THE Aquino administration says it’s for press freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of information. It’s supposedly part of its commitment to transparency and the straight and narrow path (tuwid na daan) of governance. Since 2011, however, both its actions and inaction have been speaking louder than its words.
Shortly after Mr. Aquino came to power in 2010, there was some hope that, because of his election promise to respect press freedom and to protect human rights, he would address the urgent need to speed up the trial of the accused planners and implementers of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre. Representatives of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) coalition met with Mr. Aquino’s subordinates in the Department of Justice and the Presidential Communications Operations Office to discuss what the administration could do not only to speed up the trial if that was possible, but also to make sure that the killers of journalists would be prosecuted.
The FFFJ came prepared with doable suggestions, among them the formation of a quick response team to be composed of police officers and representatives of journalists’ and media advocacy groups that would be deployed to wherever a journalist has been killed. The team would talk to witnesses and preserve evidence.
To speed up the Ampatuan Massacre trial, the coalition suggested that Malacanang encourage the review of the Rules of Court, under the technical complexities of which petition after petition and motion after motion could be filed to delay court proceedings. Also suggested was the strengthening of the Witness Protection Program (WPP). Because of the weakness of police forensics capabilities, the testimony of witnesses is often the only means through which killers and other wrongdoers can be convicted.
The point was to begin the dismantling of the culture of impunity created by the State failure to arrest, prosecute and punish the killers of journalists. The representatives of the DOJ and of Mr. Aquino’s communications office basically agreed with the proposals.
The budget of the WPP did get a boost, but nothing else happened afterwards, despite FFFJ efforts to remind the officials responsible of the administration’s commitment to take the steps suggested.
Mr. Aquino’s administration followed up its failure to act on the other proposals by drafting a Freedom of Information (FOI) bill that it presented to a meeting of journalist and media advocacy organizations on May 3, 2011. Both that version and a second one revealed a skewed, upside down understanding of what an FOI bill should be. Both were focused on restricting information through a list of exceptions — government-held information that cannot be disclosed – rather than enhancing information on the basis of criteria the United Nations was encouraging compliance with among nations in order to put in place an authentic freedom of information regime — information being, said the UN, a human right.
A third version that while far from perfect press freedom and civil society groups agreed with despite some reservations was eventually put together, but Mr. Aquino did not include it in his list of legislative priorities in the 15th Congress. The bill did pass the House Committee on Public Information this November, but is in danger of being killed anyway, if it isn’t discussed during the House Plenary before December 22, when the House adjourns for the Christmas break. Sessions will resume on January 15, but will end on February 14, which is the start of the campaign season for the 2013 senatorial and local elections.
If the FOI bill was several times in the throes of death, two bills corrosive of the right to information and the exercise of free expression breezed through Congress within a few months, and were immediately signed by Mr. Aquino into law: the Data Privacy Act which he signed last August, and the Cyber Crime Prevention Act of 2012 he signed in September.
In the meantime, Mr. Aquino had been rebuking the news media for various supposed offenses, among them for reporting the bad news rather than the good, for focusing on his love life, and for conflicts of interest. These criticisms of the press he launched at least four times this year, sending to officialdom across the country the message that his displeasure with the news media implied approval of such attacks on the press as the indiscriminate filing of libel suits, banning critical journalists from press conferences, and even threatening them with physical harm–all in the context of the killing of journalists that has not abated despite Mr. Aquino’s vow to do something about it.
If Mr. Aquino’s deeds don’t match his words in the press freedom and free expression domains, neither do they match his words as far as human rights are concerned.
Doubtless the celebration of Human Rights Day this Monday, December 10, will be one more occasion during which Mr. Aquino will dish out the usual clichés about his commitment to human rights, complete with reminders that his parents were themselves victims of human rights violations.
And yet, human rights violations are not only continuing but have even escalated in scope and number since he came to power in 2010. Entire battalions are practically occupation forces in many places in the Philippines, where local people have been subjected to unlawful searches, forced to provide soldiers with food and other supplies, and subjected to various forms of harassments including arbitrary detention and even torture. For being critical of this state of affairs, some journalists have also been included in military Orders of Battle, and have been receiving death threats as well.
In most of these localities such as the Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon province, which the military says is “NPA infested,” troops have taken over barangay halls and schools. The occupation of schools has prevented children from attending classes, which may be an unintended consequence of troop deployments. On the other hand, could it be deliberate, with the administration and its military thinking that the best way to prevent rebellion is to keep people stupid?
The Aquino administration has also raised the reward money it’s offering for the capture of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines. It seems logical, given the already non-debatable fact that the peace talks with the CPP-led National Democratic Front have never been as dead as they are than during this administration. But the even more sound possibility is that the rewards have been raised so certain AFP officers—who claim to be men of honor, probity and unsullied morals–can claim them once they’ve tortured some poor nobody into admitting that he’s actually not a security guard, a tricycle driver or a farmer, but this or that CPP leader. It only seems coincidental that this is occurring on the eve of elections, when the politicians who have the military in their pockets are in the middle of raising funds for the 2013 campaign.
This is how the Philippines is taking shape under Aquino. For a growing number of Filipinos, it’s far from being a fun place.