Press freedom’s foe

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I can’t recall Dr. Jose Abueva’s exact words, not having had the foresight to bring along a sound recorder. But I suppose Vergel Santos, Business World editorial board chair, Maria Ressa, head of the News and Current Affairs Group of ABS-CBN, and Isagani Yambot, publisher of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, can attest to their substance.

Santos, Ressa and Yambot were among the panelists in a forum on “Threats to Press Freedom” sponsored by the Futuristics Society of the Philippines last October 13. In the audience were several journalists, including Jose Pavia, Executive Director of the Philippine Press Institute, as well as journalism/communication students from De La Salle University, the Lyceum of the Philippines, and Kalayaan College.

The former president of the University of the Philippines (he now heads Kalayaan College and also chairs the Constitutional Commission charged with advising the Arroyo government on charter change) said that the reason for Arroyo regime repression is that the threats against it are real.

In the context of the forum theme, I could only surmise that by “repression” Dr. Abueva was referring to the range of regime actions, including but not limited to its assault on free expression and press freedom, that it has launched since early 2006.

I also assumed that he was premising his remark on the oft-repeated claim that a government has the right to defend itself against threats to its existence. Most Filipinos agree with this claim, and, assuming the reality of the threats against the regime, would probably agree with Dr. Abueva.

I don’t. There is indeed a threat to the regime, but not from the sources it’s currently attributing its woes to, meaning the New People’s Army, the Muslim secessionist movement, and military adventurism. The primary threat against it is the very citizenry on whose behalf it claims to be acting– but who, in survey after survey, has variously expressed disapproval of its actions, lack of trust in it, and a desire for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to either resign or be removed from the office to which she claims to have been elected.

At this very moment, the calls for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation have been renewed by civil society groups, the bishops of the Catholic Church it hasn’t bought, and the leaders of several Protestant denominations. Their reason is clear enough. Even the usually spineless Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has condemned the regime’s moral bankruptcy, so hopelessly mired in sleaze is it, as evidenced by the corruption scandals not even a dozen Makati mall explosions can bury.

There’s the NBN-ZTE scandal, which has the regime’s dirty fingerprints all over it, and the amazingly stupid handout of bribe money to congressmen and provincial governors in Malacanang, the very belly of the beast itself, last October 11.

As outrageous as these scandals are, they’re only the most recent ones regime greed has generated. The “Hello Garci” scandal rankles still, despite the number of ads regime surrogates may take out urging that the country “move on,” and so does the “Joc Joc” Bolante fertilizer fund scam, both of them linked to the fraud-ridden elections of 2004. How the regime is able to sustain citizen outrage and fuel mass anger through its own acts is in fact threatening to become one of the great mysteries of life in these isles of fear.

What of the “threat” from Muslim secessionists, the Abu Sayyaf, military adventurists, and the CPP-NPA?

The regime is in the middle of peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and has repeatedly claimed that it’s on the verge of signing a peace agreement with the MILF. Although the military blames the Abu Sayyaf Group for various depredations, the Armed Forces of the Philippines itself claims that it’s a “spent force.” In any case, the ASG has never been in any position to bring down any government including the present one.

On the other hand, the NPA admits that its present force of some 8,000 guerillas can’t defeat the AFP enough to seize power nationwide. As for military adventurism, experience has demonstrated how over-rated that threat is, given the habit of most coup plotters to advertise their intentions, waffle at the last minute, and, once threatened with the least inconvenience, grovel before the regime they claim to oppose.

The long and the short of it is that the regime has been selling the country a bill of goods to justify the ongoing repression. It has capitalized on the anti-Muslim and anti-communist fears of the majority to mask the bottom-line reason why it’s made the systematic violation of human rights and extra judicial killings a national policy; why it has been suppressing free expression through various means; and why it has systematically sabotaged the constitutional commitment to transparent governance through, for example, Executive Order 464.

That primal reason is to remain in power. To do that it knows it must halt or minimize criticism of its acts, conceal the corruption that has metastasized from top to bottom of the government bureaucracy, and blame the mess the country is in on none-state actors rather than itself. Among other foul deeds, it would suppress free expression to win the war it’s waging against the citizenry itself. The regime is not the most immediate threat to press freedom. It is press freedom’s most tangible foe.

(BusinessWorld)

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