Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo doesn’t understand or appreciate the role of press freedom in Philippine society, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists said on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day. This could imply that plain ignorance is the reason for the Arroyo regime’s assault on press freedom and its refusal to do much of anything to punish the killers of journalists. In that case the only thing we have to do is educate it in the fine points of media appreciation.

But is ignorance its only offense? And is it even educable? Mrs. Arroyo and her Bill of Rights wrecking crew may not appreciate press freedom, if by “appreciation” we mean the state of mind that’s grateful for it, and realizes its value. But judging from the acts and statements of Mrs. Arroyo, Mike Defensor, Raul Gonzalez , Norberto Gonzales and her police and military henchmen, they do understand that press freedom is at the heart of democratic governance and society.

Understanding the role of press freedom in society doesn’t necessarily mean being committed to it, however. In the Arroyo regime’s case, understanding this role is the very reason for its hostility to press freedom and free expression. That is why it is in the business of suppressing both.

Mrs. Arroyo herself would certainly have realized, since 2001 at least, that press freedom helped put her in power in the course of the people’s exercise of their right to remove a president and to install a new one.

They may not have gotten the deal they bargained for in that Mrs. Arroyo has turned out to be worse than Estrada, and is now firmly established as the country’s worst ever de facto president since Ferdinand Marcos. But it was nevertheless the people’s decision to force Estrada out, and their sovereign right that put her in power—with, however, a lot of help from the free press.

Without the reports on Joseph Estrada’s alleged involvement with jueteng, the investigative articles on his unexplained wealth, and the daily press coverage of the Estrada impeachment trial of 2000-2001, then Vice President Arroyo would have continued cutting ribbons to dog shows until 2004, when Estrada’s term would have ended–and she wouldn’t have had the chance to use government resources to “win” in the elections that year either.

In the political crisis of 2000-2001 it was the free press that provided the people the information they needed so they could act—which is precisely how crucial press freedom can be in building a democracy. Because knowledge precedes action, a free press can provide the kind of knowledge that enables a free people to make such sovereign decisions as who should lead them.

The same truth was amply demonstrated during the martial law period. Despite the repression, press freedom survived in the underground press even during the darkest days of the Marcos tyranny. By the late martial law period it had gained enough strength to openly challenge the Marcos regime’s censorship and other laws, and to provide the people, at the risk of journalists’ lives and liberties, the information that eventually led to the Marcos dictatorship’s overthrow at EDSA in 1986.

Every tyranny has at least an instinctive understanding of the role of press freedom in society. Without exception, every tin-horn dictator, petty tyrant and maniac intent on preserving, seizing , or enhancing power at the expense of the majority from Afghanistan to Zambia has thus targeted the press. It’s easy enough to see why. Press freedom denies tyrants and dictators the cloak of darkness with which to conceal their corruption, greed, brutality, and lust for power.

The Marcos regime thus knew and understood that without press freedom, the people would be denied analysis of, and information about the human rights violations, the crony capitalism, the massive indebtedness of the country, the vast corruption of its officialdom, and the terrorism and politicization of its military and police that were destroying Philippine society. Thus did the regime immediately move to curtail press freedom upon the declaration of martial law, and to suppress media organizations and practitioners through arrests, intimidation, murder, and government regulation in the years that followed.

If the Marcos tyranny understood that press freedom is indispensable to a democracy, and therefore suppressed it to destroy democracy, so does the Arroyo regime understand that same truth—and so is it similarly subverting that role in furtherance of its anti-democratic resolve.

Only that understanding of press freedom’s role could have moved it to raid the offices of the Daily Tribune, encourage the police to issue media “guidelines” on how to cover public affairs, harass broadcast and print media organizations, intimidate them with threats that they would be charged with sedition and inciting to sedition, and most of all to pointedly ignore the killing of 41 journalists since it came to power, and which have made the Philippines the second most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq.

Although the road to hell is paved with good intentions, lack of understanding, or ignorance, does not preclude the best of motives. But the Arroyo regime’s motives not only in steadfastly refusing to protect press freedom, but also in suppressing it as a basic democratic value are hardly in the category of good intentions.

These motives are based solely on keeping itself in power. In the furtherance of that aim, it knows that how much or how little information the public gets, and what kind, are crucial. It is thus determined to curtail press freedom and the entire Bill of Rights. This is not ignorance, but malice.

(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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