In his radio program, Sisoy Salas shouts “Gesing, Gesing” every morning to tell listeners to think about issues affecting his community, La Paz, a fictional city in the HBO Asia mini-series “On the Job.”
In the end, it’s Salas who has an awakening after his close friend, Arnel Pangan, the publisher and owner of the hard-hitting local newspaper La Paz News, goes missing with seven others, including his son, on their way to a dinner.
Salas investigates Pangan’s disappearance and gets help from a prisoner, Roman Rubio, who admits to his involvement in the abduction and murder of Pangan and his companions on the night of Mayor Pedring Eusebio’s party.
The execution of Pangan and his companions brought back memories of the real-life gruesome killing of 58 people, including 33 media workers, who were mowed down inside their vehicles and buried in open pits in Maguindanao in 2009. Known as the Maguindanao massacre, it is the single deadliest event for journalists in recent history.
The mini-series depicted the most despicable and contemptible crime. In the sixth and final episode of the series, Sisoy confronts the mayor about the killings. In response, Pedring questions Sisoy’s dedication as a journalist, calling him “¼ a journalist, ¼ an extortionist, ¼ an entertainment and ¼ a singer.”
The mini-series discussed what was long considered a taboo subject in journalism. It was never discussed openly among journalists’ circles until in 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte started accusing the Philippine press of being corrupt.
There is corruption in the Philippine media. It reflects the social problem in Philippine society. Corruption is not limited to people in government, business and other sectors. It exists among those in the media.
Politicians are used to bribing reporters to report and write glowing accounts of their accomplishments and attack their opponents.
Duterte is not exempted from this practice of bribing reporters, a reason why he has been accusing the media of corruption. He is equally guilty of encouraging corruption in the media, particularly in the provinces.
Duterte’s accusations have been picked up by supporters, who label reporters critical of the administration as “bayaran” in an effort to discredit reputable journalists from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and other major legacy media, like the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Rappler, and broadcast networks ABS-CBN, GMA and TV5.
Rappler’s Chay Hofilena wrote a book, “News for Sale,” to illustrate how widespread media corruption is in the Philippines, especially during the elections.
In the past, cash changed hands inside the men’s comfort rooms or in fancy restaurants after a press event. The digital age has made it easy for media bribery. Money is delivered through ATM machines and faster and more personally through GCash during the pandemic.
Corruption in the Philippine media could be blamed for why so many radio and community reporters outside the capital have been killed since 1986 when democratic institutions were restored after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a nearly bloodless popular uprising.
According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), nearly 200 newspaper and radio reporters and other media workers have been killed since the time of Cory Aquino.
More than a dozen have died under the Duterte administration. About 200 journalists have also been harassed, intimidated, threatened, attacked online, and jailed. Media organizations have also been harassed by strings of corporate and tax cases.
The country’s largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, was shut down after a congressional committee, acting on what could be the president’s orders, denied the broadcast network a legislative franchise.
It takes two to tango.There will be no corruption if journalists will not allow themselves to be bribed either in cash or in kind, like expensive clothes, watches, jewelry, and other gifts.
But most journalists outside Manila are poorly paid and working conditions are harsh. Call center agents are paid better than local journalists, who have no security of tenure and no social security and health benefits.
Thus, many of these journalists have been forced to look for political and business benefactors to survive, allowing themselves to serve as attack dogs and defenders of local politicians and business interests.
Even journalists in the capital are in the same boat. Although they receive bigger pay, there are often no formal employer-employee relationships and they are at the mercy of media managers.
Cash-strapped journalists in the provinces are not the only ones vulnerable to corruption. Even prominent and well-paid reporters and news anchors have succumbed to bribe money and other concessions and political influence.
There is a need to institute reforms in the media industry. Strict compliance with the journalists’ code of ethics should be imposed. But before media companies could ask journalists to adhere to their own codes of ethics, they must examine how they treat their employees.
Unless major structural reforms are made in the local media, there will be corruption in the industry. There is no guarantee media corruption will be stopped but it could be minimized.
It could, perhaps, stop media killings in the provinces and change public perception about journalists.
In the HBO Asia mini-series, Sisoy pays a heavy price for all his efforts to uncover the truth about his friend’s disappearance. The mayor orders a “hit,” employing two prisoners, who are routinely released from detention to kill people. They closely work with jail and police officials.
But Sisoy escapes the assassination try when one of two prisoners sent to kill him turns out to be his informant, who wants out of the killing business.
Sisoy finds courage to expose wrongdoings, risking his own and his family’s lives in going against his benefactor. He has an awakening and finds courage to be a real journalist.
The mini-series shows how politicians corrupt journalists but does not offer suggestions on how corruption can be stopped. There are, however, bright spots as a TV reporter turns down the money offered by the mayor’s staff.
Some of Sisoy’s fellow journalists, like Weng who is called a communist by the mayor, are incorruptible.
In real life, as long as there are journalists who say no to bribery, there is hope in the Philippine media. Corruption can be defeated.