Change for the worse

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Like individual media practitioners, entire media organizations have been targeted and attacked before. But unlike attacks on the latter, media organizations have only rarely been targeted in the Philippines.

After the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, attacking media organizations–raiding their offices and destroying their equipment, beating their staff members, and in some instances setting fire to printing presses and newsrooms–became an almost regular occurrence in Indonesia.

The culprits were mostly members of right-wing and Islamic fundamentalist organizations. In the conditions of press freedom created by the overthrow of Suharto, these organizations could no longer rely on repressive press laws to bring in line media organizations critical of the past regime, or which they thought too liberal in their interpretation of Islam. They thus resorted to violence to intimidate not only their particular targets, but also the entire Indonesian press.

Similar attacks have also taken place in Africa and Latin America, in most cases instigated by right-wing groups identified with governments leery of a critical press. In all cases the intent was obvious: to intimidate not only the immediate targets but also all of the critical media.

Despite the Constitutional guarantee of free expression and press freedom in the Philippines, radio stations have been shut down by town mayors who didn’t like their commentaries. But the most open and brazen attacks on media organizations took place in April, 2001, in the aftermath of the arrest of deposed President Joseph Estrada’s arrest on charges of plunder. On April 30 and May 1–the latter being the date of the riots that at least one wing of the political opposition chooses to call EDSA 3–media practitioners took care to keep their distance from the crowds at the EDSA shrine where at least a million people had massed in support of Estrada, and from the same crowds as they laid siege to Malacanang.

Among the casualties of the mobs that took to the streets on April 22-23 that year were individual media practitioners as well as the vehicles and equipment of media organizations. Even the individuals stoned and beaten were not specifically targeted as individuals, but were attacked because they worked for either one of the two largest TV networks.

It has been argued that what happened could have been merely the expression of mass disaffection with the media–an argument difficult to support given the vast popularity of television among the poor who constituted the April-May 2001 mobs. What seemed more likely was that those involved had been primed to attack the media. (No media organization or individual practitioner has ever been attacked in any mass gathering called by progressive and leftist groups, except by the police and military. The participants in these mass gatherings generally regarded the media as potential allies, including those critical of their organizations and demands.)

The fire bombing of the ABS-CBN OB (Outside Broadcasting) van last Tuesday was thus blamed on groups partial to or supportive of the Estrada opposition, of which the late Fernando Poe Jr. was supposedly the leader.

The incident occurred less than a month after Poe’s widow Susan Roces berated ABS-CBN’s Karen Davila for the network’s supposedly biased reporting during the last presidential campaign.

A group calling itself “K” has claimed responsibility, describing itself as supportive of Poe, and accusing ABS-CBN of “suppressing the truth”. And then, of course, there is the statement of Joseph Estrada himself that what happened was “a warning to the media” for their supposedly being “one-sided and feeding disinformation to the public.”

Estrada thus implied approval of the use of violence against the media to punish them for their supposed lapses. In addition, it is not individual journalists–among whom there have been admitted lapses–Estrada believes to be biased and disseminating lies; it is all of media.

If Estrada’s and his cohorts’ basis for this claim is the media’s performance in the last presidential campaigns, he is sorely mistaken. Studies on media performance during that period–and the statistical and other data in, for example, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility’s (CMFR) monitor of media performance during the February to May 2004 campaign period are indisputable–show that the majority of media organizations did not have any pronounced preference for, or bias against, any of the candidates. The same data show that Fernando Poe Jr. received ample coverage, at times more than Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This was true of the reporting of most of the Manila broadsheets (there were two exceptions) and both ABS-CBN and GMA-7.

Estrada’s claim of disinformation is a serious charge, disinformation being the deliberate and purposive practice of manufacturing lies and reporting them as truth in furtherance of a political agenda. This claim requires proof, the most rigorous and the most acceptable being a comparison of what the media reported on certain events during specific dates, and what transpired, as verified from other sources, on those dates.

Estrada’s claim is thus a blanket and unsubstantiated accusation against all of media. Even if these claims were true, however, it would not justify the use of violence.

Complaints against media performance can be coursed to the media organizations themselves. In print and broadcasting, they may be coursed to media monitoring organizations like the CMFR; in print specifically, to the newspapers themselves, their ombudsmen or readers’ advocates, the Philippine Press Institute, and the National Union of Journalists; in broadcasting particularly, to the networks as well as the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP).

These self-regulatory mechanisms are in place to strengthen press freedom by improving media performance. In direct and brutal contrast, the use of violence and other forms of repression against the media, whatever their source, is an attack on media freedom. The torching of the ABS-CBN van falls in this category. But while it was an attack on one media organization, it was also meant to intimidate others.

While it is all of a piece with the harassment, threats, and assassinations of media practitioners, the shutting down of radio stations by town mayors, and all other attempts to silence media practitioners, it picks up where the mobs of 2001 left off, and could possibly signal attacks on other media organizations in addition to individual media practitioners.

The attack occurred amid continuing reports of destabilization and plots against the Arroyo administration from the usual suspects in the opposition, the police and military, and the right-wing organizations under the leadership of various scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells.

Significantly, Joseph Estrada, in addition to his statement on the incident itself, has withdrawn his petition to prolong his stay in Hongkong, and is suddenly in a special hurry to return to the Philippines “to unite the opposition,” even as he has refused to rule out another uprising a la May 2001. In earlier statements after the death of Fernando Poe Jr., Estrada also said that he was prepared to re-assume the Presidency–an event premised on the overthrow of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In these circumstances, no one can be blamed for believing that the burning of the ABS-CBN van is part of some plan by right-wing groups to install the civilian military junta that’s been bruited about since late last year. The premise of these groups is that the Arroyo government is illegitimate as well as incompetent, corrupt as well as weak. But as difficult to contest as this claim may be, if last Tuesday’s incident was their doing, and is thus an indication of how these groups regard the media, the citizenry has every reason to fear that any change in Malacanang they’re likely to lead will be for the worse.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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