News media in democratic countries generally act as a watchdog keeping governments accountable, unless their commercial interests are so aligned with those of the Government that it is not in their best interests to question government policy - such as the invasion of Iraq which went largely unquestioned by media in the USA.
In some one-party states, limited press freedom often goes hand in hand with elections, to give the government an outward veneer of legitimacy. In countries in Asia where Government Corruption is rife, it is important that the news media operate independently to act as a 'fourth estate' which can expose government corruption, inefficiency and waste. The Philippines, which is struggling with corruption at every level of society, is no exception.
In the past, Filipino journalists have been murdered for exposing the truth about the government, so it was pleasing to see journalists Nancy Carvajal, Howie Severino and Marites Vittug receiving an award on Sunday in recognition of their work to expose a government corruption scandal known locally as the 'pork barrel' scam. The Philippine Inquirer first exposed the PDAF or Pork Barrel Scam in 2013. Initially the investigation involved the Fertilizer Fund but further evidence was uncovered that the government had been defrauded of 10 billion pesos and a further 900 million pesos through a linked scam which siphoned off royalties from the Malampaya gas field to fake projects. Money was diverted to numerous accounts operated by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, who worked with her second cousin Benhur K. Luy to forge the signatures of government officials in order to access the funds.
Stuck in a rut
In a country where the lack of infrastructure is desperately holding up the country's development, there are only four ways to get things moving and hold the government to account. One is by having a real alternative party that can be critical of current ministers and unseat the government at elections, the second is by having an honest judiciary to provide justice for the people when ministers or officials are brought to court, the third is by having a bill of rights enshrined in the constitution and the fourth is by having a free news media which can expose criminality in both government and wider society.
One example of the inability of the government to make anything happen is with the airport in Manila, where I'm told, it took 5 years to open a new terminal, although it had already been built. To travel from the airport in Manila to the centre of Makati - a distance of under 5 miles - can take around two hours due to the density of the traffic. An attempt is being made to build a new skyway linking the centre to the airport but on a Monday morning there was no construction work in evidence as I passed by the site in a slow-moving taxi. Furthermore, there is no rail link available from the centre of the city to the airport - a fact which I find hard to believe in the 21st century.
The difference between the wealthiest and the poorest is all too evident. Colonised in the 1600s by the Spanish and then sold to the Americans at the turn of the 20th century, the Philippines suffered under the Japanese invasion in World War II. The country which is made up of thousands of islands also lies in the rim of fire, and suffers from frequent earthquakes and typhoons. The national character of the people is one of stoicism in the face of these disasters. But on the up side, the Philippines has many natural resources including nickel, iron and copper and receives huge international investment. However, due to government corruption, inertia and mismanagement this has had little effect on the many poor people living on around a miserable 13 pesos ($0.28) a day. We saw many slum areas, and children begging or living in the street as we travelled around Manila, while in Makati, the glitzy shops, restaurants and hotels were notable for the many security guards with guns.
No rule of law
There is another problem with the police operating as rival militias. They do not see it as their job to respond to everyday crime but instead operate on the basis of the bribes paid to them. Any government wishing to establish the rule of law would need to deal with this problem urgently and dismantle the current system of bribes. The likelihood of kidnapping or assassination of ministers is high. Two Chinese diplomats were murdered in the last week with nobody charged. Over 1000 AK47s were mysteriously 'stolen' from a police station recently - and this is not the first time such a 'crime' has happened.
Intellectuals bemoan their fate and shrug their shoulders. Writers self-censor, claiming that if they write the wrong thing they will end up dead in a ditch. Their national hero Jose Rizal, himself a novelist, was executed by firing squad on trumped up charges upheld by a military court. His martyrdom inflamed a national uprising which saw off the Spanish in 1896. Many people today hark back to Rizal for inspiration. But a new national hero is needed to help the Philippines move to the next stage of its development and join in the bright future on offer to other ASEAN countries through intra-Asian trade and exchanges.
Without the courage of journalists to expose fraud and corruption and the honesty of police and lawmakers, people in countries like the Philippines will continue to suffer from exploitation and neglect. Other Asian nations, such as Australia can do much to help the Philippines move on.