What press freedom?

NUJP- In a speech at the founding anniversary of Quirino province on Wednesday, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo again took a swipe at the Philippine media, saying it was “challenging…to govern our nation, especially with a media that is the freest in the whole world, as it was during my father’s presidency,”

The NUJP takes exception to Mrs. Arroyo’s statement on two points.

First, maybe the President should address her description of “freest media in the world” to the widows and orphans of the 60 Filipino journalists murdered since she ascended into power in 2001.

We again call attention to that fact that this is the highest death toll for the Philippine media under any sitting president, including the late Ferdinand Marcos, who was dictator for 14 years. It is also a toll almost double that of all three presidents preceding Mrs. Arroyo.

It was also under the present administration that the Philippines was, for three years running, declared the “most murderous” country in the world to practice journalism. Most murderous because, unlike war-torn Iraq – still the most dangerous in the world – where being caught in the crossfire is a daily risk, in this country, journalists are deliberately targeted for the most extreme form of censorship.

Time and again, we have pointed out that this is so because of the culture of impunity this government helps nurture in two ways – by its law enforcers’ failure to solve the bulk of the cases or get the masterminds in the handful of murders where the perpetrators have been caught or prosecuted; and by actually attempting to curtail press freedom, as it did during the February 2006 state of emergency and in last year’s mass arrest of journalists during the Manila Peninsula incident, or the many pronouncements and threats by ranking government officials.

Which brings us to the second point that disturbs us, that a president of a supposedly democratic society should find it “challenging” to govern with what she herself describes as “media that is the freest in the whole world.”

We are afraid that such statement can only worsen the climate of impunity as it may very well be taken by those who would seek to silence individual journalists or the Philippine media as a tacit endorsement of nefarious plans.

While we are at it, we will concede that the Philippine media are far from perfect. Neither are journalists saints.

The patterns of media ownership – meaning the many vested interests that own or control media organizations – and the widespread disregard of many media outfits for their personnel’s economic, professional and physical welfare, especially of the provincial correspondents who are most often in the frontlines of repression, also serve to undermine the full realization of press freedom in our country.

The poor working and economic conditions under which many of our colleagues labor, abetted by the media owners’ failure to look at the professional advancement of practitioners, has also given rise to many ethical issues.

Despite these problems, most Filipino journalists and many media organizations continue to perform their duty of delivering the information that is crucial to empowering our people as they make decisions about their individual and collective lives, even as they stand up to and fend off all attempts to curtail press freedom.

Indeed, if the Philippine media are, as Mrs. Arroyo describes them, the “freest in the whole world,” it is no thanks to her or her administration but to the continued vigilance of the independent press and journalists and the people they serve.#

Jose Torres Jr., Chairperson
Sonny Fernandez,  Secretary General

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