By Camille P. De Jesus
The Philippines climbed higher in the World Press Freedom Index, from 142nd last year to 128th, according to the organization Reporters without Borders (RSF). These words must have painted a better and freer press but the real image of the present condition of media in the country is yet blood-stricken. The fact that the Philippine press stays suffering from repression and violations still remains.
The RSF website reported that the recent ranking was based on questionnaires distributed to 15 freedom-of-expression organizations, 130 correspondents, and journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists all over the world. The questionnaires contained 50 questions about the press freedom of 169 countries.
The country’s improved standing, said the RSF, was because of fewer journalist killings and less cases filed against media men. It was cited as one of the “unexpected improvements” in the ranking.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) recorded five murder incidents which the organization said was the lowest tally since 2002. However, the number pertains only to “reported” cases of murder. It does not include victims of enforced disappearances and other unreported harassments.
RSF also said there were “fewer defamation (libel) cases against journalists and news media.” Seven months ago, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo withdrew the multiple libel suits against more than 40 journalists. The threat, however, lingers.
The president received recently a “medallia de oro” from Spain for her alleged outstanding efforts to fight for human rights. And yet, only we can see the irony of the stark contrast between the country’s achievements and the reality.
Just recently, the National Press Club defaced a press freedom mural created by the Neo-Angono Artists Collective depicting the current situation of press freedom in the Philippines.
NPC, which commissioned the mural for 900,000 pesos, altered the art and its symbolisms to make it less “anti-government,” according to Richard Gappi, president of the artists’ collective.
The mural, officially titled “Sangandaan sa Kasaysayan ng Malayang Pamamahayag sa Pilipinas” (Crossroads of History of the Free Press in the Philippines) shows a street scene which Gappi said connotes the idea of upholding press freedom as “everybody’s concern since this is the right of the people in a democratic society and an integral part of the freedom of expression which the Constitution guarantees.”
Jerome Aning of the Philippine Daily Inquirer described in an article the original mural and the symbolisms in it.
He wrote, “The center image shows a man reading the editorial page of a newspaper that tackles the latest killings of journalists. In the man’s immediate background is the NPC building, which, according to the artists, also serves as a sort of rotunda and suggests ‘the intersection and meeting point of the past and the present.’
“The left side of the mural is a street scene ‘culled for an idyllic community’ while on the right is a busy Manila street. The men on the streets bear the faces of media figures, press freedom icons, presidents of the National Press Club, national heroes who were prominent as writers, and ordinary folk.”
The painting features a cartoon of Joaquin “Chino” Roces preventing a child (America’s symbol) from shooting a bird on a street sign labeled “Kalayaan” (Freedom). Marcelo H. del Pilar and Mariano Ponce also appear in the mural under a “La Solidaridad” sign.
Andres Bonifacio is illustrated as a cigarette vendor with a tattoo–a character in the alibata used by the Magdalo soldiers in 2005–on his arm.
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino is also shown with Dr. Jose Rizal reading a news article on abduction and the desaparecidos.
The original mural was copied to an 8-by-32-feet tarpaulin and was presented in the 4th Neo-Angono Public Arts Festival, an exhibit of art pieces by local artists. The copy was turned over to the College of Mass Communication on Dec. 18.
“If the NPC officials would just hide the defaced mural and would not restore it to its original beauty, then the painting would just suffer the same fate as the desaparecidos,” Gappi said.
Culture of impunity
Of the innumerable reported and unreported harassments, disappearances and murders of journalists, there have been very few investigations done, if there is truly any. Hiring killers and gunmen have become easy solutions in terminating explosive mouths and pens. Consequently, justice hardly surfaces. It finds the hired assassins difficultly, even more so the big men who hire them.
After the Radyo Cagayano incident, Jose Torres, Jr., NUJP spokesperson appealed to the government to punish the persons behind the crime, even if their group blames the incident and other attacks on the press to the present administration.
According to NUJP, 54 journalists have been killed under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), on the other hand, counted 33 killings since 2001.
Of these 33 reported crimes, only those of Edgar Damalerio and Marlene Esperat have convicted the killers. Aside from the two, only five cases are in court.
Luis Teodoro, CMFR deputy director, said the resolution of crimes against journalists is made arduous by lack of witness and because of the Philippine National Police’s idea that cases filed in court are cases “solved.”
Atmosphere of fear
The present administration has undoubtedly created an atmosphere wherein people, especially those in the media, feel intimidation in knowing and expressing truth. There have been plenty of violations to our Constitution and even to the universal notion of right to freedom of expression.
The current government, according to activist groups and human rights parties, is undoubtedly far worse than a declared martial law. It has desperately made moves to suppress all kinds of resistance from students, farmers, workers and other sectors.
Malacañang announced on September 2005 the implementation of the Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR) policy which bans rallies without prior permits and authorizes police to disperse opposing parties accordingly.
The policy clearly violates the provision in the Section 15 of Batas Pambansa 880 which reads:
“Every city and municipality in the country shall within six months after the effectivity of this Act establish or designate at least one suitable ‘freedom park’ or mall in their respective jurisdictions which, as far as practicable, shall be centrally located within the poblacion where demonstrations and meetings may be held at any time without the need of any prior permit.”
As if this wasn’t enough, months later, the president declared a National State of Emergency through Presidential Decree 1017 which enabled her to “command the Armed Forces of the Philippines to maintain law and order throughout the Philippines, prevent or suppress all forms of lawless violence as well any act of insurrection or rebellion and to enforce obedience to all the laws and to all decrees, orders and regulations promulgated by me personally or upon my direction.”
This happened shortly after the explosion of Gloriagate controversies and the filing of a presidential impeachment case which Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo described as “a clear and present danger to the safety and the integrity of the Philippine State and of the Filipino people.”
On July 2, 2006, the station of DWRC Radyo Cagayano, a community radio station in Baggao, Cagayan, was burned by eight armed men wearing masks.
The station blamed the soldiers of the 17th Infantry Battalion whose unit was only one kilometer away from the fire. Susan Mapa, DWRC station manager, also questioned the late reaction of the Philippine National Police (PNP), which was only 300 meters away. The investigators went to the site seven hours after the incident which started at around 2 a.m.
Mapa said the suspects, some of whom were in camouflage, combat boots, and M-16 armalite rifles, called their leader “Sir.”
On November 29 this year, the government’s arms proved their disrespect to media. During the coverage of the standoff at The Manila Peninsula hotel in Makati City, the police arrested, cuffed, and charged them with obstruction of justice.
Ellen Tordesillas, chief of reporter of Malaya, was one of the 30 reporters brought to Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan for “processing” – a euphemism which means arrest.
Tordesillas said in a talk for a journalism class that it was the first time in more than 30 years of practice that she was brought to a precinct for mere coverage.
“Endangered talaga ‘yung press freedom natin,” she said.
Needless to say, the government’s efforts to repress, instead of uphold, the freedom of the press continues. Although the RSF proclaims that conditions have improved, the climate of repression proves otherwise.