By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
A complaint before the Supreme Court questions the policy Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon adopted five months ago, which limits the number of journalists who cover the Bureau of Customs.
The petition, which asks for a temporary restraining order (TRO), wants BOC not to restrict the number of news reporters and photographers (more than 100!) who want access to the bureau. Their reason: it would curtail press freedom.
The SC still has to issue a TRO. Apparently, the tribunal doesn’t see clear and imminent danger to press freedom and thinks it can sit on the case for awhile.
First, the practical basis for the policy: there are so many journalists that BOC would soon need an auditorium to do a press briefing. Journalists from mainstream media and social media; from dailies and weeklies and monthly journals; from news reporters to photographers and TV camera crew: the press work force keeps growing.
The rise in number of media personnel wanting to cover BOC is deemed phenomenal as Biazon must have noted (1) the growth isn’t happening in other news beats; (2) only few Customs stories make it to the newspapers or broadcast news; and (3) many people with BOC press badges use them to make money.
On the “astonishing” size of its press corps, BOC, with the help of legitimate media organizations, can pick the genuine from the fake, the essential from the non-essential. And it would be well within its rights to trim the number to fit BOC’s capacity to meet journalists’ coverage requirements.
Government offices all over the world do it: they limit the press workforce. In some cases, they use a pool from which those denied entry may get the news.
The problem is when a government office uses the under-sizing to bar anyone whose coverage has offended it. But that will be a separate basis for a complaint, not an argument against screening journalists.
Money-making may consist of getting payola from officials or acting as fixers of persons transacting business with Customs. Under-sizing press personnel, someone quipped, would decrease weekly or monthly media “payroll” and would “re-channel” fixers’ income to in-house fixers.
The payola charge is denied publicly by officials and journalists although some privately confirm it. As to the “fixing” some journalists may do on the side, why can’t officials stop the practice and treat them as fixers, not journalists?
One must wonder if President Aquino’s war against corruption has also extended to government offices notorious for buying the press for publicizing good news and suppressing bad news.
Is that what Biazon is now doing: putting an end to an ancient custom at Customs?
Reducing the BOC press corps won’t fetter press freedom as long as news coverage continues and access to information is unimpeded. It’s only the number of people covering BOC that is reduced.
A journalist whose news organization is shut out may argue, however, that his right to materials for his business, i.e. the news, is denied.
That’s an entirely different reason, not a case of press freedom. And it may be addressed the same way that complaints from merchants are treated.
A claim of press freedom is tainted when right to information is used for selfish interest, such as, at best, pressure for BOC action on personal requests or, at worst, blackmail or extortion.
The “cleanup” at BOC in Manila may also be done at BOC in Cebu. People have heard of regular payola to people some of whom are not even listed in any newsroom and whose news stories are not read or heard.