In one of those turn-arounds that seem possible only in the Philippines, the media are not only being blamed for the arrest of some 30 cameramen, media technical personnel, anchorpersons and reporters last November 29. They’re also being urged to accept a “protocol” the Philippine National Police is drafting.
Both indicate an effort to downplay the assault on press freedom that the handcuffing and arrest of media people was, and to instead turn the tables on the media by insisting that it was their fault; they asked for it. This approach was totally expected from the Arroyo regime’s police. It is consistent with police reluctance to look into the killing of journalists for which the Arroyo regime has been globally distinguished.
After years of denying that the problem existed, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was finally convinced to create a police task force to look into the killings, and to issue policy statements condemning them.
But that was long after police officials downplayed both the number as well as significance of the slayings, in several instances even declaring that some of those killed were corrupt anyway. At one low point, a police official in Bicol was quoted as saying that he understood why journalists were being killed; he wanted to kill some of them himself.
As for the task force—that’s Task Force Usig, which is also tasked with looking into the killing of political activists—it looked into the killings with the same enthusiasm as a tiger contemplating a meal of salad greens, even as it insisted that the police had “solved” most of the killings. By “solved,” it turned out that the police meant they had suspects in mind. It didn’t mean the suspected killers were in custody, were on trial, or had been convicted. They had suspects in mind.
In the government response to most issues like the killing of journalists (corruption, inefficiency, poverty, hunger, etc.), a pattern has been obvious for years. Mrs. Arroyo would issue what amounts to policy statements, and would order a government agency to look into it, or in many cases create a task force or even a commission. As if told that they should not take the presidential statements too seriously, the task force would then meet, come up with findings blaming everyone including the victims but exempting government agencies, and then disperse into oblivion.
The same pattern was evident in the aftermath of the November 29th arrests. Mrs. Arroyo declared that the media were not government’s enemies, and that the police should not “unnecessarily (sic) rile (sic)” the media. Rather than issuing an apology for the arrests, which could have laid matters to rest, the police instead proceeded to accuse those arrested of obstruction of justice, and to threaten further arrests in future incidents. In addition, the police are now putting together a “coverage protocol” which would supposedly avoid police-media conflicts.
Any such protocol is of course superfluous. Journalists are governed by professional and ethical standards based on their fundamental duty of informing the public. The Philippine Journalists’ Code of Ethics has been in place for decades, and so has the recently-revised KBP (Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas) broadcast code.
But what’s worse than its superfluity is that any such protocol can lead to tying the hands of journalists even further– even beyond the police assumption that journalists can be arrested for obstruction of justice merely by covering an event of public interest. The police are likely to interpret the terms of such a protocol in favor of restricting coverage, even as journalists will interpret them in the context of their responsibility to get the news and disseminate it.
Such a protocol will thus serve no purpose, and will certainly not avoid future conflicts, given the police and government mindset of hostility towards the press despite the protection given it by the Constitution.
But as noted earlier, it is totally expected of the police, given their authoritarian mindset, to blame the arrested journalists for what happened last November 29, as well as to shift the burden of preventing similar incidents from themselves to the press. What I did not expect was some journalists’ and academics’ doing the same.
A forum on the November 29 incident held last week at the University of the Philippines in which three journalists spoke did precisely that. One panelist argued for the media’s “critical engagement” with government, describing the adversarial relationship between media and government as “an old paradigm.”
As old a paradigm as the adversarial relationship may be, it is eminently suited to a situation in which the government conceals and distorts information while journalists take the greatest pains to get it and to distinguish fact from government spin and fiction.
But “critical engagement” is itself not new either. It was at the core of the Marcos dictatorship’s efforts to coopt the press into collaborating with it, the terms of that collaboration being as simple as they were destructive to public interest: the media were to be partners of government, and were to eschew reporting “bad” (meaning unfavorable to government) news.
Of course such an engagement is always possible. But it is also extremely dangerous not only for press freedom but for whatever remains of democracy in the country of our sorrows, given the context in which journalists have had to function during the Arroyo regime. That context has been characterized by a constant, unrelenting assault on press freedom, of which the November 29th arrests were only one incident, and which were in fact followed immediately by the threat of further journalists’ arrests for merely being physically present in similar situations.
The fundamental condition for any engagement with any government is the latter’s prior and unconditional recognition that press freedom is under Constitutional protection because it is a freedom superior to that of the police’s duty to arrest wrong-doers. That recognition is notably absent in the present regime, with its concern for survival, period.
Journalists will do well to recall the context in which some of them would argue in favor of “critical engagement.” In addition to the November 29 arrests, that context has also included an unprecedented number of journalists killed, libel suits filed, journalists imprisoned, broadcast networks threatened, films censored, and journalists threatened with sedition charges. “Critical engagement” today, as it was during the Marcos period, will mean more engagement rather than less, and less of the critical part rather than more.