With only three weeks in office left, National Security Council (NSC) Adviser and Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) Vice Chair Hermogenes Esperon ordered the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) last June 6 to block access to the websites of Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly and those of several civil society and advocacy groups that he alleged “support terrorists and terrorist organizations.”
It was not only a reminder to all, specially the media, of the Duterte regime’s long record of hostility to free expression and press freedom, but also of how much that unwanted legacy has added to the many difficulties responsible journalists and other truth-tellers are already burdened with.
Not surprisingly was there no mention of it in the regime publicists’ accounts of regime “accomplishments.” But if the killing of journalists has discouraged many would-be practitioners from being part of the profession, so have the threats against the press, and the demonstration effect of how government can shut down media organizations with impunity, been as disturbing.
Equally distressing are some practitioners’ concerns for the future of Philippine journalism, and their doubts over whether truth-telling is worth the risks to life, limb, fortune and peace of mind to which the last six years of despotic rule have exposed them. In interviews with several practitioners, Philstar.com reporter Xave Gregorio also found that many also fear that the incoming Marcos II administration will be even more hostile to the press than Duterte’s.
Rappler’s Lian Buan, who was not only shoved by Marcos Junior’s security personnel when she tried to interview the then candidate, but was also ignored by his spokesperson when she asked him a question during a press conference, told Gregorio that the Marcos victory is “an indictment of facts and journalism as a profession.”
She is correct in that dim assessment. Mass indifference to, and outright disdain for the facts, as well as disinformation helped clinch the Presidency for Marcos Junior — and it happened despite the efforts of some journalists at fact-based reporting and analysis.
Still other practitioners mentioned how much the harassments, threats and “red-tagging” they have had to endure have added to such other woes as low pay, and, one might add, the bashing that even the most professional among them suffer from the troll armies.
Unprecedented since the Marcos Senior dictatorship is the pessimism that today afflicts some of the more responsible members of the journalism community. One has to go back in time, to 50 years ago, to find a similar situation. During that period, many journalists stopped writing, took up other professions, or emigrated to foreign but less threatening climes.
The declaration of martial law did not usher in a golden age; rather did it put a stop to it. The Marcos Senior dictatorship was built not only on the ruins of the Republic. It was also at the cost of the growth and development of Philippine mass media and journalism, and of the widespread acceptance of the need to democratize governance so the Philippines can take its place among the developed countries of the world.
If there was ever a Philippine “golden age,” it was the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many sectors of the population — workers, farmers, students, academics, artists, professionals, nationalist businessmen — made their demands for change with information and reason enough for those to be the subjects of debate and discourse in the public sphere. Every day the newspapers demonstrated a capacity for the skilled reporting and analysis that have become rare today. And every week magazines like Graphic and Asia–Philippines Leader published investigative, long-form and explanatory articles in the manner of the US’ Atlantic and New Yorker.
Among the journalists then were such eminent practitioners as Nick Joaquin, who, as Quijano de Manila, produced some of the best, if not the best writing in Philippine journalism; and Jose F. Lacaba, whose articles on the protests during that period, published in book form under the title Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, are still unequaled today.
Martial law put an end to all that: to the resumption of the democratization process that began in the late 19th century, and to the golden age of Philippine journalism. Part of Marcos Senior’s unwanted legacies was the long-term damage to the press, from which it had only partly recovered by the time Rodrigo Duterte became President 44 years later.
The Constitution protects press freedom and free expression among other democratic entitlements, but the recurrent terrors of martial law have demonstrated how powerless, and even unwilling, the administrations that succeeded Marcos Senior’s were in guaranteeing their observance. The killing of journalists in fact continued in 1986 and became even worse as the years passed.
The return of authoritarian rule has remained a constant threat, due among others to the failure of a media and press system besieged by legions of problems to critically monitor and hold to account the administrations that came to power after EDSA 1986 (Corazon Aquino’s, Fidel Ramos’, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s, Benigno Aquino III’s, and Rodrigo Duterte’s). The only exception was that of Joseph Estrada’s.
What those regimes did not do was to the benefit of press freedom and free expression. What they did do was detrimental to both. Among the latter were Corazon Aquino’s, Estrada’s and Macapagal-Arroyo’s husband’s filing libel suits against journalists, and Fidel Ramos’ cajoling journalists into reporting favorably on his administration. But Mr. Duterte’s many attempts to silence the free press outdid them all.
In contrast, what the administration of Benigno Simeon Aquino III — whose first death anniversary was last June 24 — did not do against the press and media was significant enough to encourage them to do their jobs without fear of government harassment.
Like his predecessors, Aquino III was also critical of the press. He complained often about its supposed bias, but never threatened, insulted or harassed journalists. He thought the numbers in the killing of journalists exaggerated, but he did not justify them by blaming the victims. Neither did he prevent any journalist from covering his Office, or shut down any media organization.
Because journalists could criticize his acts and policies without fear of retaliation, the full exercise of press freedom and free expression was possible during his six years in office. It was a possibility that was not always realized, but not because of government intimidation. The preservation of democratic space was one of the legacies for which he will be remembered.
Mr. Duterte’s are entirely different as far as the press as a necessary institution in the democratic enterprise is concerned. Among the many that shrank the democratic space and will be less than fondly remembered is his regime’s blocking last June 6 access to the websites of two of the best and oldest alternative media organizations in the Philippines.
The regime did it despite the long history of the alternative media tradition that goes back to Marcelo H. del Pilar’s La Solidaridad, Antonio Luna’s La Independencia and other publications which, as truth-tellers and heralds of change, were crucial to the emergence of the Filipino nation.
But whoever really believed that the Duterte regime was for the changes it claimed were coming?
Together with, and partly as a result of, its attacks on the press, it is leaving behind it neither change nor development, but more of the same rule of the few, even worse poverty, and, as it kept reminding us, the use of State violence and terror against anyone who dared exercise the freedoms the Constitution protects.
First published in BusinessWorld. Image from Gov.ph.