Unless the media do something about it, in the next crisis situation journalists will again be arrested and charged with abetting rebellion or some other such offense reminiscent of the martial law catch-all of “subversion”. The suits media organizations and individual journalists filed last January 28 to stop government threats are part of their effort to prevent the recurrence of that evil.
A government policy of press intimidation is at the root of the concerted attack on the Philippine press, unprecedented since the martial law period, that we’re currently witnessing. The attack is meant to prevent information on such matters as corruption and human rights violations from reaching the public. The policy is being implemented as journalists continue to be killed and harassed, and bodes ill for the future of press freedom and the political discourse on the country’s problems.
As 2007 was ending, some international media watch groups had noted “improvement” in the Philippine press situation. “Only” one journalist had been killed as December came around, rather than the annual average of four since 1986. The threat of crippling libel charges from government officials seemed to have abated as the president’s husband withdrew his 11 libel suits against 46 reporters, columnists, editors and publishers. Two suspects in the 2001 killing of an Aklan journalist had also been arrested.
But 2007 did not pass with only one journalist killed. Ferdinand Lintuan was shot dead in Davao on December 24, less than a month after the arrest of over 30 journalists and media technicians covering the Peninsula Hotel incident on November 29, 2007. All’s not well in the prosecution of journalists’ killers either. The culture of impunity, the result of the intricate web of police-judiciary-local interest collusion, is not only alive but thriving.
Aware of what is at stake, several media advocacy and journalists’ organizations have been involved in efforts to dismantle the culture of impunity, oppose the use of the libel law to silence the press, and halt the escalating threats to the Constitutionally-guaranteed right of journalists to report and comment on public issues without being handcuffed, manhandled, and hauled off to a police camp for crossing imaginary police lines.
Among those initiatives at the legal level was the filing of a class suit in 2006 in response to the presidential husband’s libel suits. Others have included safety training for journalists, seminars in ethics and professional standards, and the activation of regional press councils to hear citizen complaints against the media.
The petitions filed last January 28– one before the Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition and the other a class suit for damages and a temporary restraining order filed at the Makati Regional Trial Court to stop further threats against the press and to prevent future arrests—these suits are part of the journalism community’s continuing response to official intimidation, threats and harassment. The Philippine press and the individuals and groups that compose it have passed the stage of issuing statements and manifestos alone, and will supplement such campaigns for public awareness with the use of the legal means at their disposal.
Some of the officials who have been charged claim to be surprised. The funniest secretary of justice the country has ever had claims to be amused. From Malacanang have come expressions of regret over the suits, and suggestions that the journalists should have sought a dialogue with the police and other government officials they’ve sued.
And yet the media community has been told again and again when it complains about government high-handedness that it should go to court. Sergio Apostol, Mrs. Arroyo’s legal adviser who the other day was lecturing the Supreme Court on issues of law, has said it so often he already sounds like a cracked CD. Gonzalez and Eduardo Ermita have similarly said so. Now that the media are suing, they cluck their tongues and advise otherwise, and belittle the suits by making little jokes in obvious disrespect for the courts and the law they’re so fond of invoking.
As for police-media dialogues, what the police have demonstrated time and again is that they won’t be moved from their insistence on curtailing press freedom whatever the media say, thus effectively making any agreement impossible.
What these people don’t know is that there’s a global response to the equally global threat against the press and free expression. As a country with the longest democratic traditions in Asia, the Philippines has come under increasing scrutiny from human rights, press freedom, and free expression groups.
It’s not only because the Philippine situation is fraught with irony (journalists’ and activists’ being killed despite constitutional protection, a democracy in name that suppresses free assembly, a country ruled by a corrupt and tyrannical elite, a lawless law and order regime). It’s also because the response to that situation has been creative and unique—and has worked.
In 2006, for example, lawyer Harry Roque filed a class action suit in behalf of three media organizations and several dozen journalists accusing Jose Miquel Arroyo of abusing his right to sue when he filed 11 libel suits against 46 reporters, columnists and editors. Arroyo dropped his libel suits, and while still pending, the case has become a model for journalists in similar predicaments elsewhere.
The January 28 suits were filed in the context of international press freedom groups’ decision to support such initiatives. Their outcome will thus be closely watched from New York to Paris, from Bangkok to Hongkong to Jakarta. They indicate that there are legal means journalists can use to challenge the policy of intimidation the Arroyo regime has adopted to insure its political survival and dominance. The joke could still be on them—on the comic book creatures who’ve been inflicting themselves on this country for what seems like an eternity. We are not alone.