Stopping the Arroyo regime assault on press freedom

Tinangkang arestuhin kahapon sa Malacañang ang Business Mirror reporter na si Mia Gonzalez (hindi pala Gonzales gaya ng una kong naisulat) kaugnay ng kasong libelo na isinampa ni First Gentleman Mike Arroyo laban sa kanya dahil sa isang articlena isinulat niya sa NewsBreak noong 2004.

Samantala, nakatanggap naman daw ng death threat si Ellen Tordesillas, isa sa mga sinampahan din ni Arroyo ng libel.

Nasa ibaba ang pahayag ng Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, isang media NGO na kinabibilangan ko dati.

AN URGENT CALL
Stopping the Arroyo regime assault on press freedom

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility calls on all media organizations, advocacy groups, lawyers’ organizations, and human rights groups to join together to stop the Arroyo regime assault on press freedom. CMFR is issuing this urgent appeal to preempt what could be the beginning of a phase in this assault that could severely cripple press freedom in the Philippines and destroy what little remains of Philippine democracy.

The two latest incidents in this assault are extremely serious in their implications. In what can only be described as a blatant attempt to intimidate the press, a team of policemen tried last Monday to arrest Mia Gonzalez of the magazine Newsbreak right in the Malacanang Press Corps office itself.

Gonzalez would have been arrested in the presence of several of her colleagues. One of the 43 editors, columnists, and reporters Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel Arroyo has sued for libel, she was not in the vicinity at the time and thus escaped arrest. But the message of intimidation the police sent was clear enough, and duly noted by journalists covering Malacanang.

This latest attempt to bully the press came on the heels of a death threat against Malaya newspaper columnist Ellen Tordesillas, again one of the 43 journalists Mr. Arroyo has sued for libel. The threat against Ms. Tordesillas could be the prelude to the escalation of press intimidation, including assassinations and attempts on journalists’ lives that have so far been limited to the communities, where 62 journalists have been killed since 1986.

Both incidents indeed occurred in the context of the continuing harassment, intimidation and assassination of journalists which have shattered the Philippine press’ reputation for autonomy and placed the country at 142nd place among some 200 countries in the Reporters san Frontieres Press Freedom Index, and earned it a reputation as “the most murderous place in the world” for media practitioners and as the second most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq.

Earlier last October, seven editors and reporters and a former senator writing editorials for Malaya who are also among the 43 men and women Mr. Arroyo has sued were also ordered arrested by a Manila regional trial court judge. They managed to post bail and avoided a night in jail. But the libel law continues to be a grave threat to Filipino journalists, press freedom, and democracy.

An attack on press freedom is an attack on democracy, a free press being indispensable to the discussion of public issues. It is no coincidence that Mr. Arroyo’s offensive against the media is occurring in the larger context of the Arroyo regime’s multi-pronged campaign to silence opposition to it, which has included the suspension of local officials allied with the opposition.

Journalists may be forgiven for suspecting that the primary reason the Philippines has not kept pace with US jurisprudence on libel—libel was decriminalized by the US Supreme Court in 1963– is the present law’s being a convenient tool of harassment against journalists.

In a number of instances, arrest warrants have been served in the late afternoon or early evening of Fridays with the obvious intention of forcing the respondents to spend the weekend in jail. Philippine courts have also tended to hand out harsh prison terms. They have also awarded excessive and crippling damages to complainants in civil suits.

CMFR reiterates its call for the decriminalization of libel and the imposition of reasonable limits on the amount of damages that may be awarded. Only then can the libel law cease to be a weapon that at any time can be used to intimidate journalists, erode press freedom, and constrict democracy.

But CMFR cannot overemphasize the urgency of the present situation, and urges all groups that value press freedom and democracy not only to make their voices heard in vigorous protest, but also to alert their international networks to the urgent need to restrain the authoritarian impulse driving the Arroyo regime campaign against the Philippine press.

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