Defending freedom

Duterte and reporters
Standard

The authoritarian path the Duterte administration is taking imposes on the Philippine press and media, as public service institutions, the duty to more vigilantly defend that freedom and to sharpen and enhance its monitoring and coverage of the regime. The press has to provide the citizenry the meaningful information it needs for it to arrive at an intelligent understanding of the reality of the present dangers to press freedom and to everyone else’s liberties.

By the time this column sees print, President Rodrigo Duterte has either made good on his and his generals’ threat that he will declare martial law nationwide, or has consigned that threat to the long list of his attempts to intimidate, harass and bully his critics as well as dissenters and protesters into silence.

While a declaration of authoritarian rule would be eminently oppressive, because it can escape the notice of many, even more dangerous is the return of dictatorship without the benefit of such a declaration.

As everyone should know by now, Mr. Duterte issued his most recent threat in order to frighten Filipinos into not attending the September 21 demonstration against his regime’s march to authoritarian rule. Itself expressive of the regime’s despotic mind-set, the threat once again demonstrated how hostile it is to the exercise of the lawful right to dissent, freedom of assembly and free expression.

Mr. Duterte did say that he would do a Marcos only if the protest turns violent and assumes the characteristics of a rebellion in the form of unlawful acts like arson, rio-ting or anything similar. The organizers of the protest, primarily the members of the newly formed coalition Movement Against Tyranny, have assured the public that it will be peaceful. But any violent incident, as the Philippine experience during the Marcos imposition of martial law in 1972 demonstrates, could very well be regime-sponsored to justify placing the entire Philippines under military rule.

In 1972 Ferdinand Marcos claimed as the immediate reasons why he placed the Philippines under martial law the series of bombings in metro Manila and the ambush on the car of then Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile supposedly carried out by the “leftist-rightist” conspiracy that he said was plotting to overthrow the Republic. The bombings turned out to have been his regime’s doing, while the “ambush” on his car, Enrile himself admitted over television at the height of the 1986 EDSA People Power military-civilian mutiny, was similarly staged.

Using those incidents to justify it, Marcos declared martial law, abolished Congress, suspended the Constitution, shut down newspapers and radio and television networks, and had journalists, members of the political opposition, and student, labor and peas-ant leaders arrested and detained.

His justification was to “save the Republic and reform society,” but his real reason was neither. Rather were his reasons to remain in power beyond the one four-year term with one reelection limit on presidential tenure decreed by the 1936 Constitu-tion, and to be able to freely plunder the country without opposition.

There are warranted fears that a repeat of that foul episode in Philippine history is likely, courtesy of Rodrigo Duterte. As Marcos did in 1972, he could very well justify a declaration of martial law through the use of regime-sponsored acts of violence, which he can declare as irrefutable proof of the rebellion that the Constitution lists among the justifiable reasons for martial rule.

Such a declaration is possible — but if it hasn’t been made by this time, is also likely to be a continuing peril during the remaining four-and-a-half years of Mr. Duterte’s troubling and troubled term. But he doesn’t even have to go to such lengths. By ignoring the rule of law and the Constitution, and weakening those State and private sector institutions, among them the press, whose duty is to monitor government and check its abuses, Mr. Duterte and his cohorts in the civilian and military bureaucracy are already well into the restoration of dictatorship.

In addition to his and his allies’ abusive tirades against critics and their open hostility to the Philippine press and media, among the indications of creeping authoritarian rule are the orchestrated impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice by the friends of the aptly-named Lower House of Congress, the same body’s transparent attempt to either immobilize the Commission on Human Rights or to compel its present commissioners to resign so they can be replaced by Duterte allies; the unprecedented empowerment of the police and military that has resulted in the surge in extra-judicial killings and other human rights violations whose number has surpassed the Marcos-era record; and the imposition of various limits on the Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of the press to report, comment, and provide analyses on government policies, actions and intentions.

The Duterte regime very early on demonstrated that it neither understood nor would tolerate the press’ meaningful discharge of that function. His online trolls demonize journalists for being critical. He often excoriates reporters and their organizations for simply reporting what he and his regime surrogates say or do. He has transformed government media into even worse, though glaringly inept, purveyors of propaganda.

In the process, the regime has made it abundantly clear that it needs closer press monitoring than any of the administrations that have preceded it. But the regime has been taking steps to prevent the press from providing citizens the information it needs to make sense of what is happening around them. It is targeting the press capacity to do its reportorial, explanatory and analytical duties in behalf of citizen enlightenment by slowly constricting its freedom.

One of the more recent of these attacks is the Philippine National Police’s imposition of a ban on journalist access to documents related to ongoing police investigations. Several journalists’ groups have rightly objected to this latest attempt to weaken the press capacity to report on matters of public relevance. But certain sectors of the press community have also long understood that the ban is only the latest in a series of regime actions that must be resisted for the press to continue discharging its duty of providing the citizenry meaningful information, and to defend, as the ethics of journalism mandate, press freedom and autonomy.

Some members of the journalism community have thus called for press unity in the face of such clear and present dangers as the attempts to deny media organizations franchises to operate; orchestrated attacks and threats on some of the most respected journalists in the country; the barring of journalists from covering events of public interest that involve government agencies and officials; and the accreditation and preferential treatment of online trolls and of outrightly biased, regime-supported bloggers.

No matter the differences in their political, economic or ideological interests and perspectives, journalists must resist the many regime attempts to impose, with or without a declaration of martial law, the same controls that during the Marcos terror regime made much of the press virtual lap dogs of the dictatorship. As a result, much of the citizenry was uninformed on such matters of crucial relevance to their lives as the world class corruption and theft of public funds, and the enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings of regime critics and anti-dictatorship activists.

Because they are driven by political and economic interests, much of the corporate media tends to shun taking a principled stand on even the most urgent public issues. It is time for it to do otherwise in the face of the present threat to its freedom — and that of everyone else’s in this, the country of our sorrows.

First published in Businessworld. Photo from PCOO.

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