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The travesty of Philippine journalism awards

I RECEIVED an email last week from Rotary Club of Manila (RCM) President Jaime “Jimmie” Policarpio and the RCM Journalism Awards committee chairman Issam Eldebs informing me that I have been chosen “Male Opinion Writer” for this year. About 22 other print and media journalists will be given awards for various categories in ceremonies at the New World Hotel tomorrow.

I have declined to receive the award. I cannot be a party to a travesty of Philippine journalism awards. Rather than encouraging excellence, these so-called journalism awards here have been turned into a subtle tool of PR men and corporations wanting to curry favor with journalists and editors.

For starters, these Rotary people seem to be stuck in the 1950s. In journalism and many other fields, there can be no distinction between “male” and “female.” In fact, before many of them fell under the spell of the Yellow Cult, the best investigative reporters in the country were women.

But then the separate awards for male and female for opinion writing (as well as reporting, TV broadcasting, radio broadcasting, even regional broadcasting) reveals the real intent of the RCM journalism awards. The “male-female” categories automatically double the number of journalists who would, one way or another, feel they owe the RCM officials, several of whom not coincidentally are PR men needing journalists’ goodwill. In pursuit of this goal, all broadsheets in the country have been awarded “Newspaper of the Year,” with The Manila Times to be given that “recognition” only this year.

There are two huge flaws of journalism awards in the Philippines that reveal their real intent, which is hardly to elevate the standards of journalism.

Male Opinion Writer
First, as in the RCM awards, these aren’t based on particular pieces of journalism. The Rotary Club doesn’t even explain why this journalist or that paper is being awarded. I am the “Male Opinion Writer” basta, while the “Female Opinion” writer is Philippine Star Associate Editor Marichu Villanueva, who received the same award last year. No explanation what columns or series of columns we’ve written that they found to be excellent pieces of column writing.

This is in contrast to most journalism awards elsewhere. For instance, the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for particular journalistic pieces. The Pulitzer investigative journalism award this year, for example, was given to the Washington Post for uncovering a senatorial candidate’s alleged sexual harassment of teenage girls four decades ago.

A second major flaw here is that people who aren’t journalists are the judges for determining journalism awards. That’s like non-scientists determining what scientists made scientific breakthroughs in their fields.

This is in contrast to journalism awards in the US where veteran and distinguished journalists, editors and media academics are the judges for these awards. For instance, for the Pulitzer Prize, a five-man group of journalists (called the “jury” for each category) go through the nominations, and come up with a list of three pieces of journalism they think should be the awardee. These are then submitted to a larger 15- to 17-man “Pulitzer Prize Board” (changed every two years) that determines the winner for each category. This board consists mainly of journalists, editors, and journalism academics who would know—because they practice the profession—what is or is not good journalism.

In the case of the RCM awards, it is the club president, currently Policarpio, and the awards committee chairman Eldebs, who come up with a list of nominees. These are then presented in one meeting of the RCM members who, one official explained, “vote on the winners.”

PR man and a Syrian
C’mon now, unless a Rotary member stands up and vehemently protests why this particular media man is being nominated, Policarpio and Eldebs really determine who the awardees are. I bet Policarpio in some bar one night makes up his list, thinking, “Now what reporter and paper have we not awarded yet?”

And who is Jimmie Policarpio? He is a PR man whose biggest client had been former President Joseph Estrada. He is known to be one of the country’s best “crisis PR men,” a distinct class of PR men, many of whom I suspect would have a stable of reporters and editors under their payroll.

If Policarpio approaches an RCM awardee to have the press release of his client published prominently, do you think that journalist would refuse him? One critic of US journalism awards described this phenomenon perfectly: “Abandon everything you’ve ever been told about cynical journalists. If you want to melt the frozen heart of a reporter, just whisper in his ear that he’s a finalist in some journalism prize contest.”

Jose “Babe” Romualdez, an even bigger PR man, had also been a longtime officer of the Rotary Club and previously handled the RCM’s journalism awards. Babe had reportedly been one of the top PR advisers of Indonesian Anthoni Salim’s business executive, Manuel Pangilinan. Babe only left his Rotary role last year when he was appointed Philippine Ambassador to the US. A columnist of the Philippine Star, he was, of course, awarded the RCM”s “Male Opinion Writer for 2017” before he left.

And who is Eldebs? Mohamed Issam Eldebs, a longtime Philippine resident, is a Syrian, the Honorary Consul General of the Syrian Arab Republic who, given the fact Damascus doesn’t have an embassy here, is the sole representative of that Middle Eastern country.

Chemical attack in Syria
That made me wonder why, after writing respectable columns for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Manila Times for eight years now, the Rotary Club would give me this award at this time?

Did Eldebs demand from Policarpio—whom I haven’t helped at all in his PR projects—to give me the “Male Opinion Writer” award since I was the only columnist who wrote that the US claim of a chemical attack on a Syrian town by the Syrian government was probably staged by Western forces, in collaboration with the Syrian opposition?

Whatever, how can a PR man and a Syrian judge determine what are excellent pieces of Philippine journalism and what are trash? Even the veteran journalist-judges of the Pulitzer Prize couldn’t detect that the one-peg Reuters articles awarded the international reporting prize was entirely based on a spurious, anonymous “paper” on the Philippines’ war on illegal drugs, written by an over-the-hump, long-retired intelligence officer who had zero experience in the illicit-drug industry

Worse is when the judges for journalism awards are representatives of corporations the journalists are supposed to cover, which is the case with the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines awards. Not only that. Big businesses have even been paying for the trophies, the cash prizes, and dinner expenses for the award-giving ceremony. The EJAP even unabashedly calls its awards the EJAP-Globe Telecom Business Journalism Awards! I was told, though, that PLDT has also been one of the financiers of the EJAP awards.

In such a case, do you think business journalists would have an interest in writing pieces critical of the telecom duopoly of Globe Telecoms, where the Ayalas are the biggest investors next to Singtel, and PLDT, controlled by an Indonesian tycoon? No wonder our business journalists have been so mediocre and so pro-big business, and of course, so uncritical of our telecom services.

Catholic awards
Reflecting the continuing hold of the Catholic Church over our peoples’ minds—the biggest trick of our Spanish colonizers to have easily subjugated us—we are the only country to have a “Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA).”

How in heavens can a Church, a religion, have the expertise, and the right, to determine what is good journalism or not? Who are the judges for the CMMA? Could there be an Islamic or Iglesia ni Cristo media awards?

Has the CMMA in effect discouraged Philippine journalists from investigating priests’ sexual abuse of boys, as had been exposed in the US where there is no such Catholic awards? Does the CMMA explain why there has been a dearth in reportage for the need for population-control programs, which the Church detests?

Only journalists can judge what is good journalism or not. If we do not have distinguished and respected journalists in this country willing to do the judging, then no group can give out journalism awards. The RCM and the Catholic Church should just do other projects—I suggest monthly soup kitchens for the poor in Manila.

To disabuse you, Dear Reader, that I could be just sour-graping, I have been the recipient of the most prestigious awards for Philippine journalists that I don’t need the RCM and EJAP awards or another CMMA award.

These are: Best News Reporter, 1983, by the Catholic Mass Media Awards; Ten Outstanding Young Men for Print Journalism, 1992, by the Philippine Jaycees; Best Economic Journalist for Asia, 1991, by the Mitsubishi Corp. Foundation; Fellow, Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, 1988-1989.

To be consistent with my thesis, though, I cannot discount that I was given these awards for reasons other than journalism excellence. I was really proud when I received the CMMA award in 1983 that this was due to the investigative pieces I wrote when I was central bank reporter in the early 1980s, one of which exposed the central bank’s manipulation of the level of our international reserves. But then the CMMA award given to me could have been a tactic of the anti-Marcos Church to draw public attention to my articles that dented the Marcos regime’s image of stability. It was Jaime Cardinal Sin who presided over the awards at the time, with the judge for the awards Agence France-Presse bureau chief Teddy Benigno, who would become Cory’s press secretary.


Email: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
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