Gestures

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On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, two days after his release from hospital, Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo announced that he was dropping the 11 libel suits against 46 journalists that he had been filing since 2003. As if to demonstrate that contrary to his lawyer’s allegations, he indeed is a public figure, his wife’s press secretary read Arroyo’s statement.

Arroyo described his decision as “a gesture of peace.” But he also implied that he deserved “redress,” and declared that he was nevertheless withdrawing the libel suits “to pursue a more positive and constructive relationship with those who will accept my offer of a handshake.” His statement also suggested that it was God’s –and therefore his–“spirit of generosity” that had moved him to withdraw the suits.

Not by his generosity but by journalist resistance and citizen support did Arroyo drop the suits, which had become politically costly for the Arroyo couple. They had led to a harvest of criticism against Arroyo and his wife’s government, and hardened the global perception that, indeed, the Philippines during Arroyo’s watch is the second most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq—and the most dangerous for dissenters and political activists.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that libel had become the weapon of choice against the press by Philippine officials “unhappy with critical media coverage”. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), reacting to Arroyo’s statement, described him as “an enemy of press freedom” regardless. In several statements, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) had repeatedly criticized both Arroyo and his wife’s government, characterizing the libel cases Arroyo had filed as “outrageous” and “unconscionable”.

For many Filipinos, meanwhile, Arroyo’s suits were further proof that the regime was attacking press freedom along a broad front that included police raids, intimidation, threats, and the encouragement of journalists’ killings through default. Through various fora and the media, these Filipinos expressed their support for their beleaguered countrymen in the press, and put the blame where it belonged.

Local journalists’ and media groups had been as critical as CPJ, SEAPA and IFJ. But they went beyond the usual protests by filing a class suit for damages against Arroyo. The claim was for no more than P12.5 million—a fraction of the total of P42 million that Arroyo’s 11 libel suits were asking for—but Arroyo and his lawyers seemed genuinely surprised by the suit, although they did their best to disparage it.

And yet if Arroyo had pursued the suits, he would have created a forum in which journalists in court to defend themselves would have had to go over the details of the articles Arroyo resented– among them whothe country’s smuggling lords and ladies are, and who own certain pieces of prime real estate in the posh Nob Hill district of San Francisco, USA. While the possibility of meeting his Maker might have indeed moved Arroyo to drop the suits, the prospect of the sued journalists’ re-washing his and her dirty linen in public could have been as persuasive.

Arroyo’s libel suits were counter-productive to begin with, the chances of his winning any of them ranging from slim to none. The suits did have the chilling effect on journalists he intended. But threatened with arrest right on their beats, and forced into a corner in which the only way out was to fight back, the sued journalists, together with other journalists’ and media groups, had no choice but to band together–to the detriment of regime efforts to (no kidding) frighten the media into reporting “the good news”.

The journalists’ and media groups’ (among them the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility) decision to resist what was an attempt at intimidation obvious to everyone except the willfully blind was thus the crucial factor that made continuing Arroyo’s suits politically cost-ineffective. Public support– manifest in Mrs. Arroyo’s continuously falling trust and approval ratings—also helped.

But as victorious as journalists may feel over this turn of events, it indicates no shift in the Arroyo regime policy of media intimidation and hostility to free expression, press freedom and human rights in general. Any such conclusion will have to be based on other, more concrete actions– primarily a credible effort to halt the often deadly attacks on journalists and other citizens the culture of impunity the regime has created and encouraged has made into almost daily horrors.

The culture of impunity is the sure guarantee that the killing of journalists, dissenters and activists will continue. Violence has become the preferred means of solving disputes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. The offence against democracy itself that is the killing of journalists and political activists is feeding the lawlessness, endemic to begin with, that is destroying the courts and whatever else remains of the justice system and the very State itself.

Arroyo’s withdrawing his libel suits while seeking to morally profit from it will not end the reign of impunity and terror that has claimed not only the lives of 63 journalists so far, but also those of hundreds of men and women whose only crime was to imagine a country better than what Arroyo and company have made of it. Dropping the libel suits that Arroyo should not have filed in the first place is no more than another regime gesture, like the committees, task forces and commissions Mrs. Arroyo regularly assembles. It is thus for journalists and citizens able to imagine an alternative to the present reign of terror to defeat the evil that rules this land.

(PJR Reports, May 2007)

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