The central notion in a democracy is the separation of powers among the three branches of government – legislative, executive, and the judiciary. The press is to act as the fourth branch or estate. The role of the press then is to serve as a watchdog on government.
But the question is who watches the watchdog?
While the other three branches of government have defined roles and rules to follow under our Constitution, the press has no defined roles at all. In fact, our Constitution is silent on the role of the press or press freedom. The nearest we can come to is the constitutional provision of freedom of speech and expression found in Article 10. On the other hand, there are plenty of laws, more than three dozen of them, that seek to do the opposite.
Thus in Malaysia, the press as watchdog is rendered toothless. But this is not to suggest that the press in Malaysia should adopt a fatalistic attitude that it cannot or should not play the role of watchdog.
Under the Marcos regime, the press in the Philippines was just as toothless as ours if not more. But this did not stop some newspapers and editors from speaking out even though they had to pay a high price.
I know of one who had to pay this price, my old friend, Tony Ma Nivea. He was incarcerated by the old regime under draconian security laws like our defunct Internal Security Act. But he survived the Marcos regime only to succumb to cancer some years the evil regime was over thrown. It was the sacrifice of the people like him that the Philippine press can play the role of watchdog today.
In Indonesia too, the press became free and vibrant following the overthrow of Soeharto. In fact, new press laws have been put in place to safeguard the institution of the press in the republic.
Indeed we do not have to wait for a change of government before we can begin to play the role of watchdog on good governance.
But we cannot watch others when the mess in our own backyard needs cleaning up. We cannot pint an accusing finger at corruption when three other fingers points back at the fraternity.
When I returned to mainstream journalism several years ago at an English newspaper, I was shocked when one of our reporters came back from an assignment with a big ‘ang pow.’ I instructed her to report this to the chief editor and to return the money to the company. The response from the boss himself shocked me further. There was no further action needed and the reporter could keep the money.
Another editor told me that bigger amounts were given at overseas assignment. He himself was given RM3, 000 cash by a director in Hong Kong. When he came back, he returned the money to the director through his secretary only to find out later she had pocketed the money without telling her boss.
We cannot hope to be watchdog against the corrupt in the other three branches of government until we ourselves are clean. Until we do that we are part of the problem, not the solution.
I want to end by saying that within the fraternity there are still those who remain incorruptible, not many but enough for me to be optimistic that there’s still hope.