Press freedom alleged

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The death last Saturday of Allan Dizon, a photojournalist like Gene Boyd Lumawag of Mindanao, who was killed two weeks ago in Jolo, Sulu, brings the number of journalists killed this year to 12, and the Philippine record since 1986 to 60. These deaths have made press freedom an allegation rather than the reality many Filipinos presume it to be. The haunting possibility is that they will continue.

Four journalists were killed in November alone, making 2004 the worst year so far since democracy was–allegedly– restored in this country 18 years ago.

I say “allegedly restored” because it is at least debatable if what obtained in the Philippines before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 was democracy. The existence of institutions that can be described as democratic–a separate legislature, a judiciary tasked with, among others, checking the excesses of government, a Constitutional guarantee of free expression and a free press–does not necessarily make a democracy. They only make democracy possible, and making democracy possible depends on the willingness of the government to implement the rules and to listen to its constituencies’ demands.

Before 1972 the Philippine press was noisy and in some instances bold enough to merit its description as “the freest in Asia.” It did expose wrongdoing. The broadsheets and even the weekly magazines were full of exposes of corruption, injustice and official stupidity. But the existence of a reasonably free press did not make the shooting of protesters at Manila’s Plaza Miranda impossible. Neither did its existence make elections fair or free from voter intimidation and vote-buying.

The existence of a legislature was no guarantee of Executive uprightness either. As it turned out in 1972, and as we learned to our despair, neither did the existence of a Supreme Court guarantee state observance of the right to due process, as thousands were arbitrarily arrested with Court approval (the Court declared, in answer to a petition by detained journalists in late 1972, that Marcos’ placing the country under martial law was a political decision over which it, the Court, had no jurisdiction).

The supreme irony was that the declaration of martial law was actually a response to a real threat. That threat was the possibility that the democracy to which the country had been paying lip service since independence was –again allegedly– regained in 1946, was actually developing in the streets, factories, schools and paddy fields across the archipelago as professionals, students, workers and farmers demanded wide-ranging reforms, in the process making their voices hear.

Marcos did hear those voices, but he didn’t listen to them. Instead he moved to suppress them through martial law and was eminently successful. In 1986, what were thus restored were the formal institutions of democracy, and not its substance in the form of the reforms almost every sector of Philippine society was demanding. The martial law experience did lead to the drafting of a liberal and progressive Constitution focused on preventing the return of authoritarian rule. But the Constitution could not reform Philippine society.

That task was left to the people who assumed political leadership after Marcos, on whom People Power 1 had implicitly bestowed the duty to listen to popular demands for those reforms that martial law had frustrated. Unfortunately, while that leadership did preside over the restoration of the institutions of liberal democracy–elections, the guarantees of press freedom and free assembly, etc.–it did not reform Philippine society.

The result is the Philippines as we know it today. It is a country rife with contradictions. Not the least of them is the existence of a liberal Constitution in a social and political context at odds with its most progressive provisions.

That Constitution bans foreign troops on Philippine soil and mandates an independent foreign policy. But it has not prevented US troops from being around, and Philippine foreign policy from being so obviously dependent on US policies.

The same document mandates state commitment to social justice. But it has not made the distribution of wealth any more just than its being concentrated in less than ten percent of the population.

The Constitution also protects free assembly, free speech and a free press. But it has not prevented the police’s withholding rally permits or the military’s shooting picketing workers dead.

Neither has the same Constitution prevented the killing of journalists. It is not known if photojournalist Dizon was killed for his work, but right now that hardly seems to matter. The fact is that he worked for Cebu’s The Freeman and Banat News, and that his death means one less practitioner in a field already narrowed by past deaths.

In the debate over whether a journalist was killed for his work or not, one fact is usually ignored. It is that every journalist in this country, even the most corrupt, the most unprofessional and the most socially unaware, has at some point or another been critical of something, whether it be his town’s garbage policies, or of some petty politician. If a journalist stays long enough in the game (one hesitates to call journalism in this country a profession), he is likely to step on someone’s toes in some way or another.

The reason is clear enough. Journalism educators may rant over the lack or insufficiency of the training of many journalists. But the journalism culture that has evolved in the Philippines demands criticism of something–anything–that’s going on, and everyone who’s practiced journalism assumes it to be journalism’s particular mission.

Of course some practitioners are corrupt and are in the pay of certain interests, or can’t write a straight sentence in any language even if you offered them the Nobel Prize. But read what they do try to write and listen to what they say. They may avoid biting the hand that helps feed them via the forthnightly envelope, or the press release in which a hundred peso bill is folded, but neither stops them from attacking someone else, often in the most offensive manner imaginable. That means that it is almost impossible to determine whether a journalist was killed for his work or not, and the National Union of Journalists is correct in assuming every journalist’s assassination as due to his work.

Enter the peculiar context in which this kind of journalism is practiced. It is a context in which the dominant mindset of officialdom, the police, the military, business interests, Church, the schools, the middle class and nearly everyone else is distinctly authoritarian.

It is a context in which debate is not the preferred form of discourse, but the use of power, whether it be in the form of the MTRCB’s censoring films and television shows, calling out the Marines and the SWAT team– or hiring an assassin.

The contradiction between the protection accorded press freedom in the Constitution, and on the ground, the authoritarian impulse inevitable in a society where preventing change has become the priority of politicians, the churches, the police, landlords, business, etc. is at the root of the continuing killing of journalists. That is why all the calls for government to step in have so far been mostly futile. You can’t expect the local police or local executives to go after the killers of journalists with whom, in many instances, they secretly agree were correct in silencing the victim– or whom they hired or conspired with, in the first place.

No amount of legal protection will prevent journalists from being killed for so long as this mindset and the social and political conditions in which it is rooted exist. Under these conditions, press freedom, just like “democracy” and “independence,” will continue to be one of the “allegedlies” of Philippine society.

Right now that doesn’t encourage optimism that the killings, so far confined to the community press, will stop–or that, sooner or later, they will not migrate to the so-called “national press” smugly resident in metro Manila.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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