Ambassador to the United Nations Lauro Baja Jr. asked New York Times readers to come to the Philippines to “breathe the air of freedom” in a letter to that newspaper last week. But as if to validate what the Times had said in its April 5 editorial, a demonstration at Manila’s Chino Roces (Mendiola) bridge was dispersed by the police with water cannon, leaving the participants sopping wet and breathless, on the same day the department of foreign affairs made Baja’s letter public.
Baja was replying to the Times editorial “Dark Days for Philippine Democracy”.
Sounding uncannily like some Manila broadsheets, the Times described Mrs. Arroyo as having “completely lost touch with the ideals that inspired the 1986 ‘people power’ movement” that ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
“Mrs. Arroyo is no Ferdinand Marcos, at least not yet,” said the Times. “But this one- time reformer (sic!) is reviving bad memories of crony corruption, presidential vote-rigging and intimidation of critical journalists… democracy itself may be in danger.
“[US] President Bush has repeatedly hailed Mrs. Arroyo as an important ally against international terrorism. He now needs to warn her that by undermining a hard-won democracy, she is making her country more vulnerable to terrorist pressures,” the Times concluded.
While Baja was sending off his letter, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye declared that the editorial was the opposition’s fault, for “impacting international perceptions”. The regime, Bunye said, was taking steps to get the Times to print “the president’s side,” which the Times should do if it’s a fair newspaper.
Well, it hasn’t always been fair, but it does try. It also assumes that the US has the right to tell other countries what to do. But it doesn’t write editorials without research first. Least of all does it merely accept the claims of any group such as the Philippine opposition without consulting other sources.
Not that the Times is super meticulous. Doing research, getting the facts right and making reasonable conclusions are every journalists’ professional responsibilities. But you know the drill. Someone says something the Palace doesn’t like, and Bunye and company react.
If they seem to have over-reacted in this instance—to the extent of implying that, like a bunch of amateurs, Times editors had been deceived by the opposition—you can’t blame Mrs. Arroyo and company. They need US media displeasure like another hole in the head. The other hole in their head is the US right wing think- tanks’ perception that Mrs. Arroyo is an unreliable ally, and what’s more, is too open to China’s economic seduction.
Since Mrs. Arroyo recalled the Philippine mission to Iraq headed by that great humanitarian, Jovito Palparan, in 2004, and signed an agreement with China to explore for natural gas in the Spratlys, those think tanks haven’t been looking at her too kindly. At one point the Heritage Foundation described her as “the weakest leader in Asia” for making those decisions—while ignoring how she’s practically converted Mindanao into one huge US base.
But why should US media and think-tank perceptions matter to the government of a sovereign country? Because this country’s not exactly sovereign, that’s why, and its rulers depend on US support, or at least approval, for survival. The US mainstream media being dominantly liberal, its displeasure could mean that though for different reasons, both the US Right and the US “Left” could agree, as they did in 1986 about Marcos, that Arroyo might have to go.
Significantly, the Times editorial was preceded by an article on media repression in the Philippines by Seth Mydans, its correspondent for Southeast Asia. The Mydans article might have even inspired the April 5 editorial. Uploaded on the Times website two days earlier on April 3, “The Philippines Wages a Campaign of Intimidation Against Journalists” described how the Arroyo regime’s “campaign against the press strikes at the heart of the freedoms won in 1986 when [Ferdinand] Marcos was driven from the presidency by a popular uprising.”
Mydans noted pressures on the press (“warnings, watch lists, surveillance, court cases, harassment lawsuits and threats of arrest on charges of sedition”), as well as the police’s breaking up the celebration of International Women’s Day, and former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and company’s aborted walk in the Rizal park.
“The government,” Mydans said further, “has singled out in its threatening statements the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, a small aggressive group of journalists led by Sheila Coronel, a prominent journalist.”
Well-known to many Filipinos as a government watchdog, PCIJ has been slapped with seven court suits, among them libel and inciting to sedition, by government-friendly sources. Its crime? Uploading the “Hello Garci” and related material on its website.
Mydans quotes Coronel: “They [the government] say they are studying sedition charges. They say they have lists, but they don’t say who is on them…People went to prison, people died for [press] freedom, and if you give it up it is a betrayal of all the sacrifices that people have made in the past, people I know personally. It really makes me mad.”
In his letter to the Times, however, Baja insisted that “The press and civil society continue to be one of the most free (sic) and vibrant sectors of our society.” Maybe he should come home so he can breathe the same foul air the press and everyone else have been breathing since February in this earthly paradise.