Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Darker, darker times ahead

The threat to the country's press freedom looms larger and larger with the recent incidents involving journalists.

From the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility:

An urgent call:
Stopping the Arroyo regime assault on press freedom
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

THE CENTER for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) calls on all media organizations, advocacy groups, lawyers’ organizations, and human rights groups to join together to stop the Arroyo regime assault on press freedom. CMFR is issuing this urgent appeal to preempt what could be the beginning of a phase in this assault that could severely cripple press freedom in the Philippines and destroy what little remains of Philippine democracy.

The two latest incidents in this assault are extremely serious in their implications. In what can only be described as a blatant attempt to intimidate the press, a team of policemen tried last Monday to arrest Mia Gonzalez of the magazine Newsbreak right in the Malacañang Press Corps office itself.

Ms. Gonzalez would have been arrested in the presence of several of her colleagues. One of the 43 editors, columnists, and reporters Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel Arroyo has sued for libel, she was not in the vicinity at the time and thus escaped arrest. But the message of intimidation the police sent was clear enough, and duly noted by journalists covering Malacañang.

This latest attempt to bully the press came on the heels of a death threat against Malaya newspaper columnist Ellen Tordesillas, again one of the 43 journalists Mr. Arroyo has sued for libel. The threat against Ms. Tordesillas could be the prelude to the escalation of press intimidation, including assassinations and attempts on journalists’ lives that have so far been mostly limited to the communities, where 62 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1986.

Both incidents indeed occurred in the context of the continuing harassment, intimidation and assassination of journalists which have shattered the Philippine press’ reputation for autonomy and placed the country at 142nd place among 168 countries in the Reporters sans Frontieres Press Freedom Index, and earned it a reputation as “the most murderous place in the world” for media practitioners and as the second most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq.

Earlier last October, seven editors and reporters and a former senator writing editorials for Malaya who are also among the 43 men and women Mr. Arroyo has sued were also ordered arrested by a Manila regional trial court judge. They managed to post bail and avoided a night in jail. But the libel law continues to be a grave threat to Filipino journalists, press freedom, and democracy.

An attack on press freedom is an attack on democracy, a free press being indispensable to the discussion of public issues. It is no coincidence that Mr. Arroyo’s offensive against the media is occurring in the larger context of the Arroyo regime’s multi-pronged campaign to silence opposition to it, which has included the suspension of local officials allied with the opposition.
Journalists may be forgiven for suspecting that the primary reason the Philippines has not kept pace with US jurisprudence on libel—libel was decriminalized by the US Supreme Court in 1963—is the present law’s being a convenient tool of harassment against journalists.

In a number of instances, arrest warrants have been served in the late afternoon or early evening of Fridays with the obvious intention of forcing the respondents to spend the weekend in jail. Philippine courts have also tended to hand out harsh prison terms. They have also awarded excessive and crippling damages to complainants in civil suits.

CMFR reiterates its call for the decriminalization of libel and the imposition of reasonable limits on the amount of damages that may be awarded. Only then can the libel law cease to be a weapon that at any time can be used to intimidate journalists, erode press freedom, and constrict democracy.

But CMFR cannot overemphasize the urgency of the present situation, and urges all groups that value press freedom and democracy not only to make their voices heard in vigorous protest, but also to alert their international networks to the urgent need to restrain the authoritarian impulse driving the Arroyo regime campaign against the Philippine press.

From the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines:

Stop the harassment of media
Support the move to decriminalize libel

The assertion by First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo's lawyer Ruy Rondain that his client had nothing to do with the attempt by policemen to arrest our colleague, Business Mirror reporter Mia Gonzalez, in the grounds of Malacañang Palace flies in the face of the following:

By all accounts, the arresting policemen were in plainclothes. Since they were serving a warrant, they are presumed to have been armed. How, we ask, could armed men in civilian clothes – even if they are law enforcers – pass through the tight security around the Presidential residence and enter the Palace grounds without the Presidential Security Group being instructed to let them through?

At the very least, if they had informed the PSG about their purpose and who it was they were after, the Palace guards could have informed the Malacañang Press Corps, if only as a matter of courtesy and decorum. Why was this not done?

And why did the policemen try to deceive the Malacañang reporters who asked them why they were looking for Gonzalez by saying they were just there to ask the reporter some questions?

But even granting Rondain's assertion is true, one glaring fact stands out – this incident is proof of how, wittingly or unwittingly, the power and influence his "private person" client enjoys come into play against those with whom he disagrees and how, in the case of the libel suits he has filed against 43 journalists, this antiquated law is used to harass a critical press and send a chilling message to others who may be inclined to scrutinize public officials and figures.

Like the shameless death threat e-mailed to Malaya columnist Ellen Tordesillas, another of those whom Mr. Arroyo has favored with a libel suit, at best, the attempt to arrest Ms. Gonzalez is, at best, an attempt by some overeager factotum to curry favors with a powerful patron.

At worst, it is a brazen display and abuse of power, not to mention a disgraceful show of inhospitality for harassing Ms. Gonzalez in the heart of the Presidential residence.

This incident merely highlights the need to strike the dated libel law, a remnant of our colonial past, from the statute books to prevent its use time and again as a weapon to bludgeon into silence and submission those whose duty it is to ferret out the truth and inform the public of how those sworn to their service do or do not abide by their oaths.

No comments:

Blog directory