Advocate’s Overview: Struggle for press freedom


(This is a shortened version of the keynote speech delivered by this columnist to the College Editors Guild of the Philippines or the CEGP-BB Press Congress at the University of the Philippines Baguio on September 20.)

Your theme is evident of your desire for another decade to advance press freedom and your thirst for a social change.

I remember lately in one of the provinces of Northern Luzon, Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was gutsy in announcing that the Philippine Press is the most free in the Asia region. When we heard that, a colleague in the media jokingly claimed that it is true: “any dissenters would be kept silent forever as manifested by the more than 900 cases of extra-judicial killings since she assumed the presidency in 2001”.

The cases on extra-judicial killings have not spared the media. At present, there are already 60 journalists killed. Like the other cases, justice remains elusive to the victims’ and their families despite the creations of the Milo Commission, the Task Force Usig of the Philippine National Police, and the report of Prof. Phillip Alston to the UN that the killings are done with impunity. The data on the killed journalists make the Philippines next to Iraq as the most dangerous place for journalists worldwide.

To quote from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) campaign materials: “The Philippine Press is under siege by a state that increasingly shoots its messengers. The Philippine Press, among the staunchest defenders of democracy in this nation, operates in conditions that violate the same rights we seek to champion on behalf of our clients, the public.”

The killing of journalists is not only a violation of that precious right to life. But more importantly, the killing of journalists is a manifestation of killing democracy itself. If we kill the messengers, the information will not reach our clients, the public. The right of the public to know is not realized. Democracy here is under siege. The essence of democracy should be manifested by the free flow of information.

The NUJP believed that: “There can be no press freedom if journalists work under conditions of fear, poverty and corruption.” Under the present administration however, it had adopted state policies which are manifestations of a creeping authoritarianism. Remember the Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR), Proclamation 1019, and the anti-terror law also known as the Human Security Act. These are all attempts to gag media and to silence dissenters. The CPR and Proclamation 1019 were set aside by the Supreme Court mainly as these violate the basic freedoms – like Freedoms of Expression and of the Press – enshrined in the Bill Of Rights. The sword of Damocles that hangs now on the head of freedom advocates is the Anti-Terror Law.

Remember also the illegal arrest and detention of media practitioners covering the Manila Peninsula. The CHR declared that the PNP-Military act was illegal.

Among the issues haunting media practitioners and instilling fear on them is libel, an act punishable under the Revised Penal Code. The First Gentleman (FG) was among the people who utilized libel against media practitioners, though lately he withdrew the cases he filed against journalists. Libel has been continuously utilized more as a threat to journalists. I need to point out that this antiquated law was adopted during the Spanish Colonial period against Filipino propagandist. It is aimed to silence critics rather than as a means to achieve justice.

The position of NUJP is to decriminalize libel as it is used to silence media practitioners from their role to bring information of public interests. Other countries, like the USA, had already set aside this antiquated law as it has no place in modern democracy. We are asks on how to address media excesses or abuses. In my point of view, even without the Libel law, we have the Civil Code provisions on damages that can be utilized if there will really be an excesses to be committed by media practitioners. In fact under the Civil Code provisions on damages, the more that a person is respected in a community or in the society, the more that he is entitled for damages.

By the way, NUJP found out that most of the victims of extra-judicial killings and threat on media, including libel, were provincial journalists. It is in the provinces that the rule of law is weakest and might is often mistaken for righteousness.

From the situations of journalists that I had shared to you, I can summarize that the Philippine Media is under threat. The journalists’ rights to life, liberty and security (all basic rights) are threatened by the very state that is supposed to protect these said rights. And the violations are being done with impunity.

What then is our role as media practitioners? What should be done?

In the latest national assembly of NUJP, we reiterated that organizing, like what you are doing, is a weapon we can use to advance our issues against media killings and suppression. An organized group with organized voice will surely be heard of their concerns.

We need also to push for our campaigns, like justice for the journalists’ killed, decriminalization of libel, and any threat to press freedom. We need to inform the public that the media practitioners – whether in the mainstream or in the campus – are not spared with the anti-people policies of the state.

In the case of the NUJP, we need to coordinate with press freedom advocates whether in the campus, in the regional and national level, and in the international level. We had proven that this coordination is effective particularly on our campaign against extra-judicial killings and threats to the media.

We need to be united under the present situation where media is under siege. # (NorDis)


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