Since 2001, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took power, the Philippines has succeeded in giving the lie to two of its long-standing claims to distinction.

The first is the country’s supposedly having “the freest press in Asia”. Early this year the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the Philippines as the “most murderous” place for journalists in the world –meaning it’s the leading country among those where journalists are deliberately targeted– although Iraq retained the dubious distinction of being the “most dangerous.”

The reason for the designation was the continuing killing of journalists, at an average of three a year, which in 2004 reached a peak of 13—the highest number since 1986, when the country emerged from 14 years of dictatorship. This year, ten journalists have been killed so far, and while the killer of a journalist in 2002, a former policeman, has been convicted, no one else has been apprehended and tried for the killing of 72 other journalists.

The second is the country’s reputation for being the region’s “most vibrant democracy” after the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986.

The 2005 “Freedom in the World” survey of the Washington-based Freedom House has rated the Philippines as “partly free,” downgrading it from a previous assessment as “free.”

Freedom House described the downgrading of the Philippines to “partly free” status as “the most significant”, but explained the downgrade as “based on credible allegations of massive electoral fraud, corruption, and the government’s intimidation of elements in the political opposition.”

With “1” being the highest and “7” being the lowest, the Philippines received a rating of “3” for both political rights as well as civil liberties. In Asia Pacific, the “partly free” rating put the Philippines in the same company as Afghanistan (rated 5/ 5), Bangladesh (4/4), East Timor (3/3), Fiji (4/3), Malaysia (4/4), Papua New Guinea (3/3), Singapore (5/4), Solomon Islands (3/3), Sri Lanka (3/3), Thailand (3/3), and Tonga (5/3).

Most of these countries except Thailand have been in the same category for years. Some are among the most economically and politically backward in the Asia-Pacific region. They do not exactly make for honorable company.

Given the emphasis of the survey on political rights and civil liberties, there is little room for doubt that the downgrading was in part due to the continuing killing of journalists, which has seriously affected the capacity of journalists in the Philippine countryside in discharging their government-monitoring function as part of the “Fourth Estate.” Neither could the political killings in the provinces, whose number dramatically increased in 2002, have helped prevent the downgrade.

Malacanang has predictably rejected the evaluation, and urged Freedom House to send representatives to the country so that, according to Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, “they can see for themselves how constitutional democracy works, how the media works (sic), and how the people freely express themselves.” Bunye also described Freedom House as “out of touch with reality” for saying that “there is no freedom in the Philippines.”

Bunye was, as usual, mistaken. Freedom House did not say there is no freedom in the Philippines, thus the “partly free” designation. Otherwise it would have given the country the designation of “not free,” its third category being, simply, “free.”

Of course there is some freedom in the Philippines. The media can still report on government abuses and on the scandals involving government officials including the (putative) president. Any citizen can write a letter to the editor, or call a radio station to express his views in one of the “public service” programs that proliferate over radio. Come election time, citizens can go to the polls and choose whom they want to lead them at whatever level of government.

But this is only one part of the over-all state of freedom in the Philippines today. It is also true that the government has tried and is trying its best to silence the critical sectors of the media despite the protection of Article Three (The Bill of Rights) of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. It is equally true that for citizens to “express themselves,” they have to obtain permits from the police, which may or may not grant them, despite the superior guarantee of free expression and freedom of assembly in the same Constitution.

It is similarly true that anyone can run for public office, but only provided he has the means, meaning the millions and even billions, to do so. Anyone can put down the name of the candidate of his choice on the ballot– but only if no one has managed to intimidate or bribe him into putting down someone else’s name. Even then, however, there’s the counting to worry about—which, despite what the House majority says, has not been quite resolved as far as who voted for whom in the May 2004 presidential elections is concerned.

And then there are the killings. Metropolitan media practitioners can say what they want in the service of public interest within the limits of the libel, obscenity, privacy and national security laws. But their provincial counterparts are being deliberately targeted for assassination for doing the same thing, while political activists are being killed for campaigning for policies and programs different from the government’s own.

Freedom House is not, as has been described in some newspapers, “an independent monitoring group.” It is partly-funded by the US government and is identified with right wing groups. But like the yearly US State Department human rights report, what it says nevertheless has the ring of truth in it, as validated by independent local and foreign human rights, media watch and civil libertarian groups.

Certainly the allegations of electoral fraud are yet to be completely repudiated, and certainly there was, in 2005, ample proof of government intimidation of the opposition, in the form of, among others, the police’s denying groups identified with its various wings permits for demonstrations and other mass actions.

This is the part of Philippine reality Freedom House noted—and the part Malacanang and its allies are coyly being out of touch with.

(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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