Press Freedom under Fire: An Interview with Joel Pablo Salud

Feb 23, 2019 | 360, GOV, NEWS, Philippines

Journalists in the Philippines continue to battle for their lives – and their right to defend the nation’s democracy. To say that journalism in the Philippines is “under heavy fire” would be a gross understatement.

It is not just under fire. For decades, Filipino journalists have had to stare down and battle a myriad of daunting, if not downright impossible circumstances, circumstances that directly work against the possibility of having rewarding lives in the profession. Poor salaries and underpaid, over-extended hours are staples of young journalists who, after being judged as wet behind the ears, are relegated to demanding and largely unrewarding beats.

Short of saying that all journalists need to withstand the fires of poverty and endless work pressures, they continue to withstand unique hindrances in the pursuit of their discipline.

And then, you have the reality of threats to their livelihood, and their lives. Journalists who pen stories courageously, knowing that they stand with the people through their stories, and through truth-telling, are almost always at risk of being hunted down and hurt in more ways than one.

The arrest of Rappler’s CEO, Maria Ressa, who was Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, is quite telling of how power can easily malign and prosecute journalists. It was clear that the machinations behind her arrest are heavily moneyed, without a doubt, and politically tainted to the highest degree. Her arrest is a clear message to journalists in the country – speak truth to power, and suffer. But contrary to what the bearers of power and capital expected, Filipino journalists rose up in tandem against current abuses and the present show of power against press freedom. There was never a second that they stood down and bowed. And we think they never will.

Breaking Asia sits down with the Philippines Graphic’s editor in chief, Joel Pablo Salud, to talk about press freedom in the country, and how the current conditions have affected journalism in broad and specific senses.

As a journalist, what is always on your mind when you write something that goes against any form of power, but bears the truth?

Like literature, journalism is a discipline. By that I mean it has a set of rules, ethical standards you don’t break for anything. An effective newsroom is built on editorial policies which have the highest regard for the time-tested traditions of Accuracy, Brevity, Context—what I call journalism’s ABC. After having gathered the necessary evidence and interviews for a story, before I sit down to type in my first words, I put this all in mind: Never to swerve an inch from the quality of work required by the profession.

It’s quite an understatement to say it’s a difficult profession. The job puts you at risk with some of the most powerful people who would not think twice to either charge you with libel or have a bullet pumped through the back of your head. Bravado is out of the question. What a good journalist needs is some honest-to-goodness courage and a level of intelligence to back up the job at hand. Courage to keep you doing what you do best, and intelligence to keep your back safe.

Plucking Tea at Ceylon | Museum of Photography Unknown

Does it ever cross your mind that someone might go after you, physically or otherwise, after writing news that paints people in a truer light?

I just want to set things straight as to the motives behind this profession: Journalists are not hostile people. We are professional managers of information. We don’t wake up in the morning just to draw up plans to destroy someone’s reputation.

Far from it. We chase stories—stories which we believe serve the purpose of informing the public as to the goings on in society—where evidence, documents and eyewitness accounts lead us. This means that oftentimes the job itself puts us in jeopardy against those whose shenanigans paint them in a very bad light.

Been a writer for 37 years, more than half of which I have spent as editor and journalist of national publications. Every single day, when I leave the house, I look over my shoulder. I check who’s parked outside the gate. I have trained my own family to respond well to crank calls, threats. My training forces me to watch ever so closely what is going on around me. Never did a day pass that I did not think of someone going after me for what I have written. The possibility hangs over my head like Damocles’ sword every single day.

If it were up to you, what would you have done differently in the way the Maguindanao Massacre case was handled?

That morning of November 23 was special to me and my wife Che. It was the day she received a national award from the National Book Development Board for her novel. We were in high spirits. When we reached the newsroom hours later, our editor received the call from a colleague in Maguindanao. We could not believe our ears. The massacre of more than 30 journalists staged by the Ampatuan clan was the most brutal ever recorded in the history of Philippine electoral politics.

You know, we can all rant and rage over the philosophical, logical and legal ways to address the crime. But with the way justice is handled and wielded in this country, even back then we knew this would take longer than necessary. The figures alone suggest impossibility: More than 200 suspected murderers backed up by a wealthy and powerful clan who ruled under the shadow and behest of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. How does one even begin to calculate the possibility of prosecution?

If it were up to me? Believe me, you wouldn’t want to know.

Maria Ressa’s case has created ripples in the international community and the PH government has found it necessary to spend resources to reassure the said community that press freedom is alive and well in the country. What’s your message to the people behind the press freedom caravan?

If truth be told, I have an unwavering belief in “What goes around, comes around”. This much is certain: They will one day reap the whirlwind.

There are a lot of stories of journalists who eventually exhaust themselves either in the process or because of how they are treated in general by media companies. Was there ever a time in your career as a journalist that you felt like putting the pen down permanently?

As numerous as the stars in the sky! My reasons, though, were different. Neither the process nor the petty office politics were to blame. I’m too much of a bullheaded prick to be stopped by such hurdles. The decades have trained me to cope with such problems. They’re nothing that a little whiskey can’t handle.

What trigger weakness in me are some of my “colleagues”. Not in particular those I personally work with, no. They’re good people, and even better journalists than I could ever dream of being.

It’s those “journalists” who give the profession a bad name—the corrupt, unscrupulous poor excuses for human beings who use the profession to satisfy their greed. They’re not as many as the good ones, but oftentimes they’re the most cacophonous of the bunch. I despise these people because I know how good journalists live their lives. Despite poor excuses for wages, despite the threats they face each day, regardless of living conditions which resemble those of rats, these good journalists soldier on. You don’t see them whining, or making excuses for corruption.

They perform their duties and that’s that. And you know what these duties are? Outside of chasing the story? It’s after the chase, when they are now forced to bring tales of corruption and images of blood, mayhem and death into their homes, the faces of the murdered and the children who were raped, while in the act of embracing their own children and kissing their spouses; while reading fairy tales to their kids and making love to the husband or wife. While sharing with the family a hefty supper. How do you even account for the untold number of images and stories—all made of blood and gore–one journalist of a little over 20 years of experience in the field and the newsroom carries in his memory?

Journalism is not for the faint of heart.

Plucking Tea at Ceylon | Museum of Photography Unknown

One of the brightest moments of PH journalism is when the Marcos dictatorship was toppled – because, despite the fact that writers and artists were being summarily jailed and even killed by the dictatorship, journalists continued working for the people. Can you tell us about a time in your career when you felt that the work of journalists helped create concrete change and action?

Let me correct this notion. While I’m a firm believer in journalism as a factor for societal change, the same change doesn’t begin and end with journalism. Journalism is but one cog in a slew of cogs supporting the wheel. Numerous aspects play a role in reforms. Marcos’ ouster, of course, is one part of our history where journalism played a crucial role, but the profession cannot lay sole claim to the victory.

Part and parcel of reforms include the role of literature, reform movements, teaching of the humanities, the implementation of laws, lobbying for a better justice system, an informed electorate, grassroots organization, etc. All this lend a hand toward needed reforms.

I would like to believe—and honestly I do believe—that journalism and literature lay the groundwork for reforms. They play the role of an intellectual centerpiece, the brainstems of reformation. No grassroots movement, no prowess in organization can take off without an ideological, and if not ideological then, at least, an intellectual cornerstone on which a successful reformation can stand. All begins with an idea. The Big Idea. Everything that forms from out of this idea is, of course, just history unfolding.

What was your most memorable assignment as a journalist? Why?

My interviews with Presidents. I have been privileged to interview, exclusively, each single one which followed the incumbency of Ferdinand Marcos—from Corazon Aquino to Rodrigo Duterte.

Why? Because whatever little I know now about the machinations of government and politics, I learned from these interviews. Suffice it that I never really liked any one of them.

If you could interview any personage, alive or otherwise, who would that be and what questions would you ask this person?

Two people come immediately to mind: Our National hero Jose Rizal and Comandante Che Guevara. You might as well throw in Hugh Hefner of Playboy. Unfortunately, though, I was born too late.

For Jose Rizal, I have this two questions: What did Pio Valenzuela actually tell you when he visited you in Dapitan? And if given the chance to vote for a national hero, would you vote for yourself?

For Che Guevara: What would you have done for Cuba, nay, for the world, if you have lived instead of Fidel Castro?

Hugh Hefner: What’s it like to be you?

Campus journalism is alive and well, but for the most part, students across the nation are being trained to be competitive, to win the contests, but not exactly to position themselves as bearers of truth and democracy. What are your thoughts about the current state of campus journalism in the PH?

I have spent the past seven years—I think this is my eighth—as a lecturer and juror in many of these campus press conferences. If memory serves, 2016 saw me conducting more than 40 lectures all over the country.

It would be unfair to assume that all of these students have journalism as their choice for a profession. People have to understand that many of the students who venture into campus journalism come from different backgrounds and academic courses. Not all wish to be journalists after they graduate. There’s no crime in that.

This is why I believe it’s unjust and unfair to say that students across the country are being trained only for the mere purpose of being competitive. They compete, yes, but only because the said press conferences themselves are engineered as such. In fact, it would be safe to say that very few consider journalism as their future. There’s really no harm or wrong in that. In 99% of my lectures, I kick off with a line or two asking them why they want to be journalists. I begin most of my lectures by dissuading them.

My reasons? First, I don’t want any of them thinking that journalism is their ticket to the red carpet. Believe it or not, quite a number believe that journalism is their road to stardom.

Be that as it may, the state of campus journalism is as well and good as can be expected from children with little or no experience outside the four walls of their school. Campus newsrooms all over the country are made up of some of the finest journalists ever to put word on paper (which is more than what I could say for some seasoned ones).

However, as for command of language, they still need a lot of polish. What they really lack is experience, and a thorough knowledge of the issues at hand.

Another is reading. Many of these campus newshounds don’t read. Which is why a good command of language—journalism’s basic requirement—leaves much to be desired.

What worries me more is the stifling of the freedom of the campus press. Schools who don’t think twice imposing restrictions to campus presses should be held legally accountable for their breach of the Constitution. Enough said.

Plucking Tea at Ceylon | Museum of Photography Unknown

How strongly do you believe that journalism in the PH can help balance and control power?  What changes do you want to hopefully see in the future?

Power and freedom share one thing in common: Insistence on their will and their purposes. They will clash, always and forever at odds with each other. There is no reconciling political power with human freedom to determine its course. The former insists on control, restraint; the latter free will and self-determination.

Journalism, however much it sides with freedom, does not see itself as a way to balance or bridle political or economic power. Its job, and its job alone, is as simple as informing the public on what is happening. It opens people’s eyes not only to the little details but the larger perspective.

If in doing so, crimes and tomfooleries are exposed, then it’s not journalism’s fault but the criminal’s. They shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place.

What I want to hopefully see in the future? That government and society treat their journalists with some measure of respect. The good ones, at least. Hell, we’re doing the job no one else wants, and for a salary no higher than an order of dim sum. Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but you know what I am getting at.

Moving beyond the Philippine situation, what are your thoughts about China’s direction with regard to its own journalists?

I have no problem with China as a nation of people. But China referring to the State, all I can say is: One way or the other, you will have to deal with the anger of your people.

What is your parting message to people and groups who want to silence writers and journalists?

They can try. But I suggest they first pop a pain reliever. Migraine can be a bitch.


Joel Pablo Salud began his career as writer for The Manila Standard and the Manila Times. Today, he is the author of three books—one collection of short fiction and two collections of political nonfiction. A fourth book is scheduled to be released this April 2019 by the Ateneo de Naga University Press. He is the recipient of two fellowships—the U.P. National Writers Workshop and the Jaime V. Ongpin Excellence in Journalism. He has sat as juror for many of the country’s prestigious journalism and literary award-giving bodies. He is also a member of the Philippine Center of International PEN and the Akademyang Filipino. He saddles his pen as editor-in-chief of the Philippines Graphic, the longest running political and literary magazine in the country.