction, the line that separates fact from make-believe evaporates in the minds of viewers, thus making it increasingly difficult for them to see the world objectively. This is what the social theorist Jean Baudrillard calls the phenomenon of hyperreality - the postmodern condition where television dissolves into life and life dissolves into television. In hyperreality, people can no longer distinguish between the spectacle and the real as the line that divides reality as it is and reality as it should look like dissipates.

Extending this analysis, television does not mirror reality; television creates it. News becomes a collage of select and fragmented images that have no original, no source or counterpart in the real world. What we perceive to be real is nothing more than a simulation of it. (This perhaps explains how Rod Strunk, husband of the murdered Nida Blanca, could be portrayed as a loving and grieving husband in one week and an evil conspirator in the next). Reality programs, therefore, do not only run the risk of providing a distorted view of life, but also a sometimes imaginary version of it where entertainment co-opts reality and repackages life to out-do life itself.

This ability to inflate reality explains the global popularity of the genre. Hit series like MTV's "Real World," "Survivor," "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted" are just some of the programs that have been captivating audiences worldwide in the last several years. And this is no surprise. The success of Reality TV is based on the same impulse that makes us stare at accidents on the highway or at a couple arguing in the next table. The endless melodrama and spectacle life dishes out on a daily basis satisfy this voyeuristic appetite. Viewers can be compared to Peeping Toms who get a rush from watching others perform from a safe distance.

NO WONDER that Reality TV has been likened to gladiatorial combat where spectators cry for blood for no apparent reason other than the entertainment it offers. The more carnage the better, the more intense the conflict the more satisfying it is to viewers. This may all sound extreme, but the public isn't the only one lining up for a bit of the action—so, too, are television networks. After all, reality is double the entertainment value at a fraction of the price of fiction.

The current recession and the corresponding dip in advertising revenue have forced network programmers to seek formats that provide more bang for the buck. Variety shows, dramas and sit-coms are becoming too expensive to produce because those rely on bankable stars, professional directors, established scriptwriters, and a whole army of production personnel to run them. Compare that to the often scriptless and raw production values of reality programs and the choice to network bosses is clear. Because it is the power of reality caught on tape and not star power that attract viewers, the reality-based TV has become a cheap alternative hit for the networks.

In this scenario, news departments are taking an increasingly central role in keeping networks competitive. In the rush to plug the holes in network programming, news departments are fast crossing the already-fuzzy line separating news and entertainment. Across networks, journalists are stretching the definition of news and current affairs to include a variety of subjects based on reality. Under this ever-widening definition fall topics like celebrity gossip, the occult, human adventure and even comedy as in the case of "Sapul Ka D'yan"—a local variation of the hit program "America's Funniest Videos," or "May Kwento Ako"—a journalist's comic interpretation of news events.

As reality and the imaginary become indistinguishable from each other, so too does the role of the journalist with that of the entertainer. The primary objective of journalists, of course, is supposed to be to provide the public with information that is not only relevant, but also accurate and truthful. At the same time, for it to reach the widest audience possible, journalism should attempt to be interesting and engaging, although it should be careful not to become pure entertainment. Herein lies the crisis of journalism in the age of Reality TV. The greater danger provided by reality programs and their techniques is that these require more than just the fusion of information with entertainment, news with gossip, but also the construction and fabrication of reality itself.

In the new century of hyperreality, Reality TV has emerged as a powerful and inescapable form of entertainment. For as long as viewers crave for entertainment that resembles life, reality programs will continue to proliferate, change the way we cover news, and redefine our notions of objective reality and truth. The challenge to journalists is to stop considering Reality TV as the next evolutionary stage of journalism, but rather just another form of entertainment that is cheaper to produce than traditional forms. As such, network news should keep to producing news and leave the entertainment—reality-based or otherwise—to the entertainment divisions. This divide is necessary, if only to keep journalists from framing reality in the language of entertainment where war is adventure, crime is drama, politics is competitive sport, and where all of existence is reduced to spectacle.

January - March 2002, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Hard Times for the Media, by Luz Rimban,

Crisis hits the media industry, leaving many newspapers and broadcast networks reeling from layoffs, cost cuts and closures.

HE HAD arrived early that day for his three-to-midnight shift, expecting only good news. After working for a year at the daily Singaporean newsmagazine Project Eyeball, Filipino journalist Bert Tan (not his real name) was finally about to get his appointment papers as its sub-editor, as well as sign a brand-new contract. Touted as Singapore's "first integrated print and cyberspace news magazine," Project Eyeball, owned by the Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH), was barely two years old, but Tan was already drawing a salary that was six times his pay as a writer in Manila, and with a housing allowance to boot.

By the time his shift started, Tan was the paper's newest regular employee. Little did he know that his first day as a bonafide Project Eyeball worker would also be his last.

At four o'clock pm that same day, the editors and publishers of the magazine came down from their offices to announce tearfully that the publication had to be shut down because it wasn't earning and that the initial funding had run out. Press releases would later blame the closure on "severe market conditions."

To soften the blow, a handful of Project Eyeball's more senior staff were given other jobs at sister publication, the daily Straits Times. Tan himself got a generous separation package and a promise that his record would be kept on file for future placement in other SPH companies. But that proved to be cold comfort for the journalist. Tan even says that because he was one of the handful who put the magazine to bed nightly, he felt like he was participating in a surreal tragicomedy as he walked out of the newsroom to go home that gloomy evening last June and literally bid Project Eyeball goodbye.

Five months later, financial troubles would spread to SPH's broadcast arm, SPH MediaWorks, which would lay off 73 employees or almost 20 percent of its 380-strong work force. Company executives said they had to cut costs "in the face of a weak advertising market." By December 2001, those who stayed on at SPH companies were forced to take salary cuts of as much as 12 percent.

This is only one of the big media stories that journalists never get to tell. All over the world this past year, newspapers, radio and television stations, and even online publications have either been closing down or downsizing. Hundreds if not thousands of journalists have been thrown out into the streets after being retrenched or deemed redundant. As Project Eyeball's experience shows, even before the events of September 11, many media organizations have had to throw manpower overboard to stay afloat and ride the tides of recession, a decline in advertising revenues, falling readerships, and high overhead costs.

For newspapers, round-the-clock news from radio, television, and the Internet kept pulling readers away, making it even more difficult for the print media to hang on to their shrinking markets. Not even the supposedly big and stable names were spared the storm. Lay-offs swept the New York Times, the Tribune Co. and the Knight Ridder group of publications in the United States as well as the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom, to name a few.

September 11 only made the situation worse, especially when it came to advertising. The travel industry-airlines and hotels-as well as IT and financial services firms cut back on advertising severely, affecting many of the world's newspapers and magazines. In Hong Kong, all 80 employees of the regional newsmagazine Asiaweek were laid off last November after what Time editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine called a brutal "downturn in advertising." Unable to keep up with its main competitor Far Eastern Economic Review, the 26-year-old Asiaweek had to close along with two other AOL Time Warner Inc magazines, Family Life and On.

Part of the reason for the financial crunch hitting the media world is the fast growth of the industry itself. The number of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television and cable programs as well as online sources of information has multiplied so rapidly in the last few years that it has become harder for a media organization to find—and keep—its niche in the crowded market.

Singapore's Project Eyeball, for instance, was among the many publications that rode on the dotcom boom. It was envisioned to be a magazine about the Internet catering to the yuppie segment. But the dotcom crash sent it searching for another niche. In fact, it was as a political news magazine that Project Eyeball met its end.

HERE IN Manila, the Pinoy Times seemed to have finally found that niche after months of meandering. Set up in September 1999, the paper had set out to be an intelligent tabloid written in the language of the man on the street, but was having trouble attracting a steady audience. That changed in mid-2000, when it began to gain tremendous following for its gutsy reportage of the controversies that surrounded then President Joseph Estrada, his mansions and mistresses. Pinoy Times was filling a void in Philippine society - publishing articles that the broadsheets refused to run at that time, because they feared either an Estrada reprisal or an advertiser boycott similar to what the Philippine Daily Inquirer experienced in 1999.

The public's craving for the controversial stories about Estrada became so great that the Pinoy Times put out weekly Special Editions—fashioned after the pre-EDSA I Special Editions of the Mr and Ms magazine—that were devoted mostly to articles about the then President. These Special Editions reached a peak circulation of 300,000 during the Estrada impeachment trial, or more than ten times the circulation its parent edition had started out with.

After Estrada was ousted, however, the circulation of Pinoy Times went into a freefall. Rues the paper's publisher Vic Tirol: "People stopped buying because they felt the problem (Estrada) was gone. There was no need to keep in step with the details."

In truth, with Estrada gone, Pinoy Times seemed to have lost its edge. "If there is nothing there that they cannot read in other publications or see on TV, why will… people continue to buy that?" asks Angelito Pangilinan, chairman of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies or 4A's.

Five days before Christmas 2001, Pinoy Times rolled off the presses for the last time. Among the 50 people who had to go were journalists and columnists carried over from the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times, who were being paid salaries almost at par with those offered by the broadsheets. As a result, Pinoy Times' staff salaries contributed to the paper's high operating costs.

When Pinoy Times was launched in September 1999, owner Eugenia Apostol had been in a hurry to put the paper out. The Manila Times had just been shut down, and that politically restive period was also seeing protests against charter changes. At that time, those immediately available were the former Manila Times staff, some of country's best writers and columnists who had been getting competitive salaries.

Although the presence of reputable columnists could be an added attraction for readers, they could also be a drain on the paper's budget. Indeed, a month after the Pinoy Times closure, the broadsheet Manila Standard admitted that it was experiencing similar financial difficulties; not surprisingly, among the first it let go were veteran columnists Nestor Mata and Larry Sipin, as well as Mahar Mangahas of the Social Weather Stations.

Salaries, however, were just one item in the Pinoy Times's list of big expenses. Much of whatever money it made went to printing and the cost of newsprint, which increased just after the "thinking tabloid" first hit the streets. Thus, it was still barely breaking even when its circulation shot up in late 2000. "Paper was a big expense," explains Tirol. "So the only ones making money were the paper supplier and the printer."

The cost of paper is a major outlay for any print publication. In the last few years, to cut down on paper costs, broadsheets in the United States began shifting from 54-inch to what is known as the 50-inch web or a "baby broadsheet" size that slices an inch off a page's width. The country's leading newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has already made that shift, starting with its January 25, 2002 edition.

"Paper is the single most expensive expense in the making of a newspaper," said Inquirer editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc in a message explaining the daily's resizing to readers. The Inquirer, she said, was simply going the way of 300 newspapers in the United States.

Yet as their overheads continue to soar, print-media organizations have been seeing a decline in their readership. Even the market leader, the Inquirer, saw its circulation dropping to 220,000 after it soared to 260,000 in the run up to and immediately after EDSA II. Dwindling readership has complicated the financial problems of the print media. Although they count on advertisements for income, they rely on these less than radio and television, and depend more on circulation or sales to keep them going.

In the Philippines, newspaper readership is traditionally low and rises dramatically only in times of political and economic upheaval. But the economic crunch has made Filipinos all the more reluctant to shell out money for a newspaper. Like other people elsewhere in the world, Filipinos consider the newspaper as one of those things they can do without when they have less to spend. Tirol concedes, "Between buying Pinoy Times and food, the choice was clear."

A study conducted in April 2001 for a select group of food and consumer companies and the Asian Institute of Management bears this out. Done by AIM Professor Ned Roberto, its results confirmed that newspapers, magazines, and even comics are among the first to be deleted in a consumer's shopping list in times of crisis. In Metro Manila, around 20 percent of the study's respondents from all income classes said they had stopped buying magazines and comics altogether, although the figure is less for newspapers. In Cebu, 40 percent of the DE class or lower-income segment eliminated newspapers from their list of daily needs, while in Davao the figure was 25 percent.

A year 2000 survey called "Trimedia Exposure Study," this time by the Manila-based Asia Research Organization, also found that two out of three respondents had not read any newspaper at all for one full week.

It is presumably this remaining third of the reading population that the country's 20 broadsheets and tabloids have to fight over. Magazines, which, since they cater to specific groups, have less volatile readerships, are feeling the pinch as well. No doubt, every publication is either applying or about to apply cost-cutting measures, if not repositioning or repackaging itself to attract a bigger share of readers. For instance, the weekly magazine Newsbreak, which just turned a year old in January, became a fortnightly publication beginning March 4 as part of a reformatting plan. It has also gone full color, and added more pages. Moreover, Newsbreak has merged with the three-year-old magazine Market Watch, which focused on investment opportunities in the Philippines.

These measures are being undertaken even if Newsbreak's circulation and sales figures are on the rise. Associate editor Chay Florentino-Holifeña says the magazine has been successful so far mainly because it has established itself as having inside stories on current issues. Newspapers don't offer that, she says. And, she adds, there is also the problem of "decreased credibility of newspapers and sensationalism among the broadsheets."

But Hofileña and the rest of the Newsbreak staff have no time to pat themselves on the back. As Pangilinan of 4As points out, more and more people are giving up reading because "radio and TV have become more aggressive in news gathering. Now, you have a 24-hour news channel, more sophisticated news gathering, so you practically don't have to buy a newspaper."

Pangilinan notes that unlike newspapers or magazines, which consumers would have to pay for daily or weekly, TV sets are one-time purchases that provide a steady source of news, information and entertainment. In fact, Roberto's study found that 97 percent of DE respondents in Metro Manila owned color TV sets, now considered a household priority more important than a refrigerator or a bed. (Only 74 percent had refrigerators, and 82 percent, beds).

"A newspaper is a losing proposition these days," says veteran business journalist Emeterio Sd. Perez. He probably already knew that when he joined the broadsheet Manila Meteor as its assistant business editor last September. At the time, however, the paper was oozing with cash from investors, attracting experienced journalists like Perez from now-defunct dailies such as the Philippine Post, the Manila Chronicle, and the Daily. The newspaper managed to snag some advertisements, but even when combined with the initial investment, the income from these was just not enough to cover the cost of running the paper. On November 15, Meteor employees got their paychecks for the last time. But they would continue to come to work and put out the newspaper until the last week of January, echoing an experience that former Post employees went through during that paper's final months.

Perez recalls some employees coming to work even after the Meteor had already suspended operations and begging for transportation money to be able to cover their beats. "These people were willing to come to the office, as long as they had money for fare," he says.

But if the Meteor employees were so insistent on showing up for work, it was not only because they were hoping to collect whatever of their salaries was still unpaid. They also wanted to keep believing that investors would step in anytime and get the paper going again. After all, most of them had nowhere else to go, at least not in an industry where freeze hiring had become the norm. As it is, newspapers are seeing their numbers dwindling. Last year there were 12 broadsheets; today there are nine.

SOME PRINT journalists have probably been cursing themselves for not going into broadcast media instead, especially television, which in the Philippines seems to have borne minimum impact from the prolonged recession. Between print and broadcast, advertisers on average pour more money into the latter. Pangilinan, who is also general manager of the ad agency Campaigns and Grey, says that of the total P27 billion spent by ad agency clients in 2001, 66 percent went to television, 18 percent went to radio, and 16 percent to print.

Still, he says that when advertising budgets shrink, as they had the past year, "there is a flight to quality," or a tendency to go where the advertising money will yield optimum results. This means it is the smaller ones that hurt because the ad money goes to the bigger networks with the wider reach.

Pangilinan estimates that practically half of the advertising budget for television last year went to industry leader ABS-CBN, which enjoys a lion's share of 40 percent of the audience in a field of six television networks. Ironically, though, it is ABS-CBN that has had the most displacements so far as a result, it says, of the economic crisis.

Last December, ABS-CBN sought the Department of Labor and Employment's (DOLE) approval for its redundancy program, which was part of a cost-reduction campaign. Some 150 employees in ABS-CBN and its subsidiaries ABS-CBN News Channel, Star Cinema, and ABS-CBN Interactive were to be initially covered by the redundancy plan, while another 100 would follow.

ABS-CBN can claim to be in the same boat as the country's other beleaguered media companies, but only to a certain extent. A publicly listed company, it has profit levels to surpass, and not just maintain. ABS-CBN earned P1.3 billion in the first nine months of 2001. Industry reports say this was four times what GMA Channel 7, its closest competitor, earned for the same period. But the figure was almost 20 percent less than what ABS-CBN made during the comparative period in 2000—causing much alarm within the company.

Pangilinan also reveals that things were bad for ABS-CBN in 2001 because it faced a very serious challenge from GMA 7, whose audience share rose dramatically following an aggressive reprogramming. Last year also saw both networks confronted by IBC Channel 13 blocktimer Viva Television, which put out the high-rating game shows that were later copied by almost all the other networks.

To top it all off, it was ABS-CBN that had to bail out sister companies Bayantel and Maynilad Water Services Inc., the two utilities firms in the Lopez empire that have suffered heavy losses in the last few years. Earlier last year, ABS-CBN made cash advances to prop up the two ailing companies. The perception in the advertising and broadcast industries is that ABS-CBN simply didn't know how to manage its profits, and its business in general.

But ABS-CBN isn't the only big broadcast network with such a problem. Publicly-listed Manila Broadcasting Company (MBC), which owns radio station DZRH, laid off scores of its employees in at least two rounds of retrenchments over the past year. In March 2001, 179 DZRH employees were given their walking papers, ostensibly because the station was losing money. Employees questioned this, since DZRH had then just purchased four outside-broadcast (OB) vans. Their grumblings were ignored, however, and this January, another 40 or so employees, some of them senior broadcast journalists, were laid off in yet another cost-reducing scheme.

More are to lose their jobs at DZRH if a stock-sharing scheme proposed by MBC chair Fred Elizalde will push through. Under the arrangement, Elizalde, whose family is the majority stockholder of MBC, keeps anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of gross profits. The employees get whatever remains, with which all operating expenses, including salaries, would be paid. DZRH employees, fearing the scheme would burden them with running the radio stations while leaving Elizalde sitting pretty, have raised questions over the plan's propriety and feasibility.

This year, advertising revenues are expected to stay at 2001 levels. That's bad news for the broadcast industry. But there are still optimists who say an economic rebound is a possibility that could have the ad industry, and the media, back on a steady financial course again.

In the meantime, most of those displaced by the upheavals in media are still out on job hunts. Bert Tan for one had a brief stint with a monthly magazine in Singapore before moving to Bangkok where he was slated to replace a journalist on the way out of a leading Thai broadsheet. But hard times forced the journalist to stay put, and Tan found himself in between jobs again.

He is now home, where he has resorted to freelancing, writing lifestyle articles and movie or book reviews for a leading local broadsheet. But freelance journalism in the Philippines doesn't pay that much. For every article he contributes to the broadsheet, Tan gets only P1,500, and his expenses doing the story are his own to bear.

For now, his separation package from Project Eyeball keeps him alive. He has also taken up a new hobby: keeping tabs on other publications with familiar end-of-the-road experiences now lying in the media industry's morgue.

April - June 2002,, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Tactile Television, by Alecks P. Pabico,

Text TV offers a new, interactive viewing experience.

ONE ENDURING criticism of television, apart from being dismissed as an idiot box, is that its "engaging" presence makes people less and less involved with one another. The more time people spend in front of the TV set, critics argue, the less they devote to conversations and intimate moments with their close relations.

Surveys show that two out of three Filipinos watch television every day. The average TV viewing time here is three hours, less than the four hours a day that the average British or American spends in front of the box.

But new technologies anchored on media convergence may be slowly sweeping those alienation blues away as new communications applications make television more interactive. Here in the Philippines, the ubiquitous mobile phone has helped bring about Text (or SMS) TV, a phenomenon that first invaded mainstream programming, but has now graduated to channels offering pure texting experience.

Okay, so that means the viewer is still stuck in his seat. But at least he no longer has to just sit there and take whatever the blinking box is beaming at him. With cell phone in hand, he can now talk—er, text—back to share his opinions on some topic with the rest of the viewers. Or he can exchange messages with his friends and family. Assuming they are watching the same channel, of course.

It used to be that the Pinoy version of interactive television involved merely texting one's votes on certain issues or sending personal greetings to friends as an added feature of TV viewing. But separate efforts of the broadcast networks as well as joint undertakings of wireless-application developers and cable TV operators have helped bring about pure SMS-based programming whether on free TV or via cable.

ABS-CBN Broadcasting Co. now runs "PinoyCentral" on cable television from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. the following day. Rival network GMA-7's SMS program "Txtube" airs over Channel 7 for an hour starting midnight on weeknights. Also-ran ABC Channel 5 is competing with the giant networks by launching "Kool on Cam," which airs at 11:30 on weekdays and brings together radio (announcers from its Kool 106 FM station going oncam for the first time), TV, and text.

There are also the likes of "LinkTV" and "The Lounge," both 24-hour chat channels run by cable TV operator Philippine Home Cable Holdings, Inc. (Home Cable), and wireless technology provider Bidshot Wireless Services. "LinkTV" and "The Lounge" actually predated the regular networks' SMS TV initiatives. Available on cable TV, the two are meant to enable students and cable TV subscribers to engage in real-time SMS chat and polls.

All these text TV shows share the same look, with the screen divided into at least three sections running simultaneously. The look is similar to that pioneered by the all-business Bloomberg TV, but instead of some anchorperson reporting on cattle futures, text TV has music videos ("Link TV" sometimes features documentaries and amateur videos and short films as well). The stock market quotes have been replaced by either a community billboard or a text-based game. Gone too is the currency exchange rates box, which has been chucked in favor of chat, the nirvana of texting.

With all these going on at one go, text TV is perfect for either a three-headed creature or, well, the average short-attention-spanned Pinoy teener.

ABS and GMA themselves say their text TV viewers belong to the young crowd (between 11 years old and early 30s), which is understandable as this age group is not afraid to embrace the new technologies and is the heaviest user of cell phones. In general, say the two networks, their text TV audience consists of loyal followers of their stations and belong to the C and D classes.

But the TV networks are more timid when the talk turns to money, or just how much revenue they get from their SMS TV ventures. They only go as far as admitting two things. One is that the revenue total can be gleaned from the heavy text traffic coming in. The other is that their share or percentage from the text messaging cost—a standard charge of P2.50 per message—is quite substantial.

As the networks themselves tell it, the reaction to text TV has been nothing short of phenomenal. According to Mark Gatela, who is in charge of wireless content development at ABS-CBN Interactive, the growth rate for "PinoyCentral," which was launched just last November, is about 200 percent a month. He also reports that usage peaked during the summer months of March and April, when most students go on summer vacation. Peak hours normally start at 8 p.m. up to the wee hours of the morning of the next day.

"Pinoy Central" channel producer Jovan Puyo also recalls, "When we started in November, we had a very small audience, because we didn't even promote the channel. Then suddenly, there was this surge in text messages. We hadn't even begun official eyeballing (warm-body meeting) yet, but they were already doing so. We suddenly had this big pool of users. What's nice is that we don't even have to initiate anything. Our viewers organize events on their own, tropa-tropa (by big groups)."

To accommodate the growing demand for SMS chat on TV, "PinoyCentral" had even had to launch two more channels, or chat rooms, for Cebu and Davao users in addition to the one for Metro Manilans. For "Txtube," which began just this January, one hour has become way too short to handle the volume of text traffic, which is huge for a midnight show; going cable is now being considered seriously. Crows Ayedee Domingo, chief technology officer of GMA New Media Inc., the network's in-house systems and technology outfit: "The response is very, very much higher, especially with gaming and chatting. These are the highly received applications."

JUST A few years ago, though, the broadcast networks were placing their bets on the Internet as the "new, new thing" for TV. Domingo admits, "Our efforts were initially focused on the Internet. But as we all know, the Internet has proven to be elusive in terms of revenue generation. And the situation even worsened with the dotcom crash."

 Indeed, the shift to mobile and wireless communications is largely a reaction to the low Internet penetration rate in the country as compared to that of cell phones. From six million by the end of 2000, the number of cell phone subscribers has grown to close to 11 million sending an average of 100 to 120 million text messages a day. In contrast, Internet users barely reach three million.

With even the wireless application protocol (WAP) proving to be a flop, SMS has become the acknowledged "killer application" of digital mobile communications.

At GMA, plans to use SMS for interactive TV started as early as November 2000. In June last year, it launched the first SMS-interactivity to be experienced on Philippine television. Televiewers were allowed for the first time to interact real-time with the issue-based talk program "Debate" and entertainment talk show "Star Talk."

ABS-CBN actually began experimenting on putting content on SMS a year earlier, focusing first on the delivery of news and information sourced from its online site,, to WAP-enabled handsets. It was only last year that it started using the application for TV and other platforms, but the Lopez-owned media company nevertheless claims to be the first to roll out SMS use on television on a huge scale.

"The earlier shows just used a normal cell phone line to receive entries from viewers," says Gatela. "What we did was to get access numbers from the telcos since that's easier for them to recall. To join any promo on the shows, they send text to 2366. When you say 2366, it's associated with ABS-CBN."

Gatela says they saw the potential of SMS interactivity after they got a pretty good response when they tried it on two ABS-CBN shows. The first was with the noontime variety show MTB's ("Magandang Tanghali Bayan") "Calendar Girl" contest, where viewers were able to text in their favorite among the candidates. The second was with the youth-oriented afternoon drama "Tabing-Ilog," where they ran a poll among viewers to find out whether they approved of the impending wedding of one of the characters. These days, even news programs like the early evening "TV Patrol" ask viewers to text which among three topics they want a news report on.

To be sure, with the popularity of text messaging among the youth market, SMS-TV integration has revolved more around youth-oriented, entertainment-based services like chat and voting and eventually included gaming. For GMA, that bent is even deliberate since its news service is already embedded in Smart Communications' enhanced SMS-based services, Smart Zed, and is also available through INQ7 SMS, the mobile services of, the consolidated news site of GMA and the newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer.

"An information-based service entails pushing content to the cell phone. Ours is more a pull service since we actually interact and get feedback from the televiewers," Domingo says.

Practically all the shows of GMA, ABS-CBN, and its other channels, Studio 23 and ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) on cable TV, now have texting components in them. GMA has even branded its service as iGMA (or interactive GMA) such that its keywords all start with "i," hence ivote (polls), isay (chat), iplay (games), and iwrite (feedback). Its access codes are 2344 for subscribers of Globe Telecom and 4627 for those of Smart.

SMS-based gaming has also become big, as shown by the huge success of "Game K N B? (Game Ka Na Ba?)," a 30-minute quiz show on ABS-CBN involving studio contestants and home-based "text partners" who try to match their respective six-letter combinations. A recently launched gaming contender is "Txters 5" at GMA that also allows home viewers to win fabulous prizes by sending their answers to a trivia question shown on TV.

One strength of text-based game shows like "Game K N B?" and "Txters 5" is that the software that actually runs the games has been developed in house. It used to be that programs were outsourced. Domingo says proudly that they have come to develop their own using Java as the programming language. "We want the technology to be proprietary to us so that we have full control over it," he says.

BUT GIVEN the enthusiastic response of the texters, it was inevitable that these mobile and wireless initiatives would evolve into shows like "PinoyCentral" and "Txtube," where the centerpiece activity is chatting. Displayed in a scrolling format, on-air chatting is seen to extend to television the pervasive appetite for text-based communication already facilitated by chat rooms and Internet instant-messaging programs.

Unfortunately, unlike its online twin, TV chat at this stage is wanting in topic-based discussions that have depth and wit. What makes up most of the chat messages are personal greetings to kith and kin and all and sundry, as well as expressions (unspoken or otherwise) of love and affection - besides the occasional nagging requests for their messages to be finally shown and rantings about the schedule of TV programs.

Even at "LinkTV" and "The Lounge," where chat topics supposed to result in a lively discussion are assigned on a daily basis, the issues do not stray far from the regular fare, which is almost always about actors, singers, bands, animé characters, and the like. Topics for the polls and surveys also suffer from the usual fixation on celebrity and all things entertainment.

TV chat, moreover, lacks the capacity for private messaging, more popular among IRC (Internet Relay Chat) enthusiasts as engaging in "mack mode." By this time though, "Txtube" would have already enabled a private chatting feature so that viewers can interact peer-to-peer, meaning, cell phone-to-cell phone.

Like online chat rooms, SMS chat via TV is filtered for objectionable, inappropriate and harmful language in keeping with television standards. Both "PinoyCentral" and "Txtube" rely on human filters the equivalent of channel bots on IRC, or text jocks, who are responsible for hosting the channel, moderating the discussions, and screening messages for foul words, language, and phony cell phone numbers postings.

What Gatela and Puyo find strangely amazing is how people can get so much satisfaction and reassured of their self-importance out of seeing their message onscreen or getting greeted on TV. This has led them to wonder if this is a purely cultural thing, a part of being Pinoy.

That could be a nice topic for on-air chats. In the meantime, what is certain is that text messaging has already become so ingrained in Pinoy culture that its integration with television was bound to happen sooner or later. Now if only it can lead to more meaningful community interaction.

Oct-Dec 2002, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Multiplying Village Voices, by A. Lin Neumann,

A new wave of small-power radio stations are giving traditional community broadcasters a run for their money.

LA CARLOTA, Negros Occidental — It's hard enough for any college graduate to break into the highly competitive media business, let alone gain a foothold in it, even in a provincial town. Beluma Aplaon, however, has an advantage: her family owns the only radio station here in the sugar-milling town of La Carlota.

Beluma doesn't even have to go for far when she makes her broadcasts, which are in Ilonggo. The young presenter, who is barely out of her teens, merely plops down in front of the microphone set up on an antique mahogany table in her family's living room and waits for a cue from the satellite.

But her laid-back brand of broadcasting may not be that unique in the Philippines. Indeed, her family's radio station is just one of a clutch of local-language radio stations being established in towns and villages across the country by the giant Manila Broadcasting Corp. (MBC) in partnership with local entrepreneurs.

Under the name Radyo Natin, or Our Radio, MBC has launched more than 400 low-power FM stations since late last year, with another 400 in the pipeline. This network of tiny radio stations represents an effort by MBC to convince national advertisers that they can reach virtually every consumer in the country at the local level. For the stations' operators, the money they make will depends on convincing small local businesses to advertise while also selling blocks of the stations' airtime to local politicians, religious institutions, and others with a desire to reach the community.

Using a combination of low-cost transmitters and satellite-programming muscle developed in Manila as part of its traditional radio network, MBC, the oldest broadcaster in the country, stands poised to revolutionize local radio. For the first time, tiny local stations are able to deliver the latest music and news from Manila in tandem with local-language news and information about the village or the neighborhood.

Taking advantage of a loophole in the country's telecommunications regulations, MBC can bypass traditional licensing requirements by simply registering the stations with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) as low-power community-broadcast operations with a power below one watt. One watt is plenty in a place like La Carlota. The signal carries for a radius of about six kilometers, more than enough to cover the average small town.

The tiny stations are already having quite an impact, at least on listeners. "I listen to them as I drive through the province," says Luis Garrucho, a taxi driver in Bacolod City. "There are several of them, you just have to keep scanning the radio." In a drive from the city to La Carlota, he quickly locks into one station after another while passing through each town. In Hinagaran, Kabankalan, and others, the signal could be heard clearly in the town centers before fading away at the outskirts.

"Any place in the country you can hear music or news from Manila, but with this you get the music and the news — plus information and advertising in the local language," says Fred Elizalde, the majority owner of MBC. "This is completely new."

So new in fact that it is difficult to say if the local stations will generate consistent profit for their operators. But one thing is already certain: never before in Asia has a company come up with a formula for such widespread low-power broadcasting.

Traditional so-called "community" radio has relied on foundations and funding agencies like the United Nations to set up small stations in remote communities in the developing world. But frequently, when the money from the agency dries up, the stations go off the air. With Radyo Natin, MBC is betting that operators will develop sufficient local-revenue streams to keep the network going and that national advertisers will give the home network a steady flow of advertising pesos to make the venture profitable.

Elizalde says that consumer-product companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble, mainstays of radio advertising that targets lower-income markets in the country, are already receptive to MBC's pitch. "These little stations," he argues, "will be the most direct media link to the communities."

Company executives say they are pitching ad packages to consumer-products companies that will allow them to reach both Radyo Natin and the traditional MBC radio network, delivering a lower cost-per-consumer reach than any other available radio network.

MBC began the Radyo Natin project with a series of 100 satellite-linked stations two years ago. But those properties, which are still in operation, were more traditional, with NTC licenses and MBC employees. They were also expensive, costing the company about P500,000 each to establish.

Then Elizalde opted for a different approach, executives say. Last year he decided to go even smaller, cheaper, and more local, establishing the new network of franchised community-radio stations. If all goes as planned, MBC will have 1,174 stations in its network by year-end, including its 74 traditional big stations, the 100 larger Radyo Natin properties, and the 1,000 local micro stations currently being established.

"There are 1,600 towns and cities in the Philippines," says Elizalde. "We could eventually have a station in every one of them. This is a poor country, remember, and so all of this is free to air for the listener and very low cost for the partners."

GETTING set up is easy. MBC sells a package that includes the transmitter, antenna, satellite dish, and satellite receiver for around P50,000, depending on the size of the town where the station will be based. All the new broadcaster has to do is plug it in and buy a rudimentary microphone and perhaps a CD player to air a few local favorites and he or she is in business.

In addition, partners pay a monthly programming fee of about P4,000 to MBC for the satellite feed and agree to air at least 10 hours a day of programming and national advertising from the home network, which includes a morning news feed from MBC's Manila flagship station, DZRH, a leading news-talk station. The Radyo Natin network offers a choice of seven satellite formats, the most popular being love songs in English and Filipino mixed with national news, from the Manila headquarters. The rest of the time, the stations are free to do music requests, local news, religious programming — anything they want.

Still, the initial outlay is steep, given the grinding poverty in rural areas. MBC executives say that the typical Radyo Natin operator is a small businessman who sees the project as a way to add to his holdings. The Aplaon family, for example, owns some small plots of land in La Carlota, and the father works as an executive of an agricultural company in Luzon.

"We wanted a family business," says Beluma, a fresh college graduate, of the family's decision to go into broadcasting. "My dad wants me to do it. So I am the one making the announcements and selling the advertisements. It's like my first job."

The station is a means of giving the family a business opportunity at home. MBC encourages Radyo Natin operators to go out and talk to the local general stores, hardware providers, and others to generate ad revenues. Beluma Aplaon says her family has convinced a number of local stores to advertise. "We need to sell more but we think it is going to work," she says.

In Kabankalan town, south of La Carlota, the Radyo Natin outlet has sold time to the local government for community-service programming and the Catholic Church to air religious messages. In addition, an electrical contractor, hardware store, and a number of small restaurants are regular clients, buying time at less than P50 for 30 seconds.

"We get revenue from two sources," says Fred Elizalde's son Juan, who is MBC's programming executive. "One is from selling the equipment and licensing the programming. The other is from national advertising. The local guys have to get their money from local advertisers."

The concept is deceptively simple but with far-reaching implications. In other cases, already wealthy politicians are buying the stations, not for their business potential but as a cost-effective way to increase their ability to reach voters. One of the first markets MBC tapped in its search for partners, in fact, was Congress, making promotional presentations to politicians on the efficacy of owning their own little radio stations in order to reach their constituents. MBC executives and others say that local politicians are quickly buying into Radyo Natin. Senators, congressmen, and governors have all bought stations, in all likelihood because they are eyeing the 2004 elections and see Radyo Natin as a cheap way to reach a mass audience.

Privately, MBC executives acknowledge that the possibility exists that a politician buying a number of stations in a given province could eventually develop a virtual monopoly on local radio in the area. While MBC is hesitant to discuss the names of station owners, especially the politically powerful ones, reports have it that former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis 'Chavit' Singson has purchased a number of stations in his province. In Bataan, Congressman Antonio Roman has also bought a chain of five stations in his district. MBC is even planning to produce regular messages for Roman's constituents, recorded at the Batasang Pambansa and then relayed to his stations via satellite. Says one MBC executive: "This is a great way for a politician to speak directly to his people."

RADIO in the Philippines is far more sophisticated and independent than in virtually any other country in Asia. Free of most government interference, private broadcasters have a long tradition of independent programming dating back to the 1920s, and their reach extends across the archipelago. Looked at in one way, Radyo Natin radically lowers the entry cost for local operators to come into this scene, giving small provincial businessmen access to a technology previously available only to large corporations. For a small community with no local radio, these tiny stations offer a chance to have affordable electronic media in places that were previously dependent on Manila and other large cities.

But does this really democratize radio? The satellite programming and national news content on Radyo Natin is all produced by MBC, giving it the ability to far outstrip any of its rivals in terms of reaching deep into the barrio. And it is unlikely that any other company will be able to match MBC's economies of scale in putting up such a network. So far, the savvy firm has also decided to allow only one Radyo Natin station per market in order to avoid having partners compete against one another for ad revenue.

MBC may even have bigger ambitions. "We have access to satellites with a footprint all over Asia," says Juan Elizalde. "There is no reason we couldn't replicate Radyo Natin anywhere in the world."

All these are making other broadcasters twitch. As it is, they are already nervous about MBC's drive to capture small local markets. "Almost all of the small operators see it as a threat," says an insider at the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas.. "It is going to be a big controversy."

The immediate fear of some traditional broadcasters is that Radyo Natin could draw vital national advertising money away from existing provincial stations. "This is like stabbing us in the back," says Peter de Jaresco, owner of Bohol Chronicle Broadcasting, a two-station radio company on the small island-province of Bohol. "The government should not allow MBC to have so many stations. We are the real local broadcasters, our two stations reach all the towns in this province, and we rely on national advertising for our revenues also. What is going to happen with Radyo Natin is that politicians will take advantage of it and real local broadcasters will suffer."

Bigger broadcasters, for their part, say the government should close the loophole in the telecommunications law that has allowed MBC to set up so many micro stations. That move, however, could penalize other community broadcasters who benefit from the liberal regulations for community stations.

There is no question that by going intensely local in their pitch to advertisers, MBC is trying to siphon pesos away from other broadcasters. MBC is confident consumer-product companies with a desire to reach potential customers in even the most far-flung barrio will see the advantage of going with the network and its Radyo Natin scheme.

MBC has entered into several agreements with various corporations to do nationwide promotions tied to Radyo Natin stations. In one promotion, listeners will be urged to collect proof-of-purchase labels of a particular product in order to enter a weekly raffle at a participating Radyo Natin station. At the end of the promotion, MBC intends to bring millions of these labels to Manila for a nationwide draw to demonstrate the consumer punch of their local stations.

But it will be up to individual operators to make Radyo Natin into something vital and worthwhile. Those who use the stations to inform and invigorate their communities are also providing them a tool for local empowerment. As Juan Elizalde says, "These stations are a blank slate. Nothing like this has been done before. It will be up to the operators to make them interesting."

Jan - March, 2003,, Vol. IX No. 1, Checking the Airwaves, by Yvonne T. Chua,

THE PUBLIC was upset. After all, what they saw was the actual beheading of a soldier by a member of the Abu Sayyaf, aired on prime-time newscasts by ABC-5, IBC-13, ABS-CBN, and Channel 23. The stations were deluged by calls and mail from angry viewers.

Then, in late February 2002, about a week after the gruesome footage was aired, the networks were taken aback when they received terse messages from the Standards Authority of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP). These were actually "show cause orders" seeking an explanation why the stations should not be held liable for violating the Television Code, which bans the showing of "unnecessary or excessive violence and morbid, sensational, or alarming details that are not essential to factual reporting."

What really came as a surprise, though, was that the complaints, on which the orders were based, were not lodged by the public, but emanated from right within the KBP's Monitoring Unit.

The complaints are but a few of the growing number of self-initiated cases and reflect how far the KBP, which consist of 152 radio and TV stations nationwide, has gone in enforcing self-regulation since it was founded in 1973. Apparently, the days of sitting around for the public to bring a formal complaint before taking action against a radio or television station are over.

Self-regulation has been the norm in Philippine media. But a marked difference exists between how the print and the broadcast industries police their ranks. The print industry, through the Philippine Press Institute's press council, has had little to show in terms of punishing erring members; the council's findings, after all, are chiefly recommendatory.

In comparison, the KBP's quasi-judicial Standards Authority has imposed on members a long string of reprimands, censures, and fines.

Cases Received by the KBP Standards Authority, 1992-2002*
Nature of ComplaintsNo.
FM Overmodulation94
Coverage of Gambling/Airing of Gambling Results or Tips31
Personal Attack/Defamatory Statement27
Offensive Statement on Air19
Unfair, Biased, or Irresponsible Reporting18
Commercial Overloading10
Indecent Attire, Exposure, Behavior, Gesture, or Picture8
Offensive Footage or Advertisement7
*Excludes cases dismissed due to lack of merit of jurisdiction

The KBP, of course, has had a longer shot at self-regulation. A year after it was founded, it conveniently became the mechanism through which the Broadcast Media Council picked its members and formulated its policies. Although created in 1974 by a presidential decree, the council stood apart from its forerunners.

Right after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, the Bureau of Standards for Mass Media, a government office, took charge of supervising the broadcast media. It was replaced by the Mass Media Council, which was headed by the secretaries of public information and national defense, and later the Media Advisory Council, whose officials were handpicked by the president.

The decree that created Broadcast Media Council omitted to define the appointing power of council members. Hence, members were drawn from the broadcast industry through the KBP, making the council basically private in nature. At the same time, the decree explicitly stipulated a policy of self-regulation for the broadcast media.

When the council was abolished in 1982, the KBP quickly stepped into its shoes, making an exception only on the task of granting certificates of registration to radio and television companies. That year the KBP amended its by-laws and came up with detailed codes governing radio and television, which the Standards Authority was entrusted to enforce.

Reynaldo Hulog, KBP executive director since the mid-1990s, notes that policing the ranks of the broadcast industry was made easier by the attitude of compliance by radio and television stations that prevailed during the Marcos years. From 1986 onward, however, enforcing KBP's Radio and Television Codes became problematic. KBP members tended to give standards set by the codes, such as those on decency and good taste, a more liberal interpretation. Hulog says many members were also unfamiliar with the provisions of the codes either because of the fast turnover of personnel in broadcast companies or their management's failure to explain the standards to their employees.

By 1996, KBP officers were perturbed by the complaints they received about personal attacks aired by broadcasters against other stations, biased and sensationalized reporting, violence in television programs. Most of the complaints were relayed by telephone or appeared in newspapers, and thus failed to meet the Standards Authority's requirement of a formal complaint for it to be able to act. The KBP also realized that it had not exercised the power to act on its own, even without a complaint.

An important change came about that year. With help from lawyer-members, the Standards Authority came up with clearer procedures for hearing cases. Back then, the nine-member body based in Metro Manila was divided into three divisions, each consisting of three members. Complaints filed against radio and television stations in Metro Manila are assigned to a division for conciliation. If no settlement is reached, the division would then conduct a hearing and submit its recommendation for en banc review and decision. The decision can be appealed to the KBP board within 10 days.

The Standards Authority is also empowered to assign provincial cases to its local chapters, which then constitute a special investigation committee consisting of the chairman, vice chairman and the Standards Authority performance officer in that chapter. The special committee performs basically the same functions as a division of the Standards Authority at the KBP's headquarters in Makati.

THE KBP's decision in 1999 to form a monitoring unit as well as to openly encourage local chapters to check on complaints aired frequently against radio and television stations, marked a big shift in the way the organization regulates itself.

The Monitoring Unit is a one-person team, but it has been instrumental in filing the bulk of formal complaints against KBP members in Metro Manila. Last year, three-fourths of the cases lodged with the Standards Authority came from that unit. KBP chapters in Cebu, Davao, and Bacolod have likewise been zealously filing complaints.

As a result, the number of cases that reach the Standards Authority has leapt fivefold from a measly eight cases recorded in both 1993 and 1994, and necessitated the KBP Board to raise the number of members in the Standards Authority from nine to 13. The body now has four divisions under a chairman's supervision.

The Monitoring Unit closely watches adherence to program standards by radio and television programs. This explains in part the rise in the number of cases involving breaches of reporting and decency standards and the ban on coverage of all forms of gambling as against those on technical standards like commercial overloading.

Networks have lost quite a number of cases — KBP-initiated and otherwise — before the Standards Authority, and even the KBP Board in their appeals.

In 1996, for instance, both ABS-CBN and GMA lost their appeals against the Standards Authority's decisions on commercial overloading during primetime shows. They had to pay P1.84 million and P1.52 million, respectively. Payment, however, was made chiefly by airtime for the KBP and offsetting of KBP's accounts with the stations.

In 2000, TV and radio host Jay Sonza and GMA were reprimanded for airing a blind item in a February 1999 radio program insinuating that ABS news and talk show hosts Korina Sanchez and Ted Failon had tried to bribe jail authorities to get into the execution chamber of convicted rapist Leo Echegaray. Sonza had identified Failon through his nickname "Etong." The same case against GMA news reporter Susan Enriquez and anchor Mel Tiangco was dismissed because they did not name names.

Even politicos moonlighting as radio/TV hosts have not been spared the KBP rod. That same year, the Standards Authority fined Cebu Vice Governor Fernando Celeste P12,000 for airing jai-alai results on his "Andoy Purdoy" program on DYHP. The KBP standards code prohibits the coverage of gambling or betting. Interestingly, Celeste lost his bid to become Cebu governor the following year.

The four networks that aired the Abu Sayyaf's beheading of a soldier, meanwhile, got censured by the KBP Standards Authority. The strongly worded decision issued in May 2002 read in part, "The grisly beheading scenes…constitute a flagrant, shocking, sickening and insensitive display of graphic and horrifying violence which has no place on Philippine television, or elsewhere, and can find no shield under the free speech provision of the Constitution or respondents' responsibility to inform the public on news or current events. The questioned footages are utterly offensive, absolutely dehumanizing, and completely devoid of any redeeming quality. They are unfit for public consumption, whether primetime or otherwise, in newscasts or other program modes."

THE BIG networks used to just send a representative and the respondent after receiving a summons from the KBP. But they have since learned that the Standards Authority means business, and they now take pains to field lawyers to defend them. Says KBP performance officer Virgie Velasco: "They don't want to be cited for violations of the code because it paints a negative picture of them."

Some of the bigger networks have also taken the initiative to hold orientation seminars on the provisions of the code for their staff. They also make sure that people who regularly go on air in their news and public affairs programs are accredited by KBP. Accreditation entails taking and passing an exam based on the code, as well as passing the station's own performance accreditation. Even controversial talent manager Lolit Solis decided to take the KBP's accreditation test after losing a case filed against her by ABS-CBN's Korina Sanchez. At the time, the perennially slipper-shod Solis was a nonaccredited radio and TV announcer at rival GMA.

At the very least, broadcasters seem more aware of the KBP and what it may frown on. As such, it has become rather common to hear a number of radio commentators notorious for making personal attacks to quip midstream,"Bawal 'yan sa KBP (KBP doesn't allow that)!" or "Puwede ba 'yan, KBP (Is that okay, KBP)?"

Hulog says complaints of indecent exposure and offensive remarks against the ABS-CBN noontime program "Magandang Tanghali Bayan" prompted the KBP to require members to have talents who appear on air get an orientation on the TV Code and to ensure their contracts bind them to abide by KBP standards. ABS-CBN has since submitted to the KBP a thick folder containing certifications signed by talents that they have attended such orientations. A couple of smaller stations have done likewise. But Hulog acknowledges that the KBP ought to check if other stations are holding the orientation and how well they are doing it.

The stricter enforcement of the Radio and Television Codes, however, has led some stations to simply withdraw their membership from the KBP. One of them was PTV-4, which quit the organization in 1995 after the government ordered it to air the state-sponsored lotto. A government-run station, PTV-4 knew it could not defy the order; but then it would be violating the KBP ban on the coverage of all forms of gambling. A big radio station also gave up its membership in 1996, refusing to comply with a temporary restraining order issued by the KBP on the airing of lotto.

To be fair, the KBP has been rather flexible, twice revising certain provisions of the Radio and Television Codes to keep up with the times. The total ban on airing of gambling, for example, has been amended to allow stations to announce game schedules and results, although the organization still stands pat against the live or delayed coverage of games and airing of tips. Under revisions adopted in June 2000, ads related to gambling legalized by the State are allowed, although the KBP prohibits their airing on religious and children's programs or in breakspots immediately preceding or following these programs.

But KBP leaders and members acknowledge the time has come for a total review of the two codes. The first order of business, says Hulog, is to clarify standards. Lawyers of networks have repeatedly defended themselves by citing vague provisions, such as those on violence, decency, sensationalism, and changing community standards. Hulog also feels the need for tougher standards on children's programming.

Velasco notes some penalties are no longer realistic and may not serve as a deterrent. For example, penalties for more grievous offenses like violations in news reporting are lighter than those for violations in music. Because fines for first offenses range from a low P1,000 to P10,000, the KBP has encountered a few recalcitrants. A blocktime announcer, for example, continues to attack other stations after he was made to pay a P1,000 fine for doing that earlier. He also now makes it a point to appeal decisions of the Standards Authority. A religious leader got off lightly by issuing a public apology to a religious order he attacked, and has since trained his guns on other religious groups.

Beyond the revision of the code, the KBP hopes to institute a higher level of accreditation to motivate members to strive for excellence. Hulog sees flaws in reporting and commentaries on the criminal justice system, legislative proceedings, and medical practice, among others, and believes different accreditation exams could help remedy the problem.

Reviving the KBP's system of volunteer monitors among individuals, nongovernmental organizations, and academe, to assist the KBP's Monitoring Unit, is also something to consider, says Hulog. But he concedes that it is a tall order. Volunteers, including former movie and television classification board chair Henrietta Mendez, drop out after some time, mainly because of loss of interest or their busy schedules.

One of the biggest challenges Hulog sees in the KBP's task of self-regulation, however, is the promotion of the codes as not just a set of rules and regulations, but also as a set of values that are consistent with the demand of the public. "The public," he says, "wants balanced reporting, and fairness is a virtue." This essentially would require a change in the individuals in broadcasting, and that is no easy task.

The constant struggle between profits and responsible broadcasting is not lost on Hulog. Economics, for example, clearly comes into play when radio stations make way for blocktimers, who have been found to be more frequent violators of the KBP standards. Blocktimers constitute a big source of revenue for stations, which do not have to produce the programs themselves.

Hulog believes a middle ground between economics and responsible broadcasting can be found, especially if the stations' top management seriously searches for one. And it's about time they do. Says Hulog: "The responsibility of the broadcast media is constantly in the public eye, and its performance is being challenged. We have to do something about it."

How listeners/viewers should file a complaint with the KBP
Put the complaint in writing.
Make sure the complaint states all of the following: the respondent's name; the description of the offense being charged (specify the exact provision of the Radio or Television Code that is being violated); the name of the complainant or offended party; the approximate time and date the offense was committed; and the place where the offense was committed.
File the complaint with the KBP Standards Authority or the KBP local chapter. The Standards Authority is located at the KBP headquarters on the sixth floor of the LTA Building, 118 Perea St., Legaspi Village, Makati City.
If possible, submit a tape or transcript of the program or remarks being complained against.
Avoid filing the case with the prosecutor or court if you don't want your case to be held in abeyance by the Standards Authority.

July - Sept 2004,, Vol. X, No. 3, Let's Talk about Sex, by Cecile C.A. Balgos,

The Southeast Asian media have lost their puritanism when it comes to reporting on sex, but their coverage of sex-related issues remains problematic.

SOMETIME in the late 1990s, when the effects of a regional financial crisis began to be felt in Thailand, that country's most popular newspaper undertook a series of cost-cutting measures that included reducing the number of its pages. Thairath, however, took care to increase at least one thing: stories and photographs on sex.

As the recession wore on, the paper also began to have a striptease of sorts in its pages. In 1997, the female celebrities featured in Thairath were either fully dressed or in one-piece bathing suits. By 2000, only 14 percent of the celebrities in the photos had all their clothing on, while more than half wore two-piece swimwear; the rest were in spaghetti straps or tank tops. One could say their clothes literally went with the times.

Thairath, which has a present daily circulation of one million, traces its beginnings back to 1950. It has weathered practically every kind of economic and political storm. And like many in the media industry worldwide, the paper knows that, in a crunch, sex sells.

This is true as well of many other popular newspapers in Southeast Asia. This is partly why even in times of turbulence, stories related to sex and sexuality steam up the pages of these papers.

These stories often turn out to be the kind your mother probably said would cause you to go blind if you read them: full of lurid and sleazy details, the kind of stories that only give sex a bad reputation. Many of them usually give women a bad rap as well, portraying them as shameless seducers of men and professional purveyors of illicit sex, and therefore to blame for some of society's ills.

That can only be considered bad news anywhere, but in a region that already has three countries struggling with serious nationwide HIV/AIDS epidemics — and two more appearing to be headed the same way — such media behavior is all the more worrisome. Newspapers, after all, reinforce biases that exist in a society and influence policy-making. Like the other media, they have also been blamed for helping stigmatize people with HIV/AIDS, as well as for misunderstanding the issues and propagating myths about the illness, which, among other ways, can be passed on through sex.

A seven-tome series commissioned by the AIDS Society of the Philippines and written by teams of academics and journalists from six Southeast Asian countries analyzes how the media in these countries have reported on sex.

Dailies Used in the Study




Rasmei Kampuchea

Koh Santepheap

Cambodia Daily





Vientiane Mai

Pathet Lao

Vientiane Times


Philippine Daily Inquirer






Ngan Danh

Thanh Nien

* Newspapers in boldface considered most popular and used in regional analysis. Concession was made in the case of Laos, where Pathet Lao is now the most popular, but became a daily only in 2001.

The six country teams each collected and read articles on sexuality and safe sex from two to three local newspapers. The study covered the years 1997, 2000, and 2002. Data for the regional analysis, however, were based on those coming from the most popular newspaper (based on circulation numbers and influence) in each country.

It shouldn't take a Margie Holmes to figure out that sex is not just about the act itself or the body parts many men (and some women) develop an obsession over. More than anything else, it is about relationships and interactions between people. Talking about sex means also discussing behavior, attitudes, perceptions about gender roles, etc. Or at least that's how it should be.

Today Southeast Asian societies are caught between two extremes: no talking about sex on one end, and on the other, sex talk reduced to gutter level. Either way, sex has become "dirty," so much so that anything connected to it can elicit embarrassment and shame. Yet at the same time, it arouses curiosity and excitement among many people. It's a paradox that has proved difficult to straddle. No wonder that instead of sober discourse that could help correct misunderstandings or expose sexual myths, what have prevailed mostly are miscues that have led to even more confusion.

Prior to the study, the AIDS Society had noted that despite Southeast Asia's reputation in the West as a sexual playground, the region had self-confessed conservative societies in which sex was deemed an unsuitable subject for public discussion. As the organization's foreword to each country report says, the question then arose on whether or not the media in such societies would be able to explore and explain issues regarding a disease that has sex as its most common mode of transmission.

THE ANSWER, for the most part, is no. Sometimes, a newspaper could be devoting more column inches to topics related to sex — as in the case of Thairath— and still be nowhere near having deep discussions on sex-related issues that matter, much less pn HIV/AIDS. Indeed, Thairath had the least HIV/AIDS stories among the top papers in the region.

Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma have the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the region and are considered among the world's top HIV/AIDS hot spots. Cambodia's prevalence rate of three percent of the adult population makes it the highest in Asia.

Cambodia has followed Thailand's lead in having an aggressive anti-HIV/AIDS campaign, the cornerstone of which is a 100-percent condom use program in brothels. Both countries have been the toast of AIDS experts, since these campaigns have significantly reduced the number of new infections each year. Both countries, however, have been said to have critical blind spots in their anti-AIDS campaigns, leading to increased risks among certain sectors of the population.

If HIV/AIDS was not that much of a favorite of either Thairath or Rasmei Kampuchea, it wasn't because the topic wasn't newsworthy or that either newspaper was reticent about sex. Although the Thai research team did random sampling instead of the read-all method used by the other groups, Thairath had still come out second in terms of volume of stories on sexuality and safe sex. The Thai team, however, blamed the few stories on HIV/AIDS on possible "AIDS fatigue." After all, the Thai government has been battling AIDS for more than a decade, and Thairath may well have run out of ways to report on the disease, or had simply tired of talking about it and its recurring subthemes.

Rasmei, for its part, seems to have been merely acting in the mode of a modern Cambodian newspaper. That is to say, focused mainly on advancing the personal interests of its politician-funder, which is how many publications in Cambodia are set up these days. Judging from Rasmei's story statistics, HIV/AIDS apparently is not among the priorities of the paper's owner, even though he is said to be a "close ally" of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and therefore should have been eager to support the government's anti-AIDS programs. That HIV/AIDS stories saw print at all seems due to the fact that government agencies and NGOs had sought to publicize their campaigns by paying for articles on these in the local media. Not surprisingly, most of these pieces were skimpy, often merely noting a campaign's launch or a workshop's opening or end.

But here's the really bad news: after all these years, Thairath still seems to be among the newspapers that have yet to learn how to report on HIV/AIDS. Instead of discussing behavior, attitudes, or sexual norms that raise the likelihood of someone getting infected with HIV, Thairath often made it seem as if only certain groups such as sex workers or "bad and poor" people could get AIDS. Readers could not be faulted then if they didn't fall under these categories, they couldn't possibly end up HIV-positive.

Thairath may have confused people all the more with stories that had misleading information regarding AIDS. As late as 2002, for instance, one Thairath article quoted a Miss Universe who, after having her blood tested for HIV, said, "Blood testing for HIV is a solution to deal with this disease." In reality, blood tests can merely identify a person who has been infected and do not prevent HIV infection. Of course the beauty queen may have meant that those who had indulged in risky behavior should consider getting tested so that they would not be spreading HIV unknowingly. But the paper made no such clarification, leaving readers on their own to decipher Miss Universe's cryptic words.

INTERESTINGLY, Thairath and Rasmei Kampuchea share a penchant for sensationalism and a love for graphic details. In 1997, Rasmei even had serialized sex fiction that it usually partnered with explicit illustrations or photographs. Many of the items in Rasmei that fell into the category of "features" in the study were in fact installments of these sex serials. Rasmei eventually stopped running such stories, but only because complaints from women's groups about it were growing louder.

Real rape stories, though, became another way to titillate the readers of Rasmei, as well as those of Thairath. Although it can be argued that such stories were given space because they were newsworthy, both newspapers never seemed to go beyond narrating the sordid details of each case, providing neither context nor analysis of why rape happens at all. It thus appeared as if the crime involved only the victim and the perpetrator and was far removed from the rest of society.

It did not help that Thairath also tended to portray women as sex objects almost begging for abuse. In a 1997 front-page story, for example, the paper quoted colleagues of a rape victim as saying that she had been "multinational, meaning that anyone could sleep with her." Other stories also noted things like a victim's supposedly provocative dress or that the crime took place in a secluded or badly lit area — the implication being, why would a "decent" woman be dressed that way or be in such a place?

Fortunately, the rest of the six top dailies generally refrained from running similar stories. But the other newspapers used in the country reports did not hold up as well as the market leaders. As Bangkok Post assistant editor Sanitsuda Ekachai remarked, "(We) can now say for a fact that our press is not only perpetuating and promoting sexist values but also benefiting from them."

"I have always felt that the Thai press in general has been quite sexist and unfair to women," she said, adding that her guess "about the press elsewhere" was that "the situation might not be much different."

The press in socialist countries, on the other hand, are expected to be more reticient and more correct in their attitude toward women and sex. Yet the study showed that the official organ of Vietnam's communist party had the third highest number of sex-related stories. This was largely because writing about certain sex-related topics had state blessings. Otherwise, it may have made no difference to Nhan Dan that AIDS was taking on epidemic proportions in parts of Vietnam, so much so that the country is now under close watch by worried global experts.

Much like a wind-up contraption in which wheels turn only with the twist of the operating key, Nhan Dan increased its stories involving sexuality not long after the launching of government HIV/AIDS programs. The paper also took care to handle sexuality and safe sex issues with government directives always in mind-emphasizing "sharp national identity content, healthy civilized lifestyles, observation of social order and safety, fighting against social evils," and so on.

Just like Vietnam, talking about HIV/AIDS also loosened the state-controlled media's tongues somewhat in neighboring Laos. When the government began issuing pronouncements and programs regarding AIDS, some journalists seized the opportunity to segue into other sexuality-related topics.

Vientiane Ma had the highest number of sex-related stories in 1997, which was about the time Lao authorities began aggressively pushing anti-AIDS programs through the media. But the paper had significantly fewer stories involving sex and sexuality in 2000 and 2002. This may have been because journalists did not dare to go too far from talking about AIDS for fear of offending the general public and the more conservative officials. Since Laos has no press law, the media may have been at a loss over where the boundaries lay and chose to play it safe.

This is in contrast to Vietnam, which has a press law that journalists can refer to when in doubt about whether they are crossing the state-drawn line. The Vietnamese media were thus able to explore more sexuality-related issues.

THE SEX trade was a favorite topic of Southeast Asian newspapers. Nhan Dan apparently considered safe to write about, but like three of the other papers, it chose to focus more on those who provided the service and not on the clients. Nhan Dan shared with Thairath a tendency to vilify female sex workers as moneygrubbers who did not want to invest in hard work — as if having sex with several potentially violent strangers in one night were easy.

Ironically, the only newspapers that tried to see the flesh industry from a wider perspective were the two that came from countries with conservative dominant religions. Kompas of predominantly Muslim Indonesia also had the highest volume of stories on sexuality, churning out almost half of the total output of the top newspapers. And for all the misgivings of some religious leaders in Indonesia regarding condoms, the paper, along with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, had more stories on condom use than the others.

Kompas considers its political analyses as among its selling points. At the same time, though, it markets itself as a voice for the voice for the voiceless or the marginalized and the discriminated, such as women and people living with HIV/AIDS. It even has a section devoted to women's issues, which are given generous spreads in the newspaper.

Kompas thus covers a variety of topics involving sex and sexuality, although in the period studied, AIDS emerged as its top sex subject. In part, this may be in recognition of Indonesia's growing HIV jitters. Just like Vietnam, Indonesia has been seeing precipitous rises in new HIV infections in certain areas during the last several years.

Top Ten Sex-Related Topics Reported in Southeast Asian Newspapers

Cambodian and Vietnamese prostitutes wait in front of a Phnom Penh brothel. Cambodia has followed Thailand's lead by launching an aggressive anti-AIDS campaign that features a 100-percent condom use policy in brothels. (photo by Chor Sokunthea)


Cambodia (Rasmei Kampuchea)

Indonesia (Kompas)

Philippines (Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Thailand (Thairath)

Lao PDR (Vientiane Mai
38 35

Commercial Sex/Prostitution
49 21
Sexuality and the Law
76 417

Sexual Abuse
56 14
Sexual Norms in Society2 78
Sexuality in the Media



Sexual Harassment


Sex Education
111 30

Rest of categories (47)
244980 8


Vietnam (Nhan Dan)











Commercial Sex/Prostitution




Sexuality and the Law




Sexual Abuse








Sexual Norms in Society




Sexuality in the Media




Sexual Harassment




Sex Education




Rest of categories (47)








In general, Kompas's coverage of sexuality issues was relatively unencumbered by religious considerations. This was also the case with the Inquirer, which reported on sex without so much as glance at the Roman Catholic Church and its vocal and often fuming leaders. That the Inquirer came only fourth in terms of the number of stories it produced on sex-related subjects reflected not so much unconcern about these issues but an obsession with politics. In 2000, the Inquirer ran just 63 sex-related stories, largely because it was too busy covering the crisis of the Estrada presidency.

Still, the examples of the Inquirer and Kompas show that where there is separation of church and state, the views of a country's dominant religion would not necessarily end up dominating news space.

There was, however, one glaring omission in all six newspapers: men were missing. There was little discussion on the role of men in relationships and their culpability in many of the problems stemming from attitudes and behaviors regarding sex. In a region that keeps on emphasizing its supposed cultural values as
ideals that should be preserved, there appears to be communal denial that underlying some of those values is a macho culture that foments gender imbalance and fosters unhealthy attitudes toward women and sexuality.

Cecile C. A. Balgos is part of the safe sex and the Southeast Asian media project. For more information about the study and its series of books, please visit the AIDS Society of the Philippines website or

July-Sept 2004,, Vol. X, No. 3, Media - The Twilight of Newspapers, by Sheila S. Coronel,

Newspapers are losing their audience — and their advertising — to television, but they still set the news agenda and retain their influence on policy makers.

Today newspapers have lost the audience to television.

MAX V. Soliven, publisher of The Philippine Star and self-styled doyen of Philippine journalism, is acting as if it were still the 1960s and newspapers were in their prime. The journalist of 40-something years created a stir recently when he refused to print the response of former Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo to a series of columns that accused the ex-government official of wrongdoing and called him names.

The prima-donna behavior was reminiscent of the days when newspapers were so powerful that officials quaked at the prospect of being criticized by them. Today, officials are more blasé. Unless the accusations are carried on national television as well, they are not so fearful. Not many would go the length that Romulo has gone, including attempting to place a full-page ad that carried his rejoinder, filing a complaint in the Philippine Press Council, and suing Soliven for libel. The real power now, after all, is television. Only the so-called chattering classes read newspapers. The mass of voters is influenced more by what they see on TV than what they read.

Soliven is the last of the newspaper royals. The glory days of the broadsheets are over. This is the era of television: Filipinos are gaga over it, they watch it avidly, they are awestruck and starstruck by it, they even vote for those who read the TV news. The throne once held by the pipe-smoking, typewriter-pounding, word-spouting Solivens has now been ceded to the likes of the sassy Korina Sanchez, broadcasters who peddle more attitude than substance, and whose venom politicians fear more than the bile of a hundred newspaper columns.

So move over, Max. Newspapers are passé. Their readers are mostly aged 35 and above, and getting older as time goes by. They don't have the mass audience of television or the decibel level of radio. Their main source of power now lies no longer in their reach but in their ability to get policymakers to react to their articles and to influence what the other media report. The audience is elsewhere.

No doubt about it, newspapers are in trouble. Although several of them are still profitable, the newspapers as a whole make for a sunset industry. Businesswise, newspapers are squeezed between stagnant readership rates on one hand and high newsprint costs and shrinking advertising revenues on the other. Not many bother to read dailies these days, opting to get their news from radio or television. Young people, especially, are tuning out altogether, preferring the more visual and entertaining distractions offered by TV and the interactivity that is inherent in the Internet. They see newspapers as old and tired — as boring, as predictable, and as preachy as their parents are.

CERTAINLY, the figures are far from comforting. In a 2003 Social Weather Station survey, only 11 percent of Filipinos polled said they read newspapers every day, compared to some 60 percent who said they watched television daily. The total circulation of Manila-based broadsheets and tabloids is estimated at about 1.5 million, roughly the same level 20 years ago. While there are many more newspapers and tabloids now than during the Marcos era, the combined number of copies they sell has remained the same, even though the population has since more than doubled. For sure, circulation figures were up in the late 1990s up to early 2001, peaking at the height of the Estrada impeachment crisis. But they have dropped off since then, and wide interest in the recent elections did not cause a spike in circulation.

The decline is part of a global trend. Worldwide, newspaper circulation has remained more or less stagnant since the late 1990s, despite growing populations and the rising prosperity of certain sections of the global economy. While newspaper readership is still growing in China, India, and a few other developing countries, it is expected that growth rates will taper off sooner or later, as newspapers face tough competition from other news media and other platforms for delivering news-such as mobile phones.

In the United States, where the loudest alarms have been raised, 80 percent of adults read newspapers everyday in 1964. Forty years later, that was down to 50 percent, and the rate of decline has not stopped increasing. Most surveys predict that young Americans, most of whom don't read printed newspapers now, are not likely to read them when they're older.

In the Philippines, it is even worse. True, interest in news itself remains high, as seen in the more-than-respectable ratings of primetime TV newscasts. But the rising cost of newspapers, especially of broadsheets, which retail at P15 a copy, makes them prohibitive to a large section of the population. Because radio and TV news is free and delivered faster than newspapers, most people tune in to newscasts rather than buy a paper. Moreover, the decline in the quality of English-language education has reduced the readership base of English-language dailies. Except for some tabloids, which are in Taglish, and five Chinese-language newspapers published in Manila, nearly all the national and local dailies are published in English.

Inquirer president Alexandra Prieto-Romualdez adds that the country's archipelagic character makes newspaper distribution a nightmare. Most Manila-based papers rely on domestic airlines to deliver copies outside Luzon, and although the Inquirer itself has invested in four satellite printing sites outside Manila, copies still have to be transported overland so they could make it to outlying towns, some of which could be several hours away.

Moreover, both tabloids and broadsheets rely on street sales in Metro Manila, so the recent traffic schemes, which minimized the stops at intersections, made it harder to peddle newspapers on Edsa. The crackdown on sidewalk vendors, many of whom sell newspapers, also caused a dent in sales. Although not significant, these have made it even more difficult to keep circulation figures up, says Romualdez.

In a Pulse Asia survey conducted during the last election campaign, only four percent of the respondents said newspapers were their primary source of information on candidates and the campaign. Television topped the list with 71 percent and radio was second with 30 percent. Even more worrisome, only five percent said that newspapers were the most credible source of election-related information, compared to 67 percent who said television was the most credible.

Newspapers, therefore, are facing a crisis of both readership and credibility. And, as their audience migrates in droves, so do their advertisers. The print media's share of the total advertising pie is down to only 10 percent, with television taking the lion's share of 72 percent. The total ad revenues of broadsheets in 2003 was P6.1 billion, an amount that is dwarfed by the P43 billion that advertisers plunked into the top two television networks that year. Advertising accounts for 70 percent of newspaper revenues. The total cost of producing newspapers, however, is about twice that of the cover price at which they are sold.

Given these trends, do newspapers have a future? Or are they a dying business? Are print journalists an endangered species, with their craft soon to be as obscure and as doomed as that of the hand-embroiderers of Taal or the Moriones-mask makers of Marinduque?

Newspapers have a long and hallowed tradition. Photo above shows the staff of the revolutionary paper, La Independencia, set up by Antonio Luna in 1898.

SINCE the 1960s, pundits have been predicting the newspaper's eventual demise. The future of the print media has been hotly debated for years. Hundreds of conferences have been organized about it. Anyone who searches "future of newspapers" in Google, will find over 3,720,000 links. The subject has been endlessly talked and written about.

There are two schools of thought on the newspaper's future. The first predicts there is none and fearlessly pronounces the newspaper's eventual death. The second believes that the unique characteristics of newspapers will enable them to survive in crowded, competitive, and increasingly anarchic media markets.

The pessimist school believes that newspapers of the type that prevailed in the 20th century are dinosaurs, Jurassic creatures that have to adapt if they are to endure in the Darwinian world of 21st-century mass media.

The modes of adaptation can be divided into two, related, categories. The first category has to do with newspapers being radically altered to serve the needs of the new platforms for delivering the news. This means no longer newsprint or paper but computers, mobile phones, or new-generation gadgets for wireless news delivery. These so called third-wave or 3G gadgets will soon be built into everyday items like pens, watches, and powder compacts, from where readers can scroll the headlines. In other words, paperless newspapers or nonpapers. More ominously, a "newspaper" that one can read in the toilet or on the bus, without being wired to a computer or a telephone, and without the bother of messy newsprint.

The other modes of adaptation being suggested have to do with content. For example, Jim Chisolm, the strategy adviser for the World Association of Newspapers, says that the rising popularity of mobile devices will lead to a redefinition of what constitutes news. He predicts that the days of the general-interest, wide-audience appeal of the newspapers will soon be over. Instead, news will be increasingly tailored to the individual needs of readers, who will be provided on their wireless gadgets only the news they want-whether this is about golf in Cebu, the latest mall sale, the NBA games, or the war in Iraq.

In the words of an online journalist, this is like the Daily ME, where readers buy the content of their choice, which is automatically delivered in digital format to the wireless gizmo of their choice. This, by the way, makes editors redundant. The gatekeeping-the sorting of stories and the determination of which ones will be delivered to the reader-will all be done by computer, not by cranky middle-aged men sitting in newsrooms. In this vision, the newspaper becomes, in Chisolm's words, "a lifestyle tool, a package of services." It will also be a very effective platform for advertising.

THE SECOND school of thought, the optimist one, believes in the longevity of newspapers as we know them today and asserts that newspapers have a mission beyond being peddlers of lifestyles and products.

No doubt, this century will be a cruel one for newspapers. But those who believe they have a future do so not because they have reinvented a vision for the print media, but because they see that the core strengths and the core value of newspapers can stand the test of time.

Newspapers, they say, do not need new reasons to justify their existence. The old reasons will do. The role that they have played in their societies for 100, and in some places, nearly 200, years: as purveyors of news and opinion that allow citizens to make informed decisions about whom to vote for, what reforms to demand, and yes, even, what to buy, are still important roles that cannot be displaced by the wonders of 21st-century technology.

The journalism that print journalists know how to do, a journalism that is notable for its thoroughness, insightfulness, and the quality of the research and reporting is the kind of journalism only newspapers — and their stable of experienced reporters — can do. The values embedded in the tradition of newspapers-accuracy, fairness, thoroughness most of all-set them apart from the wannabes.

In 1998, foreseeing the decline of newspapers in a country noted for its newspaper readership, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association published a study on the future of newspapers. It recommended that newspapers put a premium on reliability, as this is what would set them apart in a multimedia age, where the premium is on speed.

For sure, the declining credibility of newspapers is cause for worry. In 1999, only 27 percent of those polled by Pulse Asia said that newspapers were more often credible than not credible. The rest displayed varying degrees of skepticism toward newspapers. The papers themselves are partly to blame: over the years, sensational and shoddy reporting has eroded the public's trust.

To their credit, Filipino publishers have realized this as well. In recent years, there has been marked improvement in the overall look of newspapers, which are better designed and printed now than they were a decade ago. The crowded front pages, which the late journalist Louie Beltran famously described as the "unmade-bed" look, has given way to a neater and more modern design.

Many papers have also acquired new presses, resulting in markedly improved printing quality, so that readers' fingers are no longer smeared and blackened by ink when they flip through the pages. In addition, all the major Manila dailies now have Internet editions that allow them to reach out to overseas readers as well as to those in the country who no longer want to shell out money to buy a newspaper every day. Already, the joint Inquirer-GMA7 web page is among the top sites in the world, read mainly by Filipinos abroad who want to keep track of local news. Technology, therefore, has been a boon to newspapers, although new technologies themselves, such as wireless gadgets, also threaten their long-term viability.

The Inquirer has also tried to expand readership by publishing Libre, a tabloid distributed free on the MRT. It is trying to woo young readers by hosting seminars, debates, and other events for university students in the hope that these will get them interested in reading the news. The Junior Inquirer, a supplement for young readers, is distributed to over 100 schools three Saturdays of the month and carried nationwide with the main paper one Saturday a month. Soliven's Star, meanwhile, has school-based contests designed to boost circulation among students.

More importantly, the Inquirer, the market leader and arguably the most influential newspaper in the country, has taken measures to restore reader's confidence, including printing a daily Corrections section and appointing an in-house Reader's Advocate to sift through and respond to readers' complaints. The paper has also encouraged reader feedback, not just through traditional methods like letters and email, but also text messages. "On the credibility side, we're doing all we can," says Romualdez. "We realized that our core content is news, so we need to do what we can in terms of accuracy and fairness."

Hopefully, these efforts will help mend the tattered credibility of newspapers. But these have to be accompanied by efforts to raise professional and ethical standards and to produce outstanding reportage that can rival the best that the broadcast and new media are capable of. Sadly, most of the journalistic energies of newspapers are focused on producing day-to-day news, which the other media can deliver faster, if not necessarily better. The papers' competitive edge lies in their ability to write groundbreaking reports and to provide more background, depth, and context, all of which are sorely lacking in both broadcast and SMS-based news. At the moment, though, many editors agree that the dailies offer not much by way of value added to the news that's already in broadcast.

At the same time, newspapers have to behave in a consistently ethical and professional fashion. Otherwise, their efforts to raise standards will be canceled out by the perceived arrogance and recalcitrance of some star columnists and writers who refuse to be held accountable.

The other option, of course, is for newspapers to take the out-and-out commercial route: they can go tabloid all the way or take the cue from the glossies, which would mean watering down the hard-news news content and focusing more on entertainment and lifestyle, in the hope of attracting both more readers and advertisers, especially of lifestyle products. Some newspapers, like The Manila Standard, are already doing this: their front pages are a mix of both "hard" and "soft" news. Others have beefed up their lifestyle and entertainment sections and have also created new sections to cater to new consumer and advertising niches, such as those on golf, travel, electronic gadgets, and cars.

IT USED to be, and in many places it still is, that newspapers had great respect for their readers. They saw them not primarily as consumers, but as engaged citizens, caring members of communities, and individuals interested not just in themselves but also in a better world. Newspapers have a history, and this history has for a long time defined how they perceive themselves.

From the beginning, newspapers were seen as crucial to democracy. Since the 18th century, Enlightenment theorists had argued that publicity and openness provide the best protection against tyranny and the excesses of arbitrary rule. In the early 1700s, the French political philosopher Montesquieu, raging against the secret accusations delivered by Palace courtiers to the French king, prescribed publicity as the cure for the abuse of power. English and American thinkers later in that century would agree with Montesquieu, recognizing the importance of the press in making officials aware of the public's discontents and allowing governments to rectify their errors.

Since then, the notion of the press, especially of newspapers, as watchdog has become deeply ingrained. The influence of Enlightenment thinkers — who saw newspapers as the conduit between governors and the governed — persists to this day. Newspapers are the arena for public debate: they are town hall and public forum, making possible informed discussion that leads in turn to more accountable and intelligent governance.

They were also tools for liberation. The struggle for nationhood in the Philippines, as in many other former colonies, is bound to the history of newspapers. In the 1870s, students, like Jose Rizal's older brother Paciano, who were then studying in Manila, disseminated copies of anti-colonial newspapers, on occasion by hiding them beneath piles of hay and transporting them on horse-drawn carts. The tradition of clandestine newspapers is very strong in the Philippines, dating back to this era and continuing to the present.

General Emilio Aguinaldo, the provincial caudillo who wrested control of the Philippine Revolution, was also a strong believer in newspapers. When fleeing the Americans with what remained of his ragtag army, Aguinaldo carried with him a small press, from which was printed the newsletter of the revolution. At one point, he wrote a directive to his troops, instructing them to transport copies of the revolutionary papers on horseback and to make sure the bundles of newspapers were wrapped in banana leaves so they would not get wet. Aguinaldo had faith that as long as Filipinos read the newspapers, they would continue to fight the colonizers and support the revolution.

This faith in the power of the printed word persisted throughout Philippine history — in the anti-American pamphlets of the early 20th century, the guerrilla newspapers published during the Japanese occupation, and the slew of underground publications during martial law.

For Filipinos, and for many others, the quest for freedom and democracy was inextricably linked to the printed word. The power that the post-Marcos media currently enjoys stems partly from the fact that the so-called mosquito press hounded Marcos out of power. In Indonesia, underground newspapers did the same to Soeharto in the late 1990s. In Thailand, newspapers took a stand against the military junta in 1992. Today, newspapers there remain the last bastion of free expression.

Nearly everywhere in postcolonial Asia, newspapers were builders of nation and community. They kept the conversation going among citizens, and between citizens and rulers in our countries. The newspaper was the nation talking to itself.

This is why, for the longest time, the wielders of the printed word have always viewed themselves as the representative of the people and the pursuer of those who deprive them of their rights and privileges. No other medium — not television, not the Internet, or SMS — has this tradition. Newspapers bear the weight of history. Whether they like it or not, they are the bearers of a legacy.

How they can leverage this legacy into their business plans for the 21st century is the first question. The second is: Who will keep the conversation going if newspapers and newsmagazines die?

July-Sept 2004,, Vol. XII, No. 3, Asserting the Right to Know, by Sheila S. Coronel,

Access to information has improved in many Southeast Asian countries but remains problematic in others.

ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2000, more than 20 people—among them, a bus driver, a stockbroker and an insurance agent—stood under the searing sun to address a small crowd of onlookers in downtown Singapore's Hong Lim Park. They took turns to speak on a range of topics: the enormous salaries of government ministers, official efforts to raise the fertility rate, even a new theory of the solar system. It was the first time in decades that citizens have been allowed to speak in public without prior clearance from the state. This was the start of Speaker's Corner, Singapore style, a government effort to liberalize long-standing restraints on free expression in a country that, along with Burma and Vietnam, count among Southeast Asia's most politically repressed states.

In Southeast Asia's democracies, the delineation of public space where citizens can express their views would have merited only passing attention. Not in Singapore. The opening of Speaker's Corner was celebrated in the local media as if it were the dawning of a new era. Yet, despite all the hype, citizens who wish to expound on their views in Singapore's version of London's Hyde Park must first register at a police station. They are also banned from commenting on racial, religious and other matters that may be construed as seditious in a country where opinions deemed harmless in other places are considered a threat to the state.

Speaker's Corner is significant if only because so far, it has been the only political liberalization measure introduced by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the 10 years since he took over the helm from Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's Founding Father. This is an indication of the glacial pace of political reform in Southeast Asia's dictatorships and semi-democracies, where the vise of state-imposed controls throttles the flow of information and the citizens' right to free expression.

In Burma, an even more unyielding leadership holds sway. Since 1988, the ruling junta has put in place what is arguably the most restrictive regime of media controls in the world. In Vietnam, the moves toward political liberalization in the 1980s era of doi moi ran aground in the 1990s. While market reforms were introduced into the media, Communist Party control of the press, although not as tight as in the 1970s, remains a fact of life.

The continuing severity of these constraints goes against global trends: In other countries, the Information Revolution and the advent of the Internet have eased restrictions on the media and let loose an unprecedented flow of information. In the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, information and communications technology—including mobile phones, the Internet and television—have helped bring down unpopular regimes and provided alternative channels of information. In addition, market reforms, the influx of foreign investments and globalization in general have had a liberalizing impact on information access.

Southeast Asia's holdouts, however, are showing that it is possible to buck the tide. There is the Burmese way: The junta has simply closed its doors to the clamor for reform and become an international pariah, earning the distinction of being the only country in the world where to own modems and faxes means securing permits.

There is also the Singaporean solution. Singapore is the most wired country in the world after the United States. Nearly every other Singaporean owns a computer; in Indonesia, only eight in every 1,000 people do. In 2000, two of every three Singaporeans had Internet access; in the Philippines, the ratio was at best one in 100. Unlike Burma, Singapore is a player on the global stage and the darling of international investors. It is the regional trading, media and financial hub. Yet, draconian laws, a paternalistic state and a culture that puts a premium on comfort and conformity keep Singaporeans in the dark about what is going where it matters the most: their own country.

How long, in the Age of Information, is it possible to remain so wired and yet so clueless?

IN A BOOK that will be released later this year, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance try to answer this and other questions by documenting the state of access to information in eight countries in Southeast Asia. The study examines the laws that guarantee or restrict access and describes the media, political and social environment in which information is given out or withheld. The results of a survey on the accessibility of over 40 public records in each of these countries are presented in the book and the countries are ranked according to their openness.

What emerges from this study is that Southeast Asia defies easy generalizations. The region is home to over 530 million people representing a wide range of ethnic, linguistic, religious and political groups. While most Southeast Asians now live in democracies, about a third of them do not enjoy a free press or firm guarantees on civil and political rights. The blessings of democracy and prosperity—both within and among countries—are unevenly distributed.

What can be gleaned from the Southeast Asian experience is that dramatic changes in information access are the outcome of the fall of authoritarian regimes. This is different from the experience elsewhere, like the United Kingdom, where a freedom of information law was passed because of intense lobbying from citizens' groups and strong support from Parliament. In India, state legislation on access to information was the result of grassroots agitation rather than a change in political regimes. The Southeast Asian case is more akin to that of South Africa, where the post-apartheid Constitution included the recognition of the right to information and mandated the enactment of an information law.

In Southeast Asia, the fall of dictatorships was followed by democratic reforms that created an atmosphere that made possible the free flow of information. In Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, the institutionalization of democracy began with the promulgation of new constitutions that guarantee a wide range of freedoms, including the freedom of information and expression. At the same time, the controls on the media were loosened, allowing for a proliferation of independent newspapers and broadcast stations. In the Philippines after Marcos and Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, information ministries were abolished and the pall of fear they cast over the media went away with them.

In these countries, the democracy boom came with a media boom. The explosion of news organizations querying officials, investigating malfeasance and reporting on events with unrestrained vigor had a liberalizing effect on information flows. While bureaucracies may continue to block access, their resistance is whittled down by pressure from the media and a public emboldened by the new freedoms it enjoys and its experience in the mobilization in pro-democracy protests.

In Thailand, the 1997 constitution provided for the establishment of independent mechanisms to increase government transparency and accountability, including an information commission. The commission itself was established after the Official Information Act was passed in 1997, the same year when the baht fell precipitously and set off an unprecedented economic crisis in the rest of the region. The Act sets procedures for allowing citizens access to a wide range of information. It has its shortcomings but it has also revolutionized information access in that country.

The Philippines has no information law, but a constitutional guarantee of the right to information, a post-Marcos law that makes it the duty of officials to provide information to the public and a judiciary that has tended to rule in favor of the citizens' right to know have created a legal atmosphere that makes it easier for both journalists and citizens to assert their right to information.

What is notable in both the Thai and the Philippine cases is that today the main concern of journalists and citizens is no longer removing restrictions on information control but refining procedures for information access. Although large areas of information—anything related to the monarchy in the case of Thailand and sensitive military, economic and national security information in both Thailand and the Philippines—are protected from public scrutiny, the information regimes in these two countries are more liberal than others in the region and are at par with that in many democracies elsewhere in the world.

THE PHILIPPINES and Thailand top the list in our survey on the accessibility to the public of government-held records. We devised this survey by listing 43 key public records containing a range of information: macroeconomic data, socio-economic indicators, laws and parliamentary proceedings, government budgets and contracts, information on public officials and data on private individuals. Researchers were asked to make the rounds of various government offices and ask to have access to these records. We then tallied the results to see what percentage of the records is publicly available in each country.

Are these records available to the public? (Countries ranked according to Yes answers)

Philippines 63%
Thailand 53%
Cambodia 44%
Singapore 43%
Malaysia 32%
Vietnam 18%
Indonesia 18%
Burma 5%

Are these records available to the public? (Countries ranked according to No answers)

Singapore 57%
Burma 56%
Vietnam 49%
Cambodia 49%
Malaysia 43%
Indonesia 36%
Philippines 21%
Thailand 18%

Indonesia, which became a democracy in 1998, lags behind Thailand and the Philippines in terms of information access. That is because the country, torn apart by political upheaval and ethnic strife, remains in disarray. Despite a new Constitution, restrictive laws remain in place. The Suharto-era bureaucracy is largely intact, its tradition of secrecy and uncommunicativeness generally unbroken. Although new people have been named to top posts, rapid changes in government (Indonesia changed presidents three times from 1998 to 2001) have made it difficult to implement bureaucratic reforms that would result in greater information access. An information law, however, has been submitted for deliberation in the Indonesian parliament, and it has the support of NGOs and the newly unfettered press.

THE SITUATION in what are best described as the "semi-democracies" of Southeast Asia is more complex. In Singapore and Malaysia, social compacts cobbled together during three decades of prosperity and relative political stability have created affluent societies where citizens have traded their freedoms for the sake of comfort and social harmony. Both countries host the region's most advanced economies and are more integrated into the global economy than their neighbors.

Until the Asian crisis hit in 1997, the leaders of these countries were trumpeting their achievements—sustained high growth and significant strides in education and health care, among others—and proclaiming the success of a new "Asian" model of development that combines paternalistic authoritarianism with Western-style market economies. In their heyday in the 1990s, Singapore's senior leader Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad argued that the curtailment of press and individual freedoms was a small price to pay for such success.

Especially in Singapore, a culture of conformity and obedience to authority is deeply ingrained. Thanks to 30 years of uninterrupted rule by the People's Action Party, Singaporeans now enjoy the highest per capita income in Southeast Asia, at par with that of Britain, but they also live under a regime of controls that would not be tolerated most anywhere else. Thus, Singaporean journalist Cherian George describes his country as "the air-conditioned nation… a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy and the risk of unsustainability."

Malaysia and Singapore have the trappings of Westminster-style democracy—parliaments, regular elections, etc.—but they have none of the openness, pluralism and rambunctiousness that make Southeast Asian democracies both vibrant and interesting. Onerous laws, some dating back to the British colonial era, impose harsh penalties on the publication or airing of anything that may be construed as inciting to hatred, disaffection or violence against the government. Newspapers and broadcast stations are at the mercy of government, which can withhold the issuance of annual licenses that allow them to operate. In both countries, an Official Secrets Act screens off from public view an entire range of public documents that are routinely available elsewhere.

This scaffolding of laws is buttressed by a structure of media ownership that is monopolized by the ruling party in the case of Singapore or by the different parties that make up the ruling coalition in Malaysia. For decades, this stranglehold was unbroken and is only now being challenged by the Internet, which has offered citizens reports on and perspectives of their country and the world previously unavailable to them. Although there have been attempts in both countries to limit access to certain websites, their leaders realize that they risk being left out of the global knowledge economy and losing their competitive edge if they clamp down on the Internet.

The push factors for openness in these two countries are economic rather than political. Increasing integration into the global economy and the need to compete globally have been the primary forces for the transparency reforms that have taken place there since the late 1990s. But, as Australian scholar Garry Rodan noted, "these reforms are limited to selective changes in fiscal and corporate disclosures and data of an empirical nature that are of immediate market impact."

The release of such information helps make Singapore and Malaysia more attractive to global business. As our survey shows, when it comes to corporate and business data, Malaysia and Singapore are at the same level of openness as the Philippines and Thailand.

Outside the realm of market imperatives, however, the situation is reversed. When it comes to data on public officials, such as financial disclosures of those in government, Singapore and Malaysia end up at the bottom, together with Burma and Vietnam. It is obvious that despite some opening up in the economic sphere, the political sphere remains under tight control.

The prognoses vary. Some, like Singaporean journalist George, argue that the "air-conditioned" nation has a built-in obsolescence. The phenomenal use of the Internet, the diminishing clout of the public sector and the transfer of power and resources to market-driven enterprises are slowly democratizing Singapore, he says, paving the way for a society that is freer, less hierarchical and more subject to transparent rules.

Others are more skeptical. Australian academic Rodan, for example, sees that the trajectory of these reforms does not veer toward opening up the media or political participation. Intended to appease the demands of the international business community, which is primarily interested in enhancing the movement of capital rather than the development of democracy, these reforms will be dead-ended. In his view, business is not a reliable ally in the struggle for more freedoms and more information. Instead, the forces for change lie in the political sphere: opposition political parties, a crusading press and civil society.

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