Underpaid, Under Fire, Under Pressure

Aug. 28, 2006

Media workers may bask in the limelight and may wield tremendous amount of influence. But, as four topnotch Davao journalists tell davaotoday.com, they are not spared from poverty and the corruption and danger that it brings.

By Grace S. Uddin

DAVAO CITY Print and broadcast journalists may have relative popularity or notoriety because of the power of information they wield on air or on print. But that doesnt mean they are spared from the same hardships suffered by ordinary Filipinos.

Four journalists here shared their own tales of coping with poverty and their meager income, and overcoming the call of the envelope, or bribery.

Carmelito Francisco, Managing Editor of the local daily Mindanao Times, had been in media for more than 13 years. He recalled that, back in 1992, when he was just starting out as a writer, he was paid per column inch. He usually earns P600 per article.

It was just very fortunate that my boss was kind enough and would occasionally shell out, say, 100 pesos from his own pocket to help me sustain my meager income, he said.

Francisco went from one newspaper to another, and worked for all the four established local newspapers in the city. In 2002, he finally settled for Mindanao Times, where he later became the managing editor, receiving an average pay of 15,000 pesos. He also writes for BusinessWorld, where he is paid 1.50 per word. In a month, he receives an average of 10,000 pesos from BusinessWorld.

Francisco knows he fares relatively better than other media workers in the city. One problem he sees is the level of competition among local newspapers here, which are competing for advertisers rather than quality.

Francisco says in Cebu, for example, editors receive higher pay compared to the editors in Davao City.

This is an issue that should be addressed by the company owners. If they are competing for a good paper, the advantage will be on the reporters because they will hire the best and offer the highest salary as possible, he said.

A broadcast journalist, Jessie Casalda, reporter and program director of Radio Mindanao Network (RMN) and also a writer for Mindanao Daily Mirror, had his own share of money problems when he was still with a big TV network.

It had something to do with the lifestyle that he needed to maintain because people have higher expectations from employees of the TV station.

You tend to spend more than what you earn, because you have to live up to the perception of the people, since you are working in a big network, he said.

Economic Difficulties

Mario Maximo Solis, more popularly known as Dodong Solis to colleagues and radio listeners, is a station manager for RMN in the city and the assistant area manager for Mindanao of the network. But before reaching his current position, he went through economic difficulties as a journalist.

In 1983, Solis was still a student at the University of Mindanao (UM) when he started out as a writer for the University of Mindanao Broadcasting Network (UMBN). The family of Eugenio Torres owned both UM and the radio station UMBN. As an arrangement, Solis was paid by way of free schooling plus a 50-peso allowance, which he used as transport fare for coverages.

That situation alone was indeed tough, much more if you were an ordinary man who went here in Davao to look for greener pastures. Before, we would just eat banana cue, drink water, and that would be enough for lunch.

The next year, Solis was hired as a reporter of the Manila Broadcasting Company, where he was given a salary of 800 pesos a month. The employees later went on strike to ask for a 50-peso increase in their wages. The management, however, rejected their call and eventually closed the station.

Solis also worked for ABS- CBN. They had a system where in every program, you would be paid 1,000 pesos. If you can report in another program, you would get 1,500 pesos. So, if you collect it all, you would have 20,000 pesos a month. But you would get income only for the duration of that program. What if your luck runs out and only one project is given to you? Then you will have a take home pay of only 1,500 pesos, he said.

Solis also remembered the times when Davao was tagged as the Nicaragua of Asia’, because of the rampant killings; he was assigned to cover these incidents. Those times, there was also tough competition among journalists, who could earn commission from funeral parlors. Whenever a person was reported killed, journalists would immediately call his favored funeral parlor. For every body that the journalist could report in, he got 50 pesos.

It’s our own way of striving and funeral homes do that out of pity on us. So every week they pay us, Solis said.

In 1987, Solis said being a media worker was already very hard.

Among other things we do to survive was to go to wakes to have free snacks. The chief of police would give us breakfast because he knew about our situation. Often times, your food would depend on where you would be going. You go out with the mayor or cover press conferences just to be able to eat and sustain your needs, he said.

Of all the radio stations in Davao City, RMN enjoys not only the widest reach but the highest credibility. Solis credits his station and his colleagues for keeping their head above water, their ethics intact.

Solis implemented a conducive working environment for reporters when he became station manager of RMN, which is a family corporation owned by the Canoy family. RMN employees are given wages above the minimum set by the Department of Labor and Employment, he said.

Despite their strict compliance with the law, Solis admitted that the 5,000 to 6,000 pesos minimum wage is not enough to cope with the rising cost of living. So what if you are a reporter? That doesnt mean that you will not be affected by the high cost of living today.

As a way of easing the burden on their employees, Solis helped them by being creative in their use of revenues and income. For instance, if the station earns 10,000 pesos from a certain event, he would remit the 7,000 pesos to the station while the remaining 3,000 pesos is shared among the employees.

Aside from this, the station hires its own people as voice talents for radio dramas. In every recording, the production cost would amount to 40,000 pesos, where 60% goes back to talent fees.

The station also provides free meals to employees. Instead of bringing packed lunch, or going out with the politicians, you will just come back here because there’s food available, Solis explained, adding that these lunches also strengthen the camaraderie among employees.

But RMNs experience is, in a way, unique.

Tek Ocampo, a national correspondent of GMA-7 Manila, admitted that, although a regular employee, what he earns from his regular and main job is not sufficient. Believe it or not, I am just earning 15,000 a month, Tek said.

He augments this income by doing anchor jobs in the networks radio station, RGMA, and for being a talent in the local GMA TV. He would receive between 20,000 to 30,000 a month all in all. He also shuttles between Manila and Davao, but staying mostly in Davao helps him save money. He says he’s glad that at least he has a secured job.

Media Corruption

Ocampo, in his 13 years of practice, told davaotoday.com that, early on in his career, he experienced being bribed.

He once served as a cameraman in another network due to lack of personnel. One day, he accompanied a senior reporter to interview a government official. While holding the camera, the senior reporter came near him and inserted something in Ocampos pocket. Ocampo didnt check what it was until after the coverage and he was already at home: he found 500 peso bill inside his pocket.

The next morning, Ocampo approached the reporter and asked him if it was him who put the money in his pocket. The reporter nodded. Ocampo asked him why and the reporter merely said that it came from the public official, for snacks. I asked him, Is that proper? And he replied, Nobody needs to know, Ocampo said.

Ocampo thought about the incident for a while and felt guilty but he was too embarrassed to give the money back. Being a neophyte in the field, he ended up spending the money.

At that point, I felt bad. It opened me to the reality that this is how it goes, Ocampo explained. There were more attempts to bribe him but, according to him, he never gave in.

Not long afterward, the company where he was working closed down.

Like Ocampo, Francsico had the same experience as a young and innocent journalist. In his first few weeks covering a press conference in a government company, he experienced being handed with an envelope. He knew it was money because he saw on top of that bulk a 100 peso bill.

The funny thing was, I returned it. I wondered why I was given when in fact I never needed it because my boss was paying me, he said.

He confronted his editor and it was explained to him that the incident was indeed a practice. It even became a joke among us, that if there is a press conference, there will be hand-outs, Francisco told.

Although he could no longer remember what the bribe was for, he still remembered the person giving it. He’s already dead but I don’t know if I earned his respect because after that he would keep his distance from me and he mentioned that to me before he died, Francisco said.

Casalda, meanwhile, had experienced the same thing. Once, he wrote a story about corruption at a public high school. After his article was published, he received an invitation from the superintendent of that school. He eagerly went and upon entering the office, the official shouted at him, How much are you worth?! Casalda recalled being dumbfounded.

But he managed to regain his composure and replied, I’m sorry, maam, I’m not for sale. He then sensed that he was about to be bribed by the official but he was able to make the first move by refusing any offer.

Casalda said that, sometimes, he would receive gifts at the office, with thank you cards, but he had no idea why or where those came from. He would just think that he could have written something that pleased somebody. But he never hesitates to write about negative things about a certain company.

One time, an advertiser in the Mirror got mad because of a story and threatened to withdraw ad placements. It was just a very good thing that our editorial department was separated from the marketing. I was called by my editor not to block the news but rather to tell me to get the side of the advertiser, he said.

But Casalda later found that somebody had approached the advertiser and took a bribe in Casaldas name.

Bribery and other forms of corruption also thrive during elections, Solis of RMN said.

A Matter of Principle

Some say it’s a matter of principle. Others say it’s credibility. These are the reasons why the four media practitioners resisted the temptation of the envelope in the course of their career.

Francisco said that he was lucky enough that after he started in 1992, he also wrote for outlets like United Press International, Today newspaper and wrote news for FM stations.

Im not saying that my income is big, but it is enough to keep me from any mischief in my work, he said. He knew that economic reason is a factor, but he also said there are journalists who earn only a little yet manage to be straight in their practices.

Casalda shared the same view. You are building your credibility for a long time and in just a wink of an eye, the respect will disappear, he said. Casalda is also a licensed electrical engineer, which gives him extra income and which allows him to keep his name clean.

Before refusing a bribe, Casalda said, a journalist should try to explain his job. This way, he believes, those who offer bribe will not get insulted if the journalist refuses it.

Ocampo and Solis have a different view.

We cannot blame those who accept bribes because it all boils down to economics, Ocampo said.

Solis agreed. How can you do your responsibilities if you yourself have needs. How can you write about people fighting for just wages when you yourself is a victim?

Media Killings

Aside from economic difficulties and vulnerability to unethical practices, being a Filipino journalist these days has become a dangerous job.

Recently, GMA 5-Davao conducted a Media Threats Awareness Seminar. The stafflearned about threats to media, surveillance, profiling a suspect and evasive actions, or preventive measures that would help them survive.

Ocampo said carrying a gun is not a solution, although he admits he owns one but he doesn’t carry it nor advocates arming the media. Still, he said , the best way is to report facts objectively.

Criticizing should also be done in proper perspective, and getting the other side is important, Solis said.

Media Situation in Davao

Solis said issues on economic conditions are a common concern by every media practitioner. In his 23 years in media, Solis has observed that only few media men are capable of surviving independently.

Media practice here is rather dependent on who will sustain their livelihood, Solis said. He added that some journalists have accepted the fact that clinging to some politicians or being the mouthpiece of a governor, mayor or congressmen makes their lives better economically.

Media companies should also ensure a more secured environment for journalists. The government can help in this regard, Solis explained, suggesting, for example, that before one can have a franchise for a station, the government should require the company to sign an agreement that it would give proper wages and job security to its employees.

Francisco suggested that the justice system must be improved, that killers of journalists should be put behind bars.

The government should come up with a good system. No matter how good your paper is, or how strong your company is, there will always be someone who will kill you, because they thought they can easily escape the law, Francisco said.

Professionalism among media practitioners is also a concern. Education and training, especially on ethical standards, is very much needed and should be taught not just to those who are already practicing but to journalism students as well, Francisco said.

Networks, they said, should stop their ratings war and focus instead on quality reporting.

In the end, with the myriad of issues confronting journalists poverty, perils at work, unethical practice the four journalists agreed that the only way to protect their ranks from all sorts of threats would be to unite.

Once we are one, we cannot be easily shaken. We cannot depend on the government, much more on others, therefore we should strive from within our own ranks, Ocampo said.

Solis agreed with Ocampo. It will not be that easy because we will be up against big capitalists. But if the media here in Davao is united, time will come when only the station owner is left to broadcast from sun up to sun down — until he gives what is due his employees. (Grace S. Uddin/davaotoday.com)

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