Always a gift, never a bribe? Art by Chris Clemente
Culture Spotlight

How to deal with gifts when they're actually bribes (a guide with blind items)

The matter of gifts became hot topic earlier this week after the President said something about policemen accepting them. Meanwhile, a seasoned journalist reflects on the gift-giving culture in the media circles, and provides a sort of how-to-refuse list consisting purely of blind items.
Peter Purisima | Aug 17 2019

Republic Act 3019 is quite clear. Any gift or benefit accepted by a public official that is connected in any way with a government function is corruption. But what of the public official handing out “tokens of gratitude” or “pangmeryenda,” what does the law say about that? Reporters often find themselves on the receiving end of these dole outs, and the tug of war that ensues — well, it’s more of a push and shove, really — can become comical. 

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In the world of journalists, therein exists a code of ethics. It may vary from newspaper to newspaper, network to network, and the very words “code” and “ethics” may suggest some flexibility and relativism—but the bottom line is quite clear: thou shall not accept bribes in whatever form. There are innumerable permutations of gifts and bribes a journalist encounters. Dodging these offers can be a test of a media person’s creativity — especially when it comes to declining gifts from politicians (or businessmen) who won’t take no for an answer — and ultimately a test of his or her integrity. 

When talk zooms into these types of encounters, the following instances come to mind (not all of them are personal):  

1.

My first ever encounter was 50 pesos in an envelope handed out after a mayor’s presscon. Even at 1986 prices the amount was laughably miniscule. Is it corruption if the amount can be described as literally a “token”? Or is it an insult?

2.

Airport officials offered P2500 a week to reporters just to stay out of the customs area. Now that was tempting for a struggling cub reporter paid per-column-inch and earning 1k a month back in ‘87. The offer was thumbed down by the seniors who run the press corps. They made much,  much more escorting biyaherosthrough the customs area. The favor meant biyaheros didn’t have to pay duties for whatever goods they were bringing in. In a sense, it was a bribe to end all bribes.

 Photograph from Raw Pixel

3.

Years ago, I discovered the joy of foot spa while doing a story on a candidate for senator. She swore by the health benefits and sheer pleasure of it. Because of the visual requirements of the story, I had to tail her doing random, everyday things. We had the most candid conversation; the massage put down her guard. She paid for the massage; I did not argue. I got my story.  

4.

One friend walks the talk without being preachy. A true dogmatic, she’s known to take out her baon in the middle of a lunch press conference while the rest, her crew included, ate the food that was served. It is quite admirable, if not jarring, to watch her eat out of a Tupperware inside a restaurant. More admirably, she won’t judge peers who partake of the occasional “libreng pakain.”

5.

Contrast to the above, another reporter turns in to his newsroom boss the 10 thousand pesos he received at a politician’s presser. Very good! Until the news boss found out from the reporter’s crew that what was turned in was the cameraman and driver’s share, while the reporter kept his 10 thousand pesos.

6.

One interview with a candidate for president in his home went well, until he tried to pass on through a handshake an envelope with a generous wad of bills. I politely said no, thank you. He insisted; a little tug of war ensued. Eventually, I relented and headed straight to church. With the camera rolling, I dropped the envelope in the donation box. The candidate saw the show, was aghast, and protested that the money was not a bribe but a “love offering”. Apparently, “love offering” is an acceptable practice in some circles.

7.

Covering the south in the early days of terrorism, I always went unilateral. Meaning, I didn’t accept offers of ride and accommodation from the military. We went around in a tricycle and refused a military escort, even undercover ones, while the others rode shotgun on army Humvees. It felt especially risky and awkward to accept kind gestures from one side of the conflict. This was way before the rebels in Jolo realized there was money in ransoming reporters. Now it’s more prudent to take the military escort or avoid going there at all.  

Photograph by Sidorova Alice on Unsplash

8.

But a sendoff at a provincial airport with pomelos and durian candies was harder to resist. Or easier to take. Such was the perk of covering the town politician. Here’s the conundrum: how to remain ethical without rudely refusing an honest gift? When is the gift a bribe and when is it just Filipino hospitality? I draw the line, though, if the pomelos result in overweight baggage. Somebody I know took home what amounted to a fruit stand.

My stories lack scale and scandal. The amounts are embarrassingly small time. After years in the industry, I’ve come to realize that true bribe money is smart money. It has developed an algorithm from years of practice. It knows its way around media circles and instinctively, intuitively finds its way to the right hands.