The Commission on Human Rights resolution released last Monday acknowledged the value of press freedom — but reminded journalists (don’t call them newsmen) that they had responsibilities.

The good commissioners didn’t specify what they thought these were. Otherwise they might have had to declare that the most basic is providing the public the information it needs. Instead the resolution told the press how to cover those moments of crisis, such as the November 29, 2007 incident, that haunt the country of our perdition. Among its least profound observations was this ungrammatical mouthful:

“The fact that there were already police line-ups and barricades around the perimeter of the (Manila Peninsula) hotel should have cautioned the media of the seriousness of the situation and made them leave and do their coverage at a safer place.”

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and his co-accused marched to the Peninsula on November 29, 2007, apparently to — uh- — subvert the government. Their weapon of choice was a press conference in which they demanded, as millions have, the resignation of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Smelling an impending event of public concern and interest, the journalists covering the Trillanes et al. trial on coup attempt charges in 2003 at the Makati Regional Trial Court naturally trailed them — to, it turned out, the Peninsula. There they sought the usual interviews, focused their cameras on Trillanes and his Magdalo cohort, and generally made themselves useful to the public by recording and reporting what was happening.

Other journalists withdrew from the scene at some point, for which they earned the flattery of the police if not the respect of an information-hungry public. Those who stayed until the police stormed the hotel and took Trillanes and company into custody were rewarded for their efforts by being arrested, handcuffed and detained for reasons police spokesmen later — much, much later — said had to do with “obstruction of justice”.

The journalists’ arrest, handcuffing and detention were the subject of two complaints. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and the Philippine Press Institute among other media groups, plus individual journalists filed a class suit before the Makati Regional Trial Court. The National Press Club (NPC) complaint was filed before the Commission. Both complaints alleged that the police acted arbitrarily and violated the press’ constitutionally-protected freedom.

It was to the NPC complaint the Commission resolution was reacting — nine months after, which raises questions as to exactly what creature it gave birth to. The resolution did declare that the November 29th arrest and detention of journalists had no legal basis, and warned the police that “acts to detain members of the media without clear legal basis (sic) dangerously stand astride (sic) the borderline between valid police power (sic) and media repression in violation of fundamental freedoms.” What’s more, those acts “have the effect of implicit threats to members of media of possible consequent punishment if their reports displease the authorities.”

But the same resolution also declares that “the facts do not support a clear finding of repression or denial of freedom of the press.” Rather, “the acts of the police and military to physically limit the freedom and right against arbitrary detention of some members of the media constitute acts that only just fall short of actual infringement on press freedom.”

Apparently the resolution’s not only grammatically and stylistically challenged, it’s also logically flawed. If police acts “limited” the physical movement of the journalists (by, what else, arresting them), denied them their “right against arbitrary detention,” and were at the same time “threats to members of media,” in what way did those acts merely “fall short” of “infringement on (sic) press freedom ?”

Is this somewhat like beating a man almost to death, but not really killing him? Did the police beat press freedom nearly to death — but not quite? Does that mean that they didn’t really mean to arrest, handcuff, and detain the journalists, and that it was all an accident? Include those questions among the great mysteries of life in this part of the planet. Maybe the answers will come to us before the next Ice Age.

Meanwhile, the resolution “facts” are as iffy as its grammar, style and logic. Note the paragraph in which the Commission directs the press to cover from “a safer place.” In the first place, its premise that there were “already police line-ups (sic) and barricades” in the hotel perimeter by the time the journalists got there is false.

Only the Trillanes group knew where it was heading. The police and the media found out only when they got there. Police barricades (“police line-ups”, for the benefit of whoever wrote the resolution, consist of showing suspects — lining them up — for identification by witnesses) were thus erected only when the group had entered the hotel with the journalists.

As for covering from “a safer place,” where exactly was that, should have been, or would be? Outside the hotel, where the journalists wouldn’t have known what was going on, and where the only sources of information would have been the equally clueless police? Or inside the hotel where the only threat to the journalists’ safety was the possibility of choking to death on the Magdalo boys’ soda-cracker snacks? What’s “a safer place” to cover a crisis from anyway? Is there such a place in this country, where the safety difference in covering anything is mostly limited to what’s less safe and what’s least safe?

The CHR has no prosecutorial powers, but can recommend the filing of charges against wrongdoers. But it didn’t do that. Instead it recommended the investigation of the policemen involved — by the very agencies, such as the Philippine National Police and the Department of the Interior, that supervise them, and by the grossly misnamed Department of Justice.

The resolution’s declaration that there was no basis for the arrests does put a damper on the so-called justice secretary’s glee when the Makati Regional Trial Court dismissed last June 27 the class suit filed by media groups and individual journalists.

While that should mean something, anything, the resolution doesn’t mean much by way of journalists’ getting any legal redress. Worse, it turns a blind eye on the reality that the arrests of November 29, 2007 were not only one of the worst assaults on press freedom in this country ever. They were also part of a pattern of repression that has included the filing of whimsical libel suits, threats of sedition and other charges, warnings that media franchises are easily withdrawn, and official indifference as well as outright police involvement in the killing of journalists.

The CHR resolution is worth about as much as the paper it’s written on — for which, however, a variety of other uses is possible.


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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