IT took one Facebook post. Malacañang’s communications machinery virtually ended the debate on whether or not to let bloggers cover official events, when it posted last Feb. 7 a video clip of President Rodrigo Duterte meeting with “staunch supporters and bloggers.”
The message was clear. The Malacañang Press Corps can complain all they want, but they cannot prevent the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) from giving bloggers and “social media influencers” access to official events.
And they shouldn’t. Ultimately, this is a question of access to information and freedom of expression, and journalists ought to be the last persons to ask that these rights be curtailed.
We can’t fight proposals to require the licensing of journalists, on one hand, yet insist that “non-journalists” be denied access to public events or be kept from covering the activities of the President and other public officials. We can’t honestly claim to fight for access to public information, yet recommend denying that same access to others simply because they don’t belong to a media organization that can vouch for them or don’t have editors or gatekeepers to vet their work.
Frankly, this is an old debate. Whether or not allowing bloggers into Malacañang improves the quality of public discourse, we have yet to find out. But in other contexts where non-journalists gained access to public events, no calamity ensued.
Bloggers in the United States have been covering both the Democratic and Republican conventions and campaigns since 2004, when blogging was quaintly called “nanopublishing.” In June 2009, The New York Times confirmed that an assistant secretary in the US State Department had requested Twitter to delay a maintenance shutdown because anti-government protesters in Iran were using it to report about rallies that questioned Iran’s election results. Results of the so-called Arab Spring from late 2010 to 2012 have been uneven, but its events demonstrated how well blogs, social media posts, and SMS can be used to raise awareness—to fill in gaps left by state-controlled media—and to organize responses to political events.
We can’t keep our heads in the sand anymore. Blogging and social media have altered not only the ways in which mainstream media gather and report information, but have also opened the doors for more citizens to gather and report information in their own ways, with their own spin. And, for the most part, that is a good thing.
There will be challenges, of course. Once PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar allows partisan bloggers into the Palace, he will be duty-bound to let in bloggers from the other side of the fence, should they decide to ask for similar access. If the cost of granting access to certain bloggers will be the denial of access to others, whether bloggers or traditional journalists, you can expect howling from the commentariat. Perhaps even a test case that would accuse the PCOO of causing undue injury.
There will be practical challenges, too, such as preparing the space and security arrangements required by a larger group of bloggers and journalists who would keep an eye on presidential activities and announcements.
But for readers and viewers, this can be an opportunity to compare how well a public event or pronouncement gets reported by different individuals given access to the same information. It will help, for starters, if we assume that we all want what’s best for the country—although we may often disagree about how best to get that done, and what stories we ought to be telling.