Not so free, after all

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The press freedom watchdog group Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF – Reporters Without Borders) released on October 26 its worldwide index of countries ranked according to respect for press freedom. The index did not put the Philippines at the top of its list, as many Filipinos would have expected, but near the bottom, with countries where press freedom is least under serious challenge.

The Paris-based group ranked the Philippines 89th among 139 countries, together with Africa’s Morocco and Swaziland. In Asia, the Philippines was outranked by Hong Kong (18th), Japan (26th), Taiwan (35th), Sri Lanka (51st), Indonesia (57th), Thailand (65th), Cambodia (71st) and India (80th).

Filipinos including the journalists among them would probably grant, though somewhat begrudgingly, that Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan could conceivably be ahead of the Philippines not only in economic but also in press freedom terms.

Although now part of China (which ranked 138th, or second to the last, in the Index), Hong Kong has managed to preserve much of the freedom its press enjoyed under late British rule.

The Japanese press needs no defending. And while press freedom is of recent vintage in Taiwan, which for decades was a virtual garrison state, the government does leave the Taiwan press alone most of the time.

But Indonesia, where mobs have made it a practice to raid and destroy the offices of newspapers whose reporting they don’t like, and Cambodia, where reporters guarantee politicians favorable reports in exchange for a dollar’s worth of gas for their motorbikes?

RSF did explain why certain countries were ranked the way they were. But it did not explain why the Philippines was in 89th place. Neither plain Filipino citizens nor media practitioners have to rack their brains for the reason, however.

The killing of community journalists in the Philippines very likely earned it its place near the tail end of RSF’s Index. Yes, Virginia, journalists do get killed in this rumored democracy, although few people know it, while those who do don’t seem to care.

Two Filipino journalists have been killed so far this year, bringing the total of those killed since 1986, when democracy was supposed to have been restored in the Philippines, to 39.

A print and broadcast journalist, Edgardo Demalerio (he was a correspondent for a Manila newspaper as well as a radio commentator), was killed in Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur, on May 13. A community newspaper publisher and cable TV commentator, Sonny Alcantara, was assassinated in San Pablo City only on August 22.

Neither killing made the front pages of the Manila newspapers. Only two reported it (Today was among the newspapers that did.)

Neither story made it at all to the six or ten o’clock TV news.

RSF said it put the Index together by asking journalists, lawyers and researchers to answer 50 questions about “the whole range of press freedom violations.”

The murder or arrest of journalists headed the list of such violations, followed by censorship, pressure, state monopolies over the media, penalties for press law offenses and government regulation of the media.

There is neither official censorship nor state media monopoly in the Philippines. There is no press law (in many countries, a law that applies solely to the press) that mandates penalties for press “offenses” like publishing reports critical of the government.

Only the broadcast media are regulated by the government, and only administratively through the National Telecommunications Commission.

Only the murder of journalists could have put the Philippines in the same ignoble rank as Morocco and Swaziland. (In both the latter countries journalists have been arrested for a variety of offenses, and there is government regulation of the press.)

The murder of journalists in the Philippines has been going on for 16 years; what’s worse is that no one has been punished for any one of them. Journalists are being killed with impunity in this bastion of democracy despite the absence of government regulations—and a constitutional protection for press freedom.

The murders are already a record in the Southeast Asian region, where, despite various forms of regulation, repression and pressure in several countries (for example, Singapore and Malaysia), the worst that has happened to journalists is to be thrown in jail. The murder of journalists in the line of duty is rare in the rest of Southeast Asia.

The killings are a serious impediment to journalistic inquiry in the communities—where local issues and problems that directly affect residents demand the closest attention, but where local warlords and crime syndicates are often in league with local authorities including the police.

RSF’s Index does contain “surprises” other than the Philippines’ low ranking. For example, the United States (17th) was ranked below Costa Rica (15th), and Italy (40th) below several poor countries.

Costa Rica, said RSF, is an example “of how the growth of a free press does not depend on a country’s material prosperity.” Costa Rica ranked highest in the RSF Index among the world’s poor countries. Its 15th place is shared by wealthy Switzerland.

Supposedly a beacon of freedom and liberty, the United States ranked poorly relative to its supposed leadership role in human rights “because of the number of journalists arrested or imprisoned there,” said RSF.

US journalists have been arrested since September 11, 2001, because they refused to reveal their sources in court, or for crossing security lines in government buildings.

On the other hand, Italy ranked the lowest among the countries of the European Union and even below some Latin-American countries because “news diversity is under serious threat in that country,” said RSF. (Other European countries ranked highest in the Index, with Finland, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands being in first place.)

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlesconi, says RSF, is pressuring state-owned TV stations and has named his henchmen to run them, while himself being head of a private media group. Italy has also imprisoned a journalist for offenses supposedly committed 30 years ago and is monitoring journalists’ activities, searching their offices, and confiscating their equipment.

These surprises, however, should be of small consolation to the members of the Philippine community press where the killings have been concentrated. What’s odder, however, is that only the international press advocacy groups like RSF and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists seem to take the Philippine killings seriously.

Instead of the usual press organizations, it was a group of NGOs committed to free expression which first brought the killings and the slow pace of their investigation to the attention of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. A September letter by these groups has caused Interior Secretary Jose Lina to require periodic reports from local police forces on the progress of their investigation.

The killings have of course had a chilling effect on the exercise of the press’ functions in both communities. In San Pablo City, for example, the acquaintances of the slain Alcantara confess that they have since learned to look over their shoulders, and to wonder who will be next.

When journalists are killed anywhere, their fellow workers will naturally think twice before writing that explosive report or printing that critical column. Only by stretching the definition of freedom can one describe that situation as free, thus the Philippine press’ low ranking in the RSF Index.

(TODAY/ABS-CBNNEWS.COM, November 2, 2002)

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