Fourth Estate as Empire?

By Joel Pablo Salud

Screenshot from Vera Files website

In Eric Gamalinda’s novel, Empire of Memory (First Edition, 1992), the author quotes the words of Dr. José Rizal in his work, Filipinas Dentro de Cien Años, written in Madrid sometime 1890:

“In order to read the destiny of a people, it is necessary to open the book of its past.”

The story is a about two friends who were hired by dictator Ferdinand Marcos to rewrite history. The back-cover blurb reads thus:

“Two friends are hired by Marcos to rewrite Philippine history. Their mission: to make it appear that Marcos was destined to rule in perpetuity. Working from an office […] they embark on a journey that will take them across a surreal panorama of Philippine politics and history, and in the process question their morals and beliefs. This landscape includes mythological sultans, mercenaries, the Beatles, a messianic Amerasian rockstar, faith healers, spies, torturers, sycophants, social climbers, sugar barons, millenarian vigilantes, generals and communists–the dizzying farrago of lovers and sinners who populate the country’s incredible story. By the end of their project–and this breathtaking novel–the reader emerges from a world that is at once familiar and unbelievable. It’s what real life might look like if both heaven and earth were crammed into it, and all its creatures were let loose.”

Mulling over this novel’s prophetic value, I saw in one go everything that is familiar and frightening in our world between its pages, the same world which Gamalinda had foretold way back in 1992–roughly 12 years before the invention of Facebook. The rewriting of history. The questioning of time-tested morals and values and their reinvention. The inevitableness of a world populated by the disconsolately messianic and the bizarre, all vying for their place within this borderless digital salmagundi we now call social media.

What’s striking is the book’s description of the landscape which, to me, savagely resembles our own: “It’s what real life might look like if both heaven and earth were crammed into it, and all its creatures were let loose.”

This is the power of prophetic utterance in literature: to have seen, by way of the imagination, reality that has yet to materialize at the time of its writing: social media, and all the creatures which would populate that digital world. It’s a book I highly recommend revisiting, if only for the sheer pleasure of knowing that Filipino writers, notwithstanding the struggle of making ends meet, have eyes fixed on our past, present, and the future.

I write this because in today’s world, what once existed only in the imagination of novelist Eric Gamalinda, is now a stark reality. Much too stark, in fact, that in today’s social media, attempts to rewrite history, to say little of the proliferation of lies, have reached pandemic proportions.

After having figured in a data-sharing scandal with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook attempted a backflip with its campaign to rid its social media app of “fake news” sites. It accomplished this by choosing local news organizations Rappler and Vera Files to stand as fact-checkers.

I have nothing against fact-checking. I particularly follow Vera Files’ numerous fact-checking reports on the President’s statements, among others. Suffice it that it gives people a clearer perspective of what has been said. Not an easy job by and large, but one that is necessary in light of the convoluted statements Malacanang is wont to give.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, in his attempt to discredit the two news organizations, issued a statement saying that Rappler and Vera Files are guilty of being “partisan,” and called for more “partial arbiters of truth”.

Vera Files president Ellen T. Tordesillas said, “VERA Files is an accredited fact checker by the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), a global alliance of fact-checkers committed to advancing accountability journalism. One of the requirements for an IFCN accreditation is non-partisanship and fairness.”

But the real question is not whether the two news organizations are partisan or otherwise, but if Rappler and Vera Files knew beforehand that Facebook planned on blocking the sites once they’ve been proven to disseminate “fake news”.

If they did, then the two news organizations should be the first to call out Facebook on its attempt to censor certain sites.

I highly doubt that they knew, but it scares me to think they did. As both writer and citizen, I am against any and all forms of censorship, even against sites that leave much to be desired by way of facts. The risks censorship poses to the public are greater than the effects of lies it wants to “cure”.

But then again, have we reached that age when it is necessary to censor certain sites? We have to understand that a huge part of the justification for censorship is its perceived “necessity”. Has the public become too stupid and dense to tell the facts from the lies?

Must we now sit down and discuss changes in our idea of human rights and expression to conform with issues plaguing the 21st century? Or did the framers of the Constitution got it right the first time when they refused to categorize expression and free speech into responsible and irresponsible speech? Are we being forced to redefine free speech in the context of its abuse?

Apparently, the public is being compelled to accept limitations to their freedoms in the guise of promoting “responsible speech”.

Problem is, who decides on what is responsible and what is not? This government? Are you kidding me? G




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