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Seares: Arguments on Maria Ressa case tend to mislead media consumers

HOW many of us can see through the claim or argument of public officials and their publicists and defenders?

Malacañang, through Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo, says the arrest of Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of the news website Rappler, “ has nothing to do with freedom of expression... She commits a crime and the court finds probable cause, which is why she is being charged.”

Are you the media consumer, or even the journalist, who can see whether it is valid or flawed, factual and logical or concocted fact and warped reasoning? Or wrapped in plausible data or reasoning but hides some crap underneath?

The latter case, the disguised b.s., is harder to spot, especially if it has some sprinkling of truth on top.

Coating of truth

Panelo, a veteran lawyer, didn’t tell an outright falsehood to support his claim that the case didn’t involve free speech or press. The coating has some dashes of truth: Maria Ressa is accused of criminal libel and the charge is filed in court. But it’s not the court that found probable cause, the prosecutors did, the court still has to try the case. Presumption of innocence still benefits the accused.

And omitted from Panelo’s comment were these: the alleged crime was committed five years before the case was filed; the crime had prescribed; and the theory of continuing crime, scrounged from the bottom of the legal barrel, is a highly disputable theory. Will the media consumer consider that in deciding whether the Maria Ressa case is a free press issue? That requires a fair amount of knowledge of what’s going on and the issue on the table. And the time to pause and think a little if what is being said is not wrong.

Media illiteracy

It’s called media literacy, which is sadly lacking among many media readers or listeners. The problem is abetted by some netizens’ impulse, made easy by technology, to click “like” and pass on dubious material, or the closed mind of newspaper or broadcast consumers hooked to the idea that critics of government like Maria Ressa must be locked up.

It’s no surprise that even some media practitioners fall into the trap of obscured or distorted facts or faulty reasoning. Not because they don’t know how propagandists and their product work. But they have their own biases, nurtured by sense of survival or advancement, or by training and experience, they genuinely believe Maria Ressa is wrong.

Misleading arguments

As some kind of exercise, a media consumer or journalist may discuss with friends the arguments against Maria Ressa’s case that have been tossed around since her arrest last Wednesday (Feb. 13). Here are a few:

[1] “Libel is a remedy available to the aggrieved media consumer. Why should Maria Ressa and Rappler be spared from accountability?”

The indicted journalists don’t complain about the use of the remedy. It’s the “weaponizing of the law,” as Maria Ressa puts it, that makes the whole thing objectionable. Most journalists submit to lawsuits. But they do complain when the law is used to harass or persecute. Sometimes the oppressive acts are apparent. At times they are disguised and need to be exposed.

[2] “There are still critics attacking the administration, freedom of expression in the country is a robust one.” “You in the community press, are you being persecuted?”

Because not everyone is targeted--only a few are, and community journalists are generally left alone--does not mean the campaign against dissent is not happening. Threats and actions against targeted media are pretty much on record.

[3] “Maria Ressa and Rappler are vicious in hitting the administration but are now whining when it strikes back.”

That sounds like an admission the government is doing it in revenge. But ignoring that, one can still say it depends on the methods used by each side. Libel suits are accepted by most journalists as risk in their work. They become offensive to the precept of a free press if the law, with the collusion of law enforcers and prosecutors, is employed to gag media and punish critical journalists. The press makes mistakes or sometimes, referring to specific offending news outfits, exceeds bounds of law or ethics. But there are remedies, both internally within media or through legal redress. Rappler and its supporters here and abroad think the legal remedy is being abused.

[4] “Media, especially print, have larger problems. Even digital Rappler has had financial woes and is not yet out of the woods. They should be concerned about the bigger context.”

Survival and growth must be crucial to a news outfit since it is, first though not foremost, a business. But, unlike other businesses, a media outlet “must stand up to its rights or lose its soul.” And having a soul is part of the business brand.

Critics of Rappler suspect that the news organization is playing and hyping up its “victim status” precisely to help its fight for survival as an economic enterprise. But that’s another flawed argument, resting mostly on suspicion.

Propaganda wins

In the welter of arguments that have circulated, media consumers–-and journalists-–need to examine them. Can an attack or defense stand scrutiny? Alas, many of us mouth the lines or “share” them with others without thinking.

Wittingly or not, we allow the propagandists to rule.


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