It’s tempting to simply dismiss the latest dribble from the Arroyo regime’s so-called secretary of justice as “arrant nonsense” — as indeed the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Amando Doronila did the other day. So arrogantly indeed would Raul Gonzalez’ January 11 media advisory deny the press its constitutionally protected right to cover events in furtherance of the public’s right to information that it seems too much a waste of time and effort to take issue with it.

And yet the Gonzalez threat that media organizations would be criminally liable if their reporters and other personnel refused to obey the orders of “authorized” officials to leave the scene of an emergency was not made idly, as subsequent police statements prove.

The latest of these statements refers not only to legal action by the government against media organizations but also to a “final option” of using force to remove journalists from the scene of a crisis situation. Addressing media people, Chief Supt. Silverio Alarcio of the Philippine National Police Directorate for Operations justified what is by now clearly an Arroyo regime policy by declaring that it would be for the journalists’ own good.

“We can force you out because you’re not supposed to be inside (a police line). You might have to be pushed out to enforce the law. It’s for your protection.. so that you won’t be counted as victims.”

In short, the police would protect journalists by handcuffing them and pushing them out, or perhaps even beating them into submission, for their own good– in much the same way, I suppose, that the police arrested, handcuffed and carted journalists off to a police camp last November 29 for their own protection.

The justification for the November 29 arrests was that the journalists were obstructing justice, however, and Alarcio’s tack is, if anything, both old and new. It is new in that it’s an excuse that had never been used before by either the DILG or the police. But it’s old in that it’s at least as hoary as the martial law regime, which arrested hundreds of people between 1972 and 1986 also for their own protection.

Whatever it was they were being protected from, it turned out, as they were tortured and even murdered, that they needed more protection from their self-anointed protectors. Although the journalists arrested were not tortured or killed last November 29, what they needed protection from was not Trillanes and company, but the police. After all, it was these gentlemen who not only handcuffed some reporters and technicians, but also cursed, manhandled and poked them with nightsticks in between pocketing Peninsula ashtrays and carting off hotel front desk laptops.

On the other hand, offering reporters stale soda crackers was the closest Trillanes and his Magdalo group came to threatening them. Choking on dry crackers being only a remote possibility, several dozen journalists and their crews decided to stay, and, in behalf of a public hungry for news, to continue their coverage of the incident.

Five weeks later, Gonzalez and the police are talking about police lines around “crime scenes” and the duty not to cross them — as if the police had thrown any lines at all at the Peninsula before the media arrived, and as if calling for the resignation of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and denouncing corruption was even a crime.

Gonzalez, however, insists on making a false analogy between crossing police lines and journalists’ being told even before anything has taken place that they and their media organizations could be “criminally liable”. Apparently convinced that he was asking a rhetorical question, he asked if there was any difference between being prohibited from crossing a police line and being intimidated into not covering any future crisis.

That question was of course far from rhetorical. It demanded an answer that was not as self-evident as Gonzalez thought. The answer to that question is yes, there is a difference: a police line is a reality no responsible journalist would cross, whereas being told that one can be criminally liable even before one has done anything constitutes prior restraint.

In the end, however, all these arguments may amount to naught, the police having reduced the issue to the barest essentials by simply declaring that they will use force to enforce their will, regardless of what the Constitution and the law, in whose service they and Gonzalez claim to be, say. Nothing could be simpler — and nothing could be as indicative of the Arroyo regime’s ultimate source of power as this brief police discourse on governance and the use of force.


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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