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Unveiling the Democratic Media Role in the Philippines: A Critical Evaluation of 'Watchdog' Media and Public Sphere Debates

15 May 2023,12:23 PM

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Introduction

The media’s function in democratic value promotion has been widely acknowledged globally. Democratic societies depend on independent and free media to deliver information reliably, facilitate public debate, and hold public officials to account (Trappel and Tomaz, 2021). In the Philippines, the media influences public views, shapes political outcomes, and encourages democratic values (Tapsell, 2019). Nevertheless, political involvement, regulatory challenges, and ownership concentration have marred the Philippine media landscape. Governments in numerous countries maintain significant oversight of both televised and printed media, thereby limiting the opportunity for divergent perspectives to be expressed and debates by the public.

Against the background, this essay critically assesses the democratic media function in the Philippines by examining the debates around the public sphere and watchdog media. The study draws on the liberal theory and other frameworks to explore the media’s role in promoting democratic ideals and the Philippine media's challenges.

The Philippines: A Brief Overview

The Philippines is a democratic nation with about 110 million people. The country has a diverse economy and has the production, agriculture, and services industries as its main sectors. The government practices a presidential governance system with a bicameral legislature and a judiciary, which works autonomously. Nevertheless, the regime has an authoritarian history, attributed to the twenty-one-year reign of Ferdinand Marcos – the former President who proclaimed martial law and deferred the constitution.

The Media’s Function in Democracy Promotion

The media’s development objective in promoting democratic changes should be to move the media away from government or private control and towards greater openness with a certain level of editorial independence that meets the public's needs. Suppose the media is to be effective in democracy; in that case, the ultimate media support goal should be to create different reliable voices and mediums that are believed to be trustworthy and to build and improve a sector that encourages such sources of information (Ali, 2015). When outlets are credible, individuals can obtain the data they need to make knowledgeable choices and engage in society. A media sector favourable to democracy would have a certain independence, be able to maintain financial stability, have a range of diverse opinions, and be in the public interest. Debates on the media context have often focused on classifications of different democracy variations.

Accordingly, different theories of democracy offer many models and ways of classifying them, but the liberal and the republican are the generally accepted primary groupings in the media context (Baker, 2007). Despite variations and critiques, these two models are widely used in media and communication studies (Dahlberg & Siapera, 2007). In the liberal tradition, democracy is considered a minimalistic concept, with citizens only selecting representatives via voting. Due to its representation focus, this model is usually labelled elitist (Baker, 2006). Thus, liberal democracy is often conceptualised as a procedure to enable the expression of individual preferences.

Conversely, the Republican approach to democracy is highly focused on direct involvement. It emphasises that citizens are actively involved in the decision-making process for public affairs. This version of democracy comes in various forms, with the deliberative model being the most relevant (Trappel et al., 2011). This model seeks to promote dialogue and reasoned debate. It is necessary for those involved to gain access to the same information and resources to have the capacity to deliberate and vote, if necessary, to function correctly. Scholars in media and communications agree that, depending on the model, newscast media can have a function to play in democracy (Trappel et al., 2011).

The liberal model of democracy is predicated on the media being the watchdogs of elected representatives, exposing and publicising their wrongdoings (Baker, 2006). Essentially, the press in elitist liberal democracies must alert the public to any issues that may have a substantial impact and provide a platform for public discourse (Tomaz and Trappel, 2022). In addition, the media should spur people to become involved in decision-making and support groups needing a platform to communicate their message.

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Control/Watchdog Role

The Control / Watchdog structural feature pertains to the particular nation and its media model and concentrates on control measures that assume a watchdog function regarding the media (Fenton et al.., 2020). The level of holding those in power to account by the press for their actions fluctuates based on how much media firms are an integral component of the power hierarchies and the autonomy and freedom level of journalists. However, Fenton et al.., (2020) argue that this incapability to keep those in government in check should not be regarded as an unanticipated media "failure" to conduct its democratic function when, in truth, this has served as the media's typical function under capitalism: to normalise and corroborate current and unfair social relationships.

The media is usually considered the "fourth estate" of democracy (Curran, 2000), alongside the executive, legislative, and judiciary government branches. The media's democratic function is holding power to account, providing public scrutiny, and fostering a vibrant public sphere. Based on liberal theory, the media should be a watchdog for monitoring state activity and exposing official authority abuses (Repucci and Slipowitz, 2021). This watchdog role is considered to override all other media functions. It is only possible to guarantee complete autonomy from the administration by anchoring the media to the liberal market (Curran, 2000).

The media plays a crucial role in democratic value promotion in the Philippines. The country's dynamic and vibrant media sector is characterised by a vibrant blogosphere, diverse ownership structures, and a thriving social media scene (Winkelmann, 2012). The Philippine media is considered one of the freest in Asia, with a lengthy background of exposing government corruption, criticising government policies, and championing human freedoms. As a result, the media has played a crucial function in various landmark political events. One includes the 1986 People Power Revolution, in which President Marcos’s authoritarian regime was toppled, and the 2001 EDSA 2 revolution, which culminated in President Estrada’s ouster (Curran, 2000).

The Philippines’ media outlets have played a crucial watchdog role in the Marcos regime's aftermath. An example of a media watchdog in the country is the Philippine Investigative Journalism Centre (PCIJ), established in 1989 (Ilagan and Soriano, 2019). The PCIJ is a non-profit organisation that conducts in-depth corruption and abuse of power investigations. The organisation's investigations have culminated in the Supreme Court justice's impeachment, the cabinet secretary's resignation, and the filing of criminal suits against several high-ranking government administrators. Another watchdog media in the Philippines is Rappler, an online news body founded in 2012 and has been critical of the current administration and has inquired about various controversial issues, such as the government's war on drugs and the alleged government official’s involvement in illegal activities (Ilagan and Soriano, 2019). Nevertheless, the news outlet has faced several legal challenges, comprising foreign ownership violations and tax evasion charges.

Whereas watchdog media plays a crucial role in holding those in power to account, it is not without its critics. Some posit that watchdog media is sensationalist, biased, and driven by a profit desire rather than committing to truth and public service.

Watchdog Media and the Philippines Public Sphere

Habermas claimed that the public sphere was a space where people could communicate and exchange information and perspectives concerning matters of general concern (Garnham, 2007). This space was intended to be accessible to all society members. It was characterised by an open and accessible discussion of topics linked to the public good. The same space was considered to have developed in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was grounded on press freedom, free expression, and the freedom to contribute to political discourse and decision-making principles and ideals.

The media, democracy, and the public sphere link have been an ongoing debate topic within the academic community for the past four decades. Jürgen Habermas brought forth the most influential conceptions concerning the public sphere and the rationale for its existence. The German philosopher initially presented his start in 1962 in the Public Sphere Structural Transformation and further developed this model over the following four decades (Habermas et al., 1974). Habermas has mainly focused on the media's role in forming the public sphere. Commonly, the media has been portrayed as having progressed from a fourth estate that safeguards the public's interest to media that capitalises on news and is more interested in people as consumers rather than citizens.

Much research on the media and its relationship to the public sphere in recent years suggests that the concept has been diminishing, and the media has been a significant factor. Habermas (1974) theorised this, which Kellner Douglas (2014) further summarises: Habermas claims that the public sphere has evolved from the liberal public sphere, which began in the American Revolutions, Enlightenment, and the French to the media-driven modern-day mass democracy and the capitalist public sphere. This progression is rooted in the analysis of the culture sector by Horkheimer and Adorno, as large corporations have overtaken the public sphere and transformed it from a rational discourse place to a manipulation and passivity place. Instead of a sensible, collective opinion established via discourse, debate, and contemplation, a view is now created through media experts and surveys. Consensus and debate have been replaced by controlled discussion driven by the strategies of advertising and political consulting firms.

The functions of the media have changed drastically over the last decade, shifting from providing an arena for rational discourse and debate within the public sphere to controlling and restricting public discussion to the themes promoted and approved by media corporations. This rapid transformation, which has had an especially significant impact on resource-poor nations, has made it challenging to assess the influence on public policy and its direct effect on people's lives. Whereas there has been a controversy of public debate, the public sphere has also significantly expanded. In numerous countries globally, the most dominant trend over the last two decades is the shift to private (and, to a minimal extent, community) media ownership and control from governmental control. This change has profoundly impacted citizens in countries like China, the former Soviet Union, Asia sections, and some democracies like India. The citizens are now exposed to information their administrations want them to be exposed to.

A country like the Philippines has experienced a similar trend where the watchdog media concept has been central to debates on media and democracy. The media's watchdog function is often linked with exposing government corruption, transparency and accountability promotion in governance, and holding public officials accountable. However, whereas the Philippine media has a lengthy historical background of playing a watchdog role, which has been particularly evident in the corruption scandals and political crises coverage, a range of factors have challenged the media's watchdog function in the Philippines has been challenged, including political interference, regulatory challenges, and ownership concentration. The Philippine media is attributable to a high ownership concentration level, with a handful of conglomerates controlling most media channels. This concentration has been credited with restricting media diversity, decreasing the watchdog media role, and self-censorship promotion (Curran, 2000). In addition, critics posit that media ownership concentration has allowed powerful elites to control media content, sway public opinion, and influence political outcomes.

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The Media Ownership Concentration

The concentration of media ownership, related to the increasing influence of advertising, is seen in a global, national, and regional context. Robert McChesney (1999), as cited in Trappel and Tomaz (2021), has extensively documented the concentration of media ownership on a global scale and claimed that the rapid growth of corporate media has significantly damaged public life. As in any nation, media ownership concentration has dramatically influenced public views, media content, and political results. Media ownership is tremendously concentrated in the country, with a tiny number of wealthy conglomerates and families controlling much of the media setting. The ownership concentration has enabled powerful elites to influence media content, manipulate public opinion, and change political outcomes differently. For instance, media owners might use their news outlets' control to promote their own interests while suppressing dissenting voices. They might also use their media platforms to support their political candidates or parties that align with their interests or to undermine those that do not. Additionally, media owners may use their influence over advertising incomes to influence media coverage and reporting.

It has been established that media personalities and moguls possess the essential 'social and media capitals' to place them in a position of power, which was the case in the 2004 Philippine elections (Tapsell, 2019). For instance, the Philippines, which is often said to have the most liberal media system in Asia, saw one Presidential candidate, two Vice-Presidential contenders, and at least ten Senate candidates with ties to the media or entertainment industry during the 2004 elections.

Large business entities that own water companies, telecommunications firms, and power distributors, all regulated by the government, expose the Philippine press to government and corporate influence. Once known as the most liberal media in Asia, the media owners sought protection when faced with the authoritarian rule of President Duterte, often referred to as 'the Trump of the East (Tapsell, 2019). During his campaign and from his election, Duterte used social sites to his benefit, 'weaponising' Facebook by using paid trolls to amplify his approval scores. Duterte was voted in 2016 grounded on his promise to eliminate the nation of drugs and crime, but soon after assuming office, he started to target mainstream media.

This concentration of media ownership has been a long-standing matter in the Philippines. Over the years, various measures have been taken to promote media diversity and fight media monopolies. Nevertheless, progress has been slow, and media ownership remains highly concentrated in a few powerful elites’ hands. As a result, concerns have been raised that the Philippines media might not be as independent and free as it should be and might not always serve the public’s best interests.

Political Interference

Political interference has been a characteristic challenge to the Philippines’ media independence. The government has applied a different tactic, comprising harassment, intimidation, and violence, to silence dissenting media voices (Bjola and Papadakis, 2020). Journalists have experienced attacks, coercion, and even killings, which have rendered a distressing impact on media autonomy and freedom. The government has also used legal and regulatory measures to limit media freedom. This has included passing the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which opponents have criticised for being overly broad and vague, and the Anti-Terrorism Act, considered a press freedom and free speech threat.

In a recent study, Balod and Hameleers (2020) investigated how Filipino journalists perceive their roles in the rising prevalence of mis- and disinformation. It was found that journalists view their roles as disseminators and watchdogs as particularly important. Furthermore, they perceive themselves as truth-seekers and optimistic societal change advocates. However, they also identified obstructions to their effectiveness in these roles, which exist on multiple levels. Finally, the researchers concluded that the current media landscape presents both an opportunity and challenge for journalists to better their activities and the organisation. Another study by Tandoc (2017) also documented that social media proliferation and the rise of digital platforms have made the rapid and widespread fake news and disinformation easier, usually quicker than traditional media outlets can verify and fact-check information. A consequence of this phenomenon is that numerous individuals are exposed to misleading or fake news, which could undermine public trust in institutions and media and have severe democracy social cohesion and implications (Høiby, 2020, Estella, 2021). Additionally, the fake news and disinformation spread could also establish an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, as individuals might not know what information to trust or sensemaking during conflicting reports.

Conclusion

This essay has critically assessed the democratic media function in the Philippines by examining the debates around the public sphere and watchdog media. It has drawn on the liberal theory and other frameworks to explore the media’s role in promoting democratic ideals and the Philippine media's challenges. To sum up, this study recognises the media’s integral role in democratic value promotion has been widely acknowledged globally. In the Philippines, the media’s role is an essential political and social landscape aspect. Media plays a critical role in providing the public with an informed opinion of the country’s political affairs while also providing a channel for public discourse. The ‘watchdog’ media has highlighted corruption and injustice while allowing people to voice their views on important topics. This media type is essential to fostering a democratic Philippine society.

Nevertheless, it is also essential to consider the public sphere discussions linked with the media and the potential inferences for both media businesses and their content consumers. The nation has much to do regarding addressing the fake news and the disinformation challenge. This necessitates a multi-faceted methodology that includes media organisations, policymakers, journalists, technology corporations, and the public in general. Citizens and media organisations must strive for a responsible and balanced media consumption approach to guarantee the media’s democratic role in the Philippines.

 

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