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At the mercy of wolves

An Editorial from NotiCel.

Today, NotiCel joins hundreds of media outlets in a historic display of editorials published in defense of journalism in the face of President Donald Trump's attacks.

We stand shoulder to shoulder, as a wall, with our brothers and sisters journalists in the United States to defend against the systematic attack by the federal Executive, but we will not react here to the excesses of the new federal administration. What we will react to is our homegrown versions of those tactics to manipulate public information and attack the press. They come in all colors and run the gamut of the political spectrum.

Here we do not have a presidential 'Bully in Chief' spewing hate from a Twitter account, but we have gangs of Twitter trolls ('communicators' as they used to call them in the pre-social media days) paid with public funds and organized to discredit journalists and media. We have, also paid with public funds, an expensive public relations framework that's set up to protect the image of public officials instead of providing information on government actions and relevant issues. They are obstacles, not facilitators, and maintain simultaneous relationships with government agencies and private sector interests in a way that leans too much towards influence peddling.

Here we do not have a FOX News, but we have some outlets committed to shield certain political figures from public oversight and to canonize them in the public sphere. We do not have a 'FOX & Friends' but we have some 'analysis' and 'commentary' platforms that are ready to accommodate any public figure that plays their game of gratuities and privileged access.

We do not have a White House that takes away credentials from journalists who discomfort, but we have a Fortaleza that generally ignores the most dogged journalists in press conferences and in interviews and information requests while, at the same time, giving access to more 'friendly' and 'polite' media. The Administration likes to be in front of journalists, but only to use them to amplify their message and not to have them go off-script.

The antidote to this is media outlets and journalists who, with more urgency than ever, must fulfill their obligation to unearth and present the facts.

We do not have a Steve Bannon or a Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but we have some characters, on the screen and behind the scene, whose function is to plant distrust towards media in the public and unleash epidemics of misinformation to distort the work of journalists or to overshadow it with sensational subjects and claims.

We do not have, yet, a real problem of 'fake news', in its meaning of unknown and unruly media outlets that exist to spread unfounded and inflammatory information about public issues and figures, but we have an official movement to use the 'fake news' label on all fact-based information that displeases the powers that be.

We do not have, for example, a government shamefully making false claims about the number of people who attended the swearing-in of a President, but even more tragic and profound, we have a government shamefully losing credibility with their insistent manipulation of facts and lack of transparency in issues such as the restoration of the electricity grid and the number of deaths caused on the island by Hurricane Maria. A loss of credibility that, incidentally, affects all citizens because after the hurricane the reconstruction of Puerto Rico depends on all the credibility we can muster before the federal government and other foreign entities that can assist us.

The Executive's bad manners in its dealings with the press are replicated by the Legislative, where two nefarious bills for supposed freedom of information are pending, but they are not limited to those two spheres of political power.

The Fiscal Control Board also exhibits these tendencies, forcing the Center for Investigative Journalism to demand in court access to information, and obliging media outlets to fight for equal treatment in access to its members and executives.

Also, as if they were holding the seats of power, some other political and social sectors push for social justice protesting in the streets while keeping a list of their 'friends and enemies' in the press, depending on who gives them favorable coverage and who does not. In events like the May 1 marches, these sectors don't think twice about verbally and physically assaulting journalists according to the perceived levels of 'solidarity' these journalists have with their movements.

The antidote to this is media and journalists who, with more urgency than ever, must comply with their obligation to unearth and present the facts to the public. That do not allow their leadership to be infiltrated by those public and private powers that seek to manipulate the citizenship politically or commercially. Journalists that develop and defend their own informative agenda based on the common good instead of an agenda based on their arrangements with small interests... small because the big interest is the common good, the others are small. And that are ready to correct the mistakes and excesses that can happen because journalism is as human an endeavor as any other and it is not exempt from making mistakes.

But we also need to rev up citizen's engagement. A society's indifference is what paves the way for tyrannies, whether political or journalistic. We need an audience that pays attention, that looks for media and journalists that stick to the facts, that knows how to nurture multiples points of view, that commits to open up and defend not only the speech that they identify with but also the speech that might not necessarily conform to their worldview because it's in that diversity where minds are broadened and social consensus is found.

In a 1787 letter the American constitutionalist, and former President, Thomas Jefferson, offered this warning about the newly born republic called the United States:

'We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest-- which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors would all become wolves.'

An upright press and an attentive people keep the wolves at bay.

(Juan R. Costa / NotiCel)