President Benigno S. Aquino III’s Speech at the Opening Ceremonies of Publish Asia Conference 2016
Manila Hotel, One Rizal Park, Manila
30 March 2016
Perhaps I should start by apologizing for my tardiness. You know my father was part of your profession a few decades back and I’m sure he is watching our proceedings today, and as I viewed the speech I’m about deliver, I was not exactly happy with it and I do represent our country and I want to make a good impression on behalf of our people, that unfortunately caused my delay in attending your gathering. Now we can start in this manner:

Sixteen years ago, my mother—no longer President at the time—spoke at one of our major universities’ center for journalism, referencing a hostage-taking incident in Mindanao, the southernmost part of our country. She told of how journalists seeking close contact with the hostages and hostage-takers—or, as she put it then, journalists seeking a scoop—likewise became captives, with their watches, laptops, and shoes taken from them. After narrating that incident, my mother posed a number of questions, which, I believe remain relevant not only in that particular context, or to Filipino reporters, but to each and every member of the industry today and in the years to come. Allow me to repeat some of those questions now: “Are the reporters telling what they see or what they think readers will pay to read? Do they understand what they see? Are they talking to the right people, or are they just retailing propaganda?”

To put it very simply, my mother was questioning dedication to the two most important values of the profession, namely, integrity and truth. Your dedication to these two values is especially important in light of your expansion to new media technologies, which are the crux of your discussion today.

We all know that there has been a great shift away from the primacy of print to a 24/7 news cycle, where it only takes a single Tweet to break news—where anyone can report on anything, at any time, and have it reach anywhere in the world. These new forms of media challenge what print, at its best, is supposed to represent: depth and breadth, context, and a clear delineation between opinion and news.

These past few years, I have witnessed and even been at the center of some attempts to balance traditional print and new media. For example, not too long ago, I took part in a forum live-streamed through the Internet and documented through social media, with articles to chronicle the event the following day. On the other hand, I am also told that the majority of, if not all, outlets have demonstrated a tendency to sensationalize titles, or post only provocative portions of articles online purportedly to encourage people to go through the whole piece—a tactic which I understand the generation younger than mine calls “clickbait.” Never mind if the reader chooses only to view that particular snippet and assume that they have been presented with the complete story.

The entire situation is complicated further by the fact that these stories published also in print do not seem to adhere to any set standard. More often than not, the art of crafting headlines seems to favor embellishment and innuendo, as opposed to the facts. Some articles seem to be written with blatant bias, while others fail to adequately represent the situation accurately. Over the years I’ve increasingly wondered about this trend in light of the fact that print’s greatest advantage is that it can tell the complete story, whether in one article or in a series, and have that read by a still-strong readership.

For instance, today I have certainly found yourselves increasingly read by citizens from all around the world. This is perhaps due to the fact that many nations are increasingly turning to our region, viewing us as wellsprings of opportunity for collective growth. They seek information about us, which we are well-poised with and I believe you will be among the first to admit that you would likewise benefit from painting a complete picture. Another example: Myanmar right now is undergoing a very significant transition. Print and indeed all forms of media can impair that transition by highlighting fears and unfounded speculation. The opposite path, what we are glad to be seeing, is that they have led their support to this transition by highlighting the good news, by telling the truth about the people’s sentiments, their dreams, and their efforts to realize that through democratic means.

It is true that your job is much more complicated today because of the need to expand your operations to new media forms, which have their own limitations in terms of dissemination. At the same time, dissemination does not matter so much as the most basic responsibility, which is to deliver information—information that the people can trust, can lead to fruitful discussions on issues of national and global importance, that can even lead to positive transformation. This is the value and the service that you must provide.

It is when the distinction between opinion and straightforward newstelling that your profession—and there is the blurring of that line—it is then that your profession is endangered. This is not only a matter of principle, it is also about practicality. Sensational headlines and articles composed of controversial rumors, for example, might increase your circulation marginally today. What happens, however, when the people notice your tendency towards such, when they realize that your articles are entertaining, perhaps, but cannot be verified and consequently trusted? In the long run, will they not seek out alternative sources of information—sources that they know will tell them the truth?

In the Philippines, national and local elections will take place in a little over a month. We face a fork in the road: Will we choose to continue treading the straight path of the past few years? Or will we choose the opposite? In 2010, I promised Filipinos that, when I stepped down from office, I would leave behind a country in a far better situation. We believe the successes and reforms of our administration are enough to help our countrymen make the right decision in the upcoming elections; even now, I continue to do my part. At the same time, I am cognizant that when we head to the polls, my vote will be just like anyone else’s. When I have voted, I will wait for the results with the rest of the country.

It is somewhat different for you. Media, and perhaps especially print media, has a special role to play before, during, and after our elections—as it does at any critical time in even your own countries. We Filipinos will need a just, comprehensive accounting of this historic time, and you are in the best position to do that.

Candidates are vying for the highest posts of the land. They are trying to win the people’s trust in a variety of ways: from promises, to attempts to smear mud on the names of their rivals; from presentations of their records of service, to curses and strong language. All of this appears in your pages—some more sensational candidates featured more prominently than others, I have to point out. Everything you publish is indeed devoured by millions. In a very real way, you are luckier than these candidates. By far and large, you—the press—already have our people’s trust. This alone reflects the magnitude of your responsibility to wider society: to disseminate information, instead of speculation; to foster higher levels of discourse, instead of becoming a rumor mill; to empower citizenries and nations, instead of tearing them down. It is my deepest hope that you will never forget this—that, whether in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world, you live and work accordingly with the greater good of the public in mind.

Thank you, and may you have a very productive conference.