Journalist Jose Torres is absolutely correct. Raul Gonzalez, secretary of what’s laughingly called the department of justice, doesn’t have the faintest idea about press freedom. He doesn’t know what it is, he wouldn’t recognize it even if he fell face-first on it, and he wouldn’t care for it even if he did understand it.

Torres, Secretary General of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, was reacting to Gonzalez’ declaration that he was amenable to arming media people in the wake of the unremitting murder of journalists during the putrid reign of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In the first place, media people, like other citizens, are already entitled to own firearms, though subject to existing laws. They don’t need special dispensation from either Gonzalez, the police or Malacanang. The only thing they have to do is to comply with existing requirements–or, like many others, bribe their way through the police bureaucracy–to obtain a firearm or carry one.

Malacanang and Gonzalez’ declaration that they’re amenable to arming media people makes sense only if what they’re saying is that they’re willing to waive the legal requirements for gun possession, or at least relax them for media practitioners. In that case, however, they would be violating the law by singling out a sector of Philippine society and arbitrarily exempting it from the law, the integrity of which depends on its impartiality.

In the second place, Gonzalez, the police and the military have been declaring all along that there is no pattern in the killing of journalists. Although 42 journalists have so far been killed since Her Majesty assumed the presidency in 2001–more than the 34 killed during the 14 years of martial rule (1972-1986)–they insist that those killed just happen to be journalists and weren’t shot dead because they had antagonized a local official, a gambling lord, or their police protectors.

The most recent gem of wisdom from the police on the matter is that the killing of journalists and activists is “normal” and part of the crime rate cycle. In the very next breath, however, Gonzalez virtually admits that journalists are being targeted for assassination by declaring that he favors arming them.

In the third place, as Torres points out, this is the same Gonzalez who has been threatening the media with criminal suits, who had a printing press raided last year for printing posters critical of Mrs. Arroyo, and who, last February, tried to justify the raid on the Daily Tribune offices, the deployment of troops in the immediate vicinity of TV networks GMA 7 and ABS-CBN, and other attempts to frighten journalists into silence.

Gonzalez in fact was so pleased with himself and the intimidation factor of Proclamation 1017 that he was practically delirious with happiness last March when he declared that apparently the media have been so frightened by the raids, the surveillance, and the threats of arrest on inciting to sedition charges that many practitioners had become “more careful” in their reporting.

No, Gonzalez should be the last person on the planet to be talking about press freedom. But neither should his cohorts in the Arroyo regime be talking about it either. Least of all should anyone of these model specimens of governance and democratic commitment be talking about democracy, one of whose most basic pillars is the freedom of journalists to report the truth without intimidation, or the threat of arrest or assassination, as well as the right of everyone to his or her opinion without being shot dead in the streets.

In a democratic society run by leaders who understand what democracy is, it wouldn’t matter which side of an issue journalists are on. In such a society, the defense of press freedom–and this means defending every media organization and practitioner regardless of political belief or affiliation–is regarded as crucial to the debate among a multitude of views that assures the survival of democracy.

In such a society, administrations see themselves as only the temporary stewards of the State rather than as the State itself. But this is the Philippines, where administrations not only equate their interests with those of the State, they also see their reigns as permanent, and themselves as the State.

In the Philippines, Malacanang, Gonzalez, the police and the military thus take special pains to depict the journalists they don’t like as “anti-government,” whereas the only thing they’re against is Arroyo. They in fact single them out for intimidation and harassment. They also condemn people with views different from theirs, and regard dissent as an offense worthy of the death penalty.

In a society whose leaders understand and are committed to the democratic ideal, neither do governments need to be reminded that it is their responsibility to protect all citizens. But in the Philippines, Gonzalez has the temerity not only to criticize the Commission on Human Rights for saying so, but even to question that basic responsibility.

Lest we forget, this is also the same country where national security advisers lie through their teeth in an effort to mislead the public and conceal government culpability in the killing of political activists as well as in its indifference to the murder of journalists.

There are other countries where, to be sure, officials also lie and cheat and utter the most despicable idiocies on a daily basis in addition to committing the most brutal atrocities. The countries of Africa run by thugs, warlords and arms dealers come to mind, for example. But what makes this country unique is that its officials, whose understanding of democracy is as rudimentary as that of the policemen they rely on to suppress demonstrations, shamelessly and regularly use democracy to justify the most undemocratic policies and acts, making it appear that this is another country rather than the Philippines they’ve made.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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