JOURNALISTS’ and media advocacy groups marked World Press Freedom Day on May 3 (yesterday in Manila) this year as in the past years. But as if by agreement, they avoided the word “celebrated,” echoing a National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) statement marking the occasion in 2010 that “there is nothing to celebrate,” among other reasons because 32 journalists and media workers had been killed on November 23, 2009 in Maguindanao in what is now known as the Ampatuan Massacre.
NUJP did hold its usual “media jam” this year, during which, however, the gaiety was in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the uncertainties of the decade, specially the past two and a half years.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) launched a page on its website calling attention to, and demanding action on, the continuing killing of journalists and media workers, the use of criminal libel to silence journalists, and the failure of the Philippines, almost uniquely among the countries of Asia, to pass a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) released a petition for signature by press freedom activists and advocates, whether individuals or organizations, urging the passage of the FOI bill pending in Congress, but with the caveat that any attempt to saddle an FOI law with a right of reply provision should be opposed as a threat to press freedom.
The pessimism evident in the activities and statements marking World Press Freedom Day did not take shape only after the Ampatuan Massacre. It’s been in place since a trend towards media and press liberalization worldwide was reversed by the events following the attack on the World Trade Center and other US targets on September 11, 2001, and replaced by human rights and press repression in the name of anti-terrorism.
In the Philippines, to curry US favor to support her staying in power, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who only a few months earlier had assumed the Presidency thanks (or no thanks) to EDSA 2, used the occasion to pledge unconditional support to whatever initiatives US President George W. Bush would take to punish the suspected perpetrators.
The regime focus on staying in power inevitably led to attempts at the curtailment of free expression, culminating in the 2006 declaration of a state of emergency, during which it threatened several media organizations with inciting to sedition charges and other harassments including the surveillance of their offices and putting them in a list of “Enemies of the State.” Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel paralleled these attempts at repression by filing 11 libel suits against 46 journalists.
The killing of journalists also spiked during the nine-year watch of Arroyo as a consequence of the regime’s unstated but operational policy of indifference to the murders even as its military goon squads were orchestrating the extra-judicial killing of human rights and political activists.
The result was the significant erosion of the press freedom and the freedom of expression, including the right of assembly, the Constitution guarantees, with the country steadily falling in the ranking of international press freedom and free expression watch groups. The media and civil society organizations campaigning for a freedom of information act continued their advocacy despite the hostile environment for free expression, but were repeatedly repulsed, the last instance being the fraudulent pledge to support an FOI bill by the 14th Congress while being opposed to it, resulting in the reconciled bill’s not even being discussed at all.
But not all the problems of the Philippine press have been due to external factors. What has been evident since the martial law period is that some of the most critical of these problems are also internally-sourced.
External assaults against the press are continuing, among them the killing of journalists for their work (the most recent occurred four days before World Press Freedom Day); the surge in the number of criminal libel suits against journalists despite the October 2011 UN declaration that the Philippine libel law is excessive and incompatible with international human rights law; the increasing difficulties in accessing government-held information as a result of such State acts as the refusal of the Supreme Court to release the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of the justices; the barriers to accessing the SALNs of other officials imposed by former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez; and other forms of harassments such as physical assaults, verbal abuse, threats and the denial of access to press conferences.
These are by themselves bad enough. But unremarked is the even worse consequence of these assaults’ enhancement of the built-in constraints in media organizations on the coverage of events and issues crucial to citizen understanding of the perennial crises — the egregious human rights violations, the worsening hunger and poverty among millions of Filipinos, the deficiency and even absence of both simple and social justice, the epidemic of violence, the political instability and the corruption in both the public and private spheres — that have afflicted the Philippines and Filipinos for decades.
In a turn of events that can only be described as bizarre, press freedom is actually being abused in the reporting, emphasis and focus on events irrelevant to that need, among them the glee with which the press and media follow celebrity trivia, including who is dating whom, and most particularly who Benigno Aquino III has been seen with; their enthusiasm for sensationalizing crime, violence and sex; the flippancy with which they depict those individuals in the news who are unable to retaliate, such as the poor and powerless; and the sacrifice of accuracy and fairness for the sake of speed and exclusives.
The “mainstream” or dominant press does report the scandals, controversies and atrocities that almost daily add to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Filipino flesh is already subjected to. But the same freedom is hardly utilized to look into the root causes of the Philippine crisis, its exercise being limited to reporting and describing the symptoms of the disease. That task has not surprisingly been left to the tenacious survivors of the 123-year-old alternative press tradition (which began with the publication of La Solidaridad in February, 1889), among other reasons because the political and economic interests that control the dominant press prevent its doing so.
Press freedom does have to be defended from external threats. . But equally important in the Philippine context today is practitioner determination, whether he or she is in the mainstream or the alternative wing of the press, to overcome as well those constraints on the duty to provide the information and analyses a country in crisis sorely needs.