State of war

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TWO VIEWS of the press, its role in society, and its ethical and professional responsibilities so contradictory the protagonists might as well be from different planets define the relationship between President Benigno Aquino III and those media organizations committed to press freedom and free expression.

From his numerous statements and frequent criticism of the news media, few can escape the conclusion that Mr. Aquino thinks that the press should be the cheering squad of his administration, the policies of which he fancies have curbed corruption and achieved unprecedented economic growth. As in a basketball game—or as in one of those shooting matches Mr. Aquino loves—he would like to hear the press shouting Hosannas each time he thinks he has scored a point.

That it doesn’t, and instead insists on asking questions and even doubting his claims as it must, is at the root of his antipathy to the Philippine press. To the foreign press he’s not so hostile, and has in fact indirectly praised it for reporting that the Philippine economy outperformed those of its neighbors in 2012 . He has rebuked the Philippine press for supposedly emphasizing the bad news—the increase in the unemployment rate, for example—and glossing over the good (such as the alleged surge in the number of tourists).

I suppose he expects the press to be upbeat about the Compostela Valley floods and landslides too. Shouldn’t the press be ignoring the absence of a coherent environment policy that has destroyed entire communities and killed hundreds of men, women and children? Maybe it should also turn a blind eye to the plight of the starving thousands who’re being forced to beg and fight for food as a result of the destruction of their homes and sources of livelihood? It’s bad for tourism, after all, and not exactly encouraging of foreign investments.

Mr. Aquino has also accused the media of inaccuracy and corruption, problems that do exist, and which journalists’ and media advocacy groups have been addressing for years. Obviously, however, Mr. Aquino is using these issues to justify his administration’s not doing anything about the killing of journalists, its antipathy to an FOI act , and its support for criminal libel.

As inchoate as Mr. Aquino’s views are, they’re reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorship’s insistence that the press cheer its alleged achievements. In contrast is the universally-held view that the function of the press is to monitor government in behalf of the citizenry, to keep it honest, and to report wrongdoing. To do these, not only does the press have to be free from violence, censorship and other restraints; like the rest of the citizenry, it also needs access to information.

Mr. Aquino’s cluelessness about the role of the press and its responsibilities in society made 2012, during which journalists continued to be harassed, threatened and killed, particularly problematic for the news media. Although Congressional initiatives as well as default also contributed to making the year a difficult one, because the House majority was taking its cue from him, Mr. Aquino bears much of the responsibility for it.

Neither Mr. Aquino nor his House allies were paying attention, so busy were they rebuking the press and sabotaging the FOI bill. But the killing of journalists continued in 2012, with four killed for their work, or a total of 11 since Mr. Aquino came to power in 2010. Libel suits filed with the obvious intention of silencing critical journalists, exclusion from press conferences, threats, inclusion in military Orders of Battle, and actual physical assaults also occurred with disturbing frequency.

Heading the list of congressional initiatives against free expression was the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which would curtail free expression both on and off the Internet. Outstanding among the defaults of the people’s representatives was their failure to pass a Freedom of Information act.

Most of the congressmen, including the chair of the House Committee on Public Information, pretended to support the FOI bill, while actually being opposed to it. They put all sorts of obstacles in its path, including, at one point, the excuse that the Committee on Public Information could not discuss it because there was no room available in the vast Batasan complex. Some of Mr. Aquino’s allies did say they would vote for the FOI bill—provided it includes a right of reply rider.

Mr. Aquino’s own expression of support for the Cybercrime Prevention Act—he did sign it, and very quickly, last September—and particularly for its provision on libel among the online offenses for which offenders could be penalized with imprisonment, and his frequent criticism of the press for, among other lapses, inaccuracy and its supposed focus on the bad news, could only have helped make 2012 an even more problematic year for free expression—as did his refusal, for the second year in a row, to include the FOI bill in his list of legislative priorities.

Mr. Aquino’s failure so far to take the steps necessary to hurry the pace of the trial of the accused in the Ampatuan Massacre and to decisively address such other factors which have been instrumental in the killing of journalists as warlordism in the countryside and the involvement of police and military people have also helped encourage the continuing intimidation of journalists by sending the message to those offended by unfavorable press coverage that they can continue to harass, threaten and even kill critical practitioners.

As a result, the passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act while the FOI bill continues to languish in Congress, the continuing killing of journalists that Mr. Aquino has not done much to stop, and his by now well-established hostility to a press that, for all its admitted faults, remains the citizenry’s main weapon and shield against government abuse and wrongdoing, have been interpreted in some journalists’ circles as constituting “a declaration of war” by government against the press community.

Those media groups that value free expression have pledged to respond in kind to any further attack on the press from government functionaries, whether congressmen or Mr. Aquino himself. Among those responses could be a campaign in 2013 against those who pretend to be press freedom’s friends but who’re not, and those responsible for such laws as the Cyber Crime Prevention Act.

Thanks to Mr. Aquino and his cohorts, a situation characterized by mutual suspicion and antagonism between his administration and those media advocacy and journalists’ groups committed to the defense of press freedom and free expression is emerging. It’s a virtual replication of the 2003-2009 state of war between the Arroyo administration and responsible media advocacy and journalists’ groups.

(BusinessWorld)

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