Corruption-Proofing the MDGs: Public Journalism Initiatives in Philippine Communities

Paper presented at the  plenary session of the 17th  Asian Media and Information Centre (AMIC) Annual Conference, “Changing Media, Changing Societies: Media and the Millennium Development Goals” held at the Manila Hotel July 14-17, 2008.
 

by: Red Batario

Spread across 7,000 islands with a population of more than 80 million, the Philippines faces enormous geographic and social infrastructure obstacles in substantially improving people’s lives.  Poverty, especially in the rural areas, is very much pronounced despite government attempts to improve access to basic services.  In many instances these attempts have been exceedingly slow in getting to the more remote regions to address the needs of vulnerable groups like indigenous peoples whose struggle for accessing land rights remains a challenge.

 More than 40 percent of Filipinos live on less than $2 a day and around 17 million are malnourished.1   Corruption is also a huge problem that undermines development.  In 2000, the World Bank estimated that the Philippines had lost $48 billion (P1.968 trillion) to corruption from 1977 to 1997, a nasty phenomenon that continues to erode social and economic development in the Philippines.2

 Considering all those, it has been predicted that the country will face immense challenges in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.  Those obstacles and constraints in achieving internationally-agreed upon development indicators also have serious consequences on accessing rights.3  

 The MDGs resonate with the normative framework of human rights and both share many commonalities.  As pointed out in the Human Rights and Millennium Development Goal Handbook produced by the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre, “they share guiding principles such as participation, empowerment, national ownership; they serve as tools for reporting processes that can hold governments accountable; and, most fundamentally, they share the ultimate objective of promoting human well-being and honouring the inherent dignity of all people. Human rights and MDGs are also two interdependent and mutually reinforcing frameworks.  The MDGs can help galvanize efforts toward the achievement of certain human rights – particularly the often-neglected social and economic rights.  For their part, human rights can benefit work in support of the MDGs in a number of ways.”

 Yet, unless citizens are aware of their rights and of the human rights mechanisms at their disposal, it is more than likely that they will not seek to claim and use them.

 Addressing issues like poverty means not simply transferring economic resources to those who need it, say development experts, but also opening opportunities for the poor to access information to enable them to participate more meaningfully in public life.  People who are not aware of procedures and laws governing their entitlements surely cannot assert their rights to claim these. 

 “The usefulness of information for redressing social inequity and correcting long-standing grievances has been demonstrated, even if only on a small scale, in countries where grassroots organizations have been able to demand an accounting of public funds and check on the ineptness and corruption of those who rule them. Information has in fact been crucial to anti-corruption campaigns.  No one contests that informed citizens and a watchdog press are an effective check against the excesses of those wield power.  Governments cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill-informed about the actions of officials and institutions,” says Sheila Coronel in The Right to Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia.

 It is precisely from this premise that the Center for Community Journalism Development (CCJD) expanded the notion of human rights from the confines of civil and political rights to wider spheres of development like economic and cultural rights by linking these with the MDGs through a news media-focused initiative.

 Using the right to information, right to participate in political processes, and the right to expression and assembly as a guiding framework for media and citizens to become engaged in MDG processes, enabled the CCJD to develop the project “Media-Community Action on Mainstreaming Rights-based Approaches to Development at the Local Level” in partnership with UNDP.

 Also referred to as “process rights,” information, participation, association and expression thus became the lynchpin of the CCJD initiative as it worked with community media and journalists, government agencies, local governments, NGOs and people’s organizations in developing strategies and mechanisms for transparent, accountable and participatory governance.

 Taking off from those rights and using the principles of public journalism as a capacity development tool and strategy, the CCJD brought the concept to local communities to help citizens and journalists understand the impact of the news on their lives; how journalism can provide opportunities for debates to take place on priority issues; how it can contribute in developing rights-based strategies to ensure meaningful participation in governance. Public journalism principles by themselves are rights-based as they engage, involve and ensure that citizens’ voices are heard in issues that impact on their daily lives.4

 Says the UNDP handbook on HR and MDGs, “Since human rights are legally binding obligations, translating a Goal into a right empowers people to demand accountability of the State.  It is at the national level that these rights hold the greatest weight; for where the provisions of international and regional conventions have been incorporated into domestic laws and constitutions, citizens can resort to domestic mechanisms including courts to coerce state compliance when this is not available or forthcoming…while Public Interest Litigation over rights violations in the context of the MDGs is decidedly more novel, the legally binding nature of human rights provides room for innovation in MDG accountability.”  

 Addressing Corruption through Public Audits

Such innovations are illustrated by two public audit initiatives brought about by the collaborative effort of the news media and citizens in Palawan and Iloilo through the CCJD project.  These are examples of informal, citizen-based, media-facilitated mechanisms for ensuring state accountability and transparency.

 In 2004 a community newspaper called Bandillo ng Palawan worked with the Palawan Network of NGOs (PNNI), Palawan Community Media Council (PCMC), and several other news organizations in organizing a workshop, ‘Back to Basics: The Role of the Community Media in Promoting Better Governance through a Rights-Based Development Agenda.” The activity aimed to orient journalists and multi-sector groups on the rights-based approach and to encourage local officials to adopt it in crafting their political agenda. 5

 It was a follow-up to the Candidates’ Forum shortly before the May 2004 elections organized by the same group and as a prelude to the public audit exercise called Ulat ng Bayan/Ulat sa Bayan (Report by the People/Report to the People) wherein candidates for local posts commit to presenting their accomplishments based on their campaign promises and the people’s agenda 100 days after being elected.

 To provide a solid basis and practical starting point for the activity, research was conducted to compile relevant data that would indicate how local government units measure up in terms of upholding citizens’ right to education, health, and food security.  These were then superimposed on each particular MDG so that in the discussion on food security for instance, people recognized the importance of claiming their rights and monitoring LGU performance as a way of pressuring their officials to achieve Goal 1, Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger.

 The three sectoral concerns were chosen on the basis of a consensus reached by the organizers and other groups through a consultative process to determine the most pressing unmet needs of the people of Palawan. 

 The participants of the workshop — provincial, municipal and city government officials, media representatives, members of the academe, religious groups, NGOs, people’s organizations, and local chambers of commerce — validated the results of the research and then crafted plans on how to monitor government responses to the unmet development needs of their constituents using rights-based approaches.

 Follow-up letters about the results of the activity were then sent to local officials who were unable to join the workshop to solicit their responses to the issues raised and suggest the possibility of incorporating the Ulat ng Bayan/Ulat sa Bayan activity in their report in October 2004 of their first 100 days in office.

 The Bandillo ng Palawan published the results of the research and the workshop in a series of reports in the public journalism section of the paper called Tuturan (which means significant message in Cuyunin, the native language of the indigenous Pala’wan).  Sections of inaugural speeches of LGU elected officials were also published for closer public scrutiny as a way of holding them accountable during their tenure for promises made in the campaign.

 (One of the stories that appeared in the Tuturan page, an article on rice farming in relation to food security, won for the reporter, Lani Escaro, the 2007 Bright Leaf Award for best regional agriculture feature story).    

 In the mountain town of Bingawanin Iloilo, a province in west central Philippines, citizens and local officials look forward to the second Monday of February and July each year.  Those are not dates marking the celebration of the town fiesta, rather those are the schedules for public hearings where people get the opportunity to ask their officials, face-to-face, to account for their performance, something many politicians would try to tiptoe around.

 In one such assembly in February 2005, some 50 community members engaged the mayor and other local officials in a discussion about the latter’s promises during the 2004 electoral campaign on the repair of school buildings and streetlights, construction of farm-to-market roads, honorarium for day care center workers.   

 Called Pamangkot sang Banwa (Report to the People), the Bingawan public audit mechanism was patterned after the experience of the nearby town of Batad which piloted the reporting system with the help of the Iloilo CODE NGO (Coalition of Development NGOs) and the local media headed by The Visayas Examiner that initiated voters’ education drives through community conversations as part of their public journalism effort.

 The voters’ education included organizing assemblies to note down the campaign promises of candidates who signed a covenant agreeing to join the public hearings once they are elected to office.  During the Pamangkot sang Banwa, the promises of the elected officials were listed down and their attendance in the regular legislative sessions as well as their performance in sponsoring and passing local ordinances were posted in public places.

 The TVE, through its public journalism section called “Examined,” and other news media stayed with the voters’ education activities up to the actual conduct of the public hearing which was covered live by radio.  Citizens’ views on the performance of local officials and their responses were regularly published in special sections using public journalism approaches that allowed the community conversation to continue well beyond the actual conduct of the Pamangkot sang Banwa.

 The Iloilo community press is working with the Iloilo CODE NGO to further popularize such audits through publications and broadcast programs.

 Bingawan has since passed a resolution mandating the institutionalization of the public audit system.

Conclusion

Less formal mechanisms for the enforcement and accountability of rights such as those cited earlier demonstrate very clearly how the role of the news media as facilitator and catalyst help ensure that governments become more responsive to their people. The Iloilo and Palawan experience in doing public journalism shows that these mechanisms are reinforced by human rights: right to information, to participate, to free expression. 

 It is also through these rights that citizens and the news media can more effectively monitor progress towards achieving the MDGs and holding governments to account.  In adopting a human rights-based approach to the MDGs, the multi-stakeholder groups in the two communities just mentioned have not replaced development practice with a new model but have adopted a cross-disciplinary and non-formal approach.

 One of the lessons that can be drawn from the two experiences is that using a human rights lens of analysis provides a meaningful way of looking at the different dimensions of achieving the MDGs.   And that journalism, when practiced according to its true purpose of providing people with information they need to be free and self-determining, can be a potent tool in galvanizing action to achieve the MDGs.

____________

1         www.oneworld.net/guides/philippines/development

2         http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/editorial/view/20080212-118232/Cost-of-corruption

3         Lessons Learned from Rights-Based Approaches in the Asia-Pacific Region

4         Linking Human Rights with MDGs in the Elections through Media-Citizen Engagement: Project Document

5         Mainstreaming RBA Worksop inPalawan

*Red Batario is the President and Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD) and the Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asiaof the Brussels-based International News Safety Institute (INSI).

He may be contacted at 4th Floor, FSS Bldg., 89 Scout Castor St., Barangay Laging Handa, Quezon City 1103 and through telephone +63 2 376 5550.

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