In journalism, there are certain stories that journalists write that can be described no other way but for what they are: blowjob pieces.
The report last week by the venerable Newsbreak magazine, which bills itself as the most credible newsmagazine in the Philippines, belongs to this category.
The story, by contributor Beth Frondoso, is about the “Morong 5,” the five members of the famous “Morong 43” in the Philippines, the health workers who were arrested and detained illegally by the police and military who were recently ordered released by no less than the president because their rights were violated.
As far as I’m concerned, the issue of the “Morong 43” stopped being about national security or the raging communist insurgency in the Philippines the moment the authorities threw due process out the window and resorted to what they do best – violating human rights and civil liberties.
It doesn’t matter whether the 43 were communists –- in the Philippines, where poverty and injustice is widespread, who isn’t? What matters is that the Philippine military, which is supposed to uphold the law, went above the law in its mindless zeal to eliminate the communist insurgency, human rights be damned.
Shamed by its own commander in chief, the Philippine military went on a propaganda offensive, and used the press – among them Newsbreak — for the job. The magazine prides itself on being independent. But independence doesn’t mean you have to take everything the other side says without a grain of salt.
I’m sure Newsbreak’s editors would say they are just doing their job. If that were true, it should have ran stories about the Morong 43 after their arrest in February 2010, how their arrest was made, how the military planted evidence, the allegations of torture.
But a search of its website reveals that the magazine only ran two other stories on the Morong 43 – one is a commentary, another one is on the announcement by the president of the release. None of the in-depth, independent, investigative, cutting-edge stuff that Newsbreak likes to proclaim that it does best.
If Newsbreak did its job, it would have cast light on the Morong 43 controversy, and it probably would have thought twice about running Frondoso’s piece.
One thing that struck me about Frondoso’s story and accompanying video is that practically all of the Morong 5 asserted that the reason they turned against the others was because they were not allowed by the comrades to visit friends and families while they were in the movement. Frondoso, in a breathtaking lapse, apparently did not see how inane these assertions were and so failed to challenge them. (If all it takes for a communist rebel to surrender was his disappointment at having been refused a visit to his family, then surely the 40-something-year-old Communist insurgency would have died a long time ago).
This brings me to what is sorely lacking in Frondoso’s piece: no mention at all about the reported abduction and harassment by the military of the Morong 5’s families, no mention of Paulino Valentino’s mother who have been giving interviews about how her son was being intimidated; no mention that these five were separated from the rest of the 43 and so could not possibly know that the others were being tortured; no mention about the real possibility that the only reason these 5 cooperated was out of fear and not because of the silly assertions Frondoso makes, one of them is that one of the 5 is in love – with a soldier.
No mention also about the previous efforts by the military to always intimidate, harass and co-opt the families of arrested rebels. Frondoso need not look elsewhere – just Google. (I can hear the holler from Newsbreak’s editors – “We don’t Google! We investigate!”)
Journalists often say that they are only as good as their sources. Newsbreak is no exception.
One way to put in context Frondoso’s kiss-ass piece is to always keep in mind that the magazine and its editors have apparently deep sources in the military. Sometimes these sources can be quite helpful in illuminating issues – like its editor Glenda Gloria’s masterful and award-winning piece on the disappearance of the activist Jonas Burgos – but often, too much reliance on these particular set of sources skews a media outfit’s coverage. In the case of Newsbreak, not much on such social issues as human rights but much, much more on the rumblings from within the military establishment. They, as a result, perpetuate the dangerous notion that human rights is a peripheral issue and that the military is a much more important beat to cover.
To be sure, this bias can be said as well of other publications, particularly those so-called alternative journalism outfits, but at least it’s clear that they have an advocacy – whether you agree or not doesn’t matter — and that they don’t pretend to be independent and objective. Newsbreak, on the other hand, has these pretentions, which makes it more insidious than the military propagandists behind Frondoso’s excellent piece of PR but lousy piece of journalism.