On liberalizing mass media

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

The closure of CNN Philippines hit the industry hard. But unlike the shutdown of ABS-CBN, which was due to the refusal of Congress to renew its franchise, the demise of this media stalwart was down to economics.

The local franchise of this global media brand just could not crack the market. Its editorial content and presentation failed to secure an audience share that could sustain its operations.

Understandably, everyone lamented the loss of jobs. And even sadder still is the possibility that most of these newly unemployed may not be able to secure employment any time soon. The media industry is dominated by a few players only. Finding work in this field will be very challenging.

Not surprisingly, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, Irene Khan, identified this “media ownership monopoly” as an existential problem that must be urgently addressed.

Pertinently, one industry veteran sees the exit of CNN as a further shrinking of the “news space”. This is truly alarming because the dissemination of information and insight is crucial for a democracy to thrive. Hence, Filipinos are disadvantaged significantly by having only a few options in this sector.

The lack of competition in mass media also translates to a lack of variety, especially in legacy media. Most news outlets even employ a common formula. Sensationalism in news content and delivery. Reporting that is jampacked with showbiz and sports stories. A lot of feel-good features and public service-oriented shows are in the mix as well.

Sadly, these days shows in the mold of Viewpoint, Straight from the Shoulder, Concert at the Park, and Ating Alamin are few and far between. Though this could also be just a generational thing.

With a few notable exceptions, mainstream media has essentially succumbed to the social media mentality. Adopting a programming approach that is suited for the viewer who has a short attention span and who prefers to be entertained first and foremost.

Truly, there is a dire need for what a popular news anchor described as “legitimate journalism”. And some industry members are calling for a “more sustainable and ethical business model” as a way of protecting not just media professionals, but also the high standards of the profession. Pertinently, this reform path will require action from both industry leaders and the government.

The reality is mass media in the country is big business. And the dark side of this reality is highlighted by the absence of an honest-to-goodness state broadcasting entity. Obviously, the latter cannot be a mere government mouthpiece. Nor can it be a propaganda machine for the powers-that-be.

State-operated media is taxpayer funded after all, and so, they should serve the public interest. Is this still possible for us? This remains to be seen.

Another option is to increase market competition in the industry. One way of achieving this is to open mass media to foreign players. This will entail the amendment of the protectionist policy contained in Article XVI, Section 11 (1) of the 1987 Constitution.

One key lesson that CNN Philippines proved is that foreign domination of mass media is not a given. Filipino editors and producers will still be at the helm. Filipino anchors and reporters will still deliver the news to the public. The local flavor, so to speak, will not automatically disappear if foreign entities are allowed to compete in the mass media market.

On the other hand, the increase in market competition can lead to positive outcomes for Filipinos. Obviously, for viewers, more options to choose from. More employment and business opportunities for industry stakeholders. Indeed, the media landscape can be even more vibrant and productive.

Regions outside of Metro Manila, in particular, can benefit from the influx of foreign investors. A creative hub like Western Visayas can certainly entice boutique media companies from overseas. Cultural meccas such as the Bangsamoro and Cordillera regions can be an attractive investment destination as well.

Notably, economic liberalization does not mean the absence of government regulation. The intervention of the state in open sectors is still necessary to ensure trade practices are fair and just and consumer rights are protected. Needless to say, regulatory measures in the media industry must be updated to be fit-for-purpose.

Liberalizing mass media is just one way of revitalizing this industry. One can even argue that with the internet, doing this is actually a no-brainer. The Philippines is an attractive market for global media brands. Capitalizing on this fact should not be demonized.

The closure of CNN Philippines reminds us that all options must be considered when it comes to ensuring the vibrancy and productivity of mass media in the country. And the most vital reform option is abolishing its monopolistic ethos.

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