In a local paper, a columnist was suspended for more than a month by its owners who, the columnist said, were requested by a politician-relative who was then caught in an election campaign turmoil.

In a local radio station, a commentator quit after he was ordered to “cease and desist” in his “one-sided attacks” against a public official.

In a Manila-based paper, the contract of a columnist was not renewed when her columns ran “on politically partisan grooves.”

In those cases, the inside story was not publicized and was only whispered about in coffee shops and bars. In all cases, the will of management prevailed.

Legally, journalists would’ve no ground to keep their job if they’d lose the confidence of owners or managers. Most contracts have a fixed term or carry the condition that the journalist must obey editorial and company policies.

Even fixed-termers may be kicked out, especially in positions that require confidence of owners or managers.

Press freedom

What happens to freedom of the press, which Cebu Press Freedom Week celebrates each year?

Press freedom may seem illusory when it comes to a journalist defending that freedom against his owner or manager. Journalists fight for press freedom, some say, only when the threat comes from outside media, mostly the government. Not from owners and managers, surely not from big advertisers.

Other cynics say fighters for press freedom are helpless when ranged against those who buy the ink or pay for the microphone.

To be sure, no journalist can say he’s beyond control of his editors. Editing is a crucial facet of journalism, which even the licentiousness of the Internet can’t remove without disastrous results.

How about columnists and radio commentators? They’re also bound by editorial and company policies. Even the so-called fearless opinion makers must submit to the rule of the editor and manager or find an outlet elsewhere. If there are people who manage to run circles around their chiefs, it’s the block-timers who often ignore station rules along with libel law and good taste.

Owners or managers generally stay off editorial content once it is shaped by design or format. But occasionally they meddle when they believe it would hurt their interest—business, family, or political.

That’s a situation owners and managers don’t want their news outlet to be dragged into: publicity that depicts them as villains and enemies of press freedom.

But here’s a tickler: Even before he starts writing, the journalist is supposed to know the kind of news organization he has joined, its track record, and its policies on conflicts with politicians and advertisers.

When relationship sours though, he has the choice of leaving or staying, and keeping quiet or ranting about his complaint.

Security of tenure

There’s no security of tenure for journalists, whatever else lawyers say. Even if protected by contract or law on tort, neither the owner/manager or journalist can go on with an employment marked with distrust or enmity.

They must part ways and the issue is no longer press freedom but of relationship. Performance and trust have a lot to do with the worker’s tenure.

When an editor drags the paper down by incompetence or sloth, or a broadcast talent’s rating plunges, he must go. If a columnist spews out opinion that editors or managers think hurt the news outlet’s interest, they can stop the column.

And the reality, sad and unfair it must be, is that owners and managers define what boosts their interest and what does not. And plea for press freedom won’t overwhelm the argument that it isn’t a question of denial of the right to speak or publish but a matter of who decides content of a newspaper or broadcast.

Managers and owners through their editors determine style and content and choose the people who produce the edition or program.

Sacking a journalist may be condemned by an audience that is outraged. An audience can withdraw patronage, which in turn will hurt ratings and advertising.

Owners and managers take some risks in dropping a columnist or commentator: public censure, drop in circulation or audience share, or complaint for damages.

Much as they don’t want it, clashes between owner/manager and journalist erupt occasionally, mostly in private but in a few instances in public, when the media person mounts a media platform for his grievance. The victim has to speak out, as in any plea for redress. Or he’ll get only subdued sympathy from the public and from colleagues.

But it becomes untenable for a columnist to continue writing material offensive to owners and managers just as it is unwise for management to allow him to do so.

Diminished

Freedom of the press then dies with the death of a column or the expulsion of a journalist?

In a way, it does. Theoretically, freedom is diminished but it doesn’t eliminate dissent or shut down a media forum.

In the hectic competition on multiple platforms of the local press, view or information cannot be suppressed.

It’s not like putting out the fire or silencing the orchestra: darkness or silence won’t descend. Light and voices from other media will compensate.

The columnist who is fired or quits can write elsewhere and thrive if he has a faithful audience and his cause is truly worthy. Readers who share his views may express them in the same paper. If they feel their paper is suppressing dissent, consumers may change papers or drop print newspaper-reading altogether.

Message

What then is the point of marching and carrying a placard on Press Freedom Week when the message can’t be addressed to owners and managers?

But the message is. It is read and somehow heeded by owners and managers. They know how it is to be shut down by military rule or economic hardship. They know that repressing its own journalists is fraught with danger to the freedom they also advocate. Unauthentic as it may look to critics, owners and managers also take up press freedom’s call because they know it’s what the community wants, good for company morale—and it’s healthy for business.

Besides, Press Freedom Week celebrates not just press freedom but also other concerns of media like improvement of the craft, professional values, economic well-being, and unity among an otherwise fractious group of journalists.

[These are personal views of the writer and don’t reflect the opinion of any of the media organizations to which he belongs.]