The Need for Perfect and Complete Information

The passing of former President Boris Yeltsin reminded me of my Russian friends, the continuing saga about the people's struggle for better government and the need for a responsible press.

On 1993, I was a young student taking up a short course in Switzerland. My initial conversations with classmates, program facilitators and acquaintances never failed to include questions (some were delivered in a manner that struck me as rude) about what was happening to my country. They told me that they kept on hearing bad things about it.

The polite ones simply asked; “How is the Philippines?”

And there’s this gentleman who softly said; “Tell us more about your country. We seem to only hear about it, whenever there’s a catastrophe.”

Such a fine gentleman,
I thought. So full of good manners. Anyway, though seemingly impolite, I must admit that the apparently offensive statements were mostly valid observations.

On 1993, the Philippines had just gone through more than 10 years of great misfortunes. It went through many years of decay followed by the 1983 assassination of a very popular opposition leader. The were continuous massive street protests that resulted with the calling of early presidential elections. The campaign phase, voting and post election periods were blemished with heavy violence that led to the 1986 EDSA uprising. Things became a bit better until military coups plunged the country back into economic decline. To top it all, there was an energy crisis and blackouts were widespread. And just when we thought that we had hit rock bottom, the great Pinatubo eruption (details here) occurred. It was only during the last quarter of 1993 when I felt the economy starting to improve with the currency recovering some of its value against the US dollar. However, let me point out that despite all the incidents narrated above, the Filipinos never lost hope and was consistently ranking at the top of the happiness index.

By the way, let me point out that during my short stay in Europe, people were blaming the Pinatubo for their rainy summers.
Back to my story, I befriended a lot of Russians in the program. Some were from Moscow, there was this great buddy from St Petersburg and there were the exceptionally lovely ladies from Novosibirsk.

Come the early days of October, French and German speaking television broadcasts showed footages of tanks, large street assemblies and fully armed troops surrounding the Russian parliament building. We couldn’t understand anything from the live feeds, our Swiss classmates wouldn’t say much and their faces were ashen. One thing seemed obvious. There was turmoil in Russia. My young Russian friends were naturally panicking. The phone lines to Russia were all out of service and they had no way of knowing how their families back home were. It was then when I tried to assure them that things were fine back home.

They all looked at me and some mockingly asked; “How did you know? You haven’t even been there?”

I told them, “Ahh.. Don’t believe in the theatrics of the press. Look, they have created such a bad image of my country but I tell you, things are fine back home.”

“Relax, sit with me and let’s watch a movie.”
I added.

Of course, they didn’t believe me and continued running around, dialling franctically and spoke to each other in rapid and worried tones. But when Yeltsin emerged victorious and the lines got restored, they found out that their folks were fine all along. Things were not bad in all of Russia except for the immediate vicinity of the parliament building.

“Hmmn.. And what did I tell you?”,
as I gave that knowing smile.

The story did not end there. Years later, the Philippines went through an impeachment process involving the country’s top executive. It was followed by massive street protests and highlighted by military and police defections. The end came when the President stepped down. During the tense moments, I witnessed how overacting news reporters projected the impression that a shooting war was about erupt. None happened. The specific events that had exaggerated coverage were merely normal military movements.

Though press freedom is a prerequisite to all free nations, there is a strong but oftentimes unspoken need for balanced reporting. The dictum that “The pen is mightier than the sword” is very much a gospel truth now as it was yesterday. The press can easily flatten to the ground, what the heaviest artillery cannot reach. If the press will let itself work like a loose cannon, it can create more destruction than all the military’s arsenal combined.

As the preachers of perfect competition unfailingly assert; “There should always be perfect and complete information.”

1 comment:

categorically imperative said...

While in Switzerland, did you bathe as your classmates did?