The mass media mirage

By Dean dela Paz

In this part of the world, among Asian and Confucian cultures, autocracies, monarchial regimes and dynasties, Buddhist, Hindu, and even Muslim religions, many consider the Philippines an oasis of freedom and a beacon of western culture and Christian values.

Our concept of freedom is distinctly western hawing to the American ideal and statutorily enshrined in our constitution while our Christianity stems from four centuries under Spain.

It is an antediluvian perspective. However dated and anachronistic, many still like to think of it as true. After all, in a galaxy long ago and far away, it was a source of national pride. The imaginary plaque over our heads proudly proclaimed we were the only English-speaking nation in the region. The banner said we were predominantly Catholic. And the golden trophy declared us democratic.

Whether there is actual substance of these, given political dynasties ruling the republic, failed democratic institutions and the waning influence of the Catholic Church in an increasingly secular society, our reputation as a north star for those metaphorically adrift is debatable.

Shorn of prepared speeches and debate notes, without the assistance of teleprompters and cue cards, see how leaders we expect to be more articulate are suddenly ineloquent, their prose and verbiage reduced to a nonsensical staccato of serially stuttered syllables and half-words. The poor quality of basic education and literacy plus our high 90.9 learning poverty index may have something to do with it. Note how we perpetuate failed education officials or refocus priorities towards military reserve officer training. As for specific leaders, perhaps it is their forked tongue.

On the issue of faith and its influence on behavior, if indeed we are Catholic, there is little evidence in the venom and vicious vitriol in social media in the half-year we campaigned for a kinder, more compassionate, and more decent government.

As for being a beacon of democracy, if that is what the recent exercise of suffrage has brought us, then, unfortunately, the debate remains unsettled, our reputation and honor, unearned, if not unrecognized.

Viewed externally, Filipino democracy remains a laughingstock and the need to constantly counter and revalidate will be a continuing task for over half a decade. And perhaps even beyond.

Indulge us as we focus this wide-angle perspective. Allow us to cherry-pick from the political garbage bin.

Recently, a business writer opined how Western democracies view what was feared as our imminent return to our darkest periods. Straddling divergent multiverses, as a columnist he was committed to basing his hypothesis on the truth and available evidence. As a banker, he was trained to quantify. As an Atenean, his fellowmen should have come first.

Unfortunately, his aggregated background had somehow turned inexplicably insoluble and murky, even inconsistent. He claimed that foreigners care little whether we stood as an atoll amid a vast ocean of autocracies. He claimed we were insignificant.

His perspective is Ferengi. And we disagree.

For decent men everywhere, there is profound concern. Those qualities we were once proud of may now be disembodied mirages, both illusional and delusional.

One area where this is deepest is on the nagging question of press freedom. The dichotomy and disconnect are starker where the world applauded how we braved overwhelming odds, and the threat of imminent massacres as we once bravely stood against fascism and ignited a worldwide phenomenon against other similarly despotic regimes.

In contrast, global citizens now see how we treat Nobel laureates who stand against the systematic assault on civil liberties and the freedom of expression. They see how critical media are constantly threatened, muzzled, and physically padlocked. Beyond media manipulation, they fear deliberate distortions in educational syllabi, in latent literature rewritten to institutionalize lies, even in propaganda, cinema and social media peppered and poisoned with falsehoods.

They recall our history where, tragically, we don’t. Those pockets of truth not yet distorted by kitschy movie magic, irresponsible artistic license, outright fakery, and brazen historical revisionism.

Never mind that our democracy is patterned after that deemed as the model of the free world, with our constitution closely verbatim in its declaration of basic rights and the provisions on freedom of assembly, of expression and free speech. Reality differs.

Is our oasis, this reputed bastion of free speech, nothing but a mirage? We are asking those very same questions others ask.

(Dean dela Paz is a former investment banker and a managing director of a New Jersey-based power company operating in the Philippines. He is the chairman of the board of a renewable energy company and is a retired Business Policy, Finance and Mathematics professor)