A Look Back

Cebu ’s  15th Press Freedom Week is off the blocks. It’d be useful, we thought, to look back. That may give us a  cue to what Professor Arnold Toynbee calls a “time of trouble” ahead.

PFW  is  a “celebration that  bonds men and women who, in a demanding craft, try to bear witness for those muted by unjust social structures,”  the 2004 editorial noted. They “present heroes, fools, villains – and all the surprises that entails. The surprises are there seem to be no surprises.

“Everybody  supports free expression (specially) in  slack moments when no axes are being ground.”   But this was also a year where journalists continued to be murdered.

“The Philippines is in danger of becoming the new Colombia as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism,”  Except for the  1940’s murder of  Columnist  Antonio  Abad Tormis,  Cebu has been spared.  Most murders were committed in other  provinces. But there is no guarantee this  “immunity” will continue.

None of the killers of more 56 journalists, from 1986, has been convicted. A “culture of impunity” guarantees there will be more attacks ahead”, the PFW  editorial warned.

That regrettably came to pass.  The head count climbed to 78 this year, Philippine Press Institute and the Center for Media Freedom reported. Again, not a single assassin has been convicted.

“Can one “really say we enjoy freedom of the press when it must be practiced under the shadow of a gun?” asks publisher-editor Teodoro Locsin Jr.

Cebu officials swear they’re partisans for liberty. In fact, they ‘threatened to padlock critical stations or ban independent reporters. Crude threats by local martinets and subtle official encroachment are directed against media, as it struggles to upgrade standards.”

The editorial used no names.  But in 2004, Cebu Mayor Tomas Osmena threatened to shut down GMA stations “for lack of business permits.” But he admitted becoming hot under the collar because of pointed but documented criticisms by award-winning anchor Bobby Nalzaro.

Osmena vowed to sue radio stations that refused to City Hall  advertisements, given it’s failure to settle earlier debts. That was “denial of press freedom”, he claimed.  “What fools these mortals be,” Puck says in Midsummer’s Night Dream. In the event, nothing came of that.

‘The duty of ensuring aggrieved citizens the prompt right of reply had been fractured by some, PFW  warned.. This could lead   to imposition of legal sanctions for voluntary redress. Bureaucrats would, by law, impose their judgments on editors.”  

Five years after Cebu journalists  raised this warning, a  full-scale threat has  emerged in the so-called “right of reply bill”. authored by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel  and Rep.Monico Puentebella  (who is embroiled in a P50 million athletic fund plunder rap, Joc-Joc fertilizer scam and politiically-motivated  blocking of Bacolod scholarships.} This would compel papers and stations to print replies.

This is a constitutional no man’s land”, given that our Charter prohibits prior restraints The Cebu Citizens Press Council filed formal protests. These noted that the  US Supreme Court had, in the 1974 case of Miami Herald versus Tornillo, unanimously struck down the Florida measure.

Last year, national press agencies joined in the protests. Finally. The bill, however, has been approved in the Senate. It is pending before the House.  Will it pass?

If it does, the passage would be over the bodies of press freedom advocates like Reps. Raul del Mar and Teodoro Locsin, Jr.  And that would lead to a messy Supreme Court battle. “When you do battle for press freedom, don’t put on your best trousers,” old editors say.

The call for accuracy and context persists, our 2001 theme noted. “Too many journalists,” George Bernard Shaw sneered, “seem unable to distinguish between the collapse of civilization and a bicycle accident.” We continue to need perspective and balance. What is true and significant – and not just what entertains – should command priority.

Values formed the core of many recent issues: from free lunches and other perks dangled in beats to columnists who act as megaphones for the powerful. Press credentials do not guarantee immunity from attempts of drug cartels to penetrate our ranks.

New technology’s ever-accelerating speed renders the job more complex. Google’s News Frontpage, for example, is “rematted” every 15 minutes worldwide. And the fax, cellphone and e-mail have loosened traditional editorial oversight.

“And what we do as the country stumbles into what will be probably the most bitter election of this century? That is the concern of PFW briefing sessions on the automation of elections.

Those called to the “priesthood of journalism,” Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez insists, must examine ourselves. Do we measure up? The call is for balance. We all need perspective. What advances the common good—not what entertains—should command priority.

How do we get out of this moral morass?

“Freedom is about the daily discipline of our craft in a society where wealth stacks the deck against the poor. Competence linked to values empower journalists to help usher in an unfettered, humane and fair society, asserted the editorial: “Cathedrals With A Soul.”

Affirm that dream in a “time of trouble”.  And we need not walk backwards into the future”.

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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