How free is the press in the Philippines?
If there are yardsticks to answer this, it is by knowing the numbers in one period or time frame.
How many have been killed?
How many murderers have been brought to the bar of justice?
How many journalists were given death threats?
How many journalists have been harassed?
How many have been tortured?
How many have been charged with libel cases?
How many have been charged with other cases or planted with evidence for the purpose of silencing the press?
How free is the gathering of information within and without the government?
How do people of influence and power react to the works of journalists?
How do the Congress and the President look at the welfare of the journalists?
Press Freedom co-exists with Violence
Examining all these questions show one common thing: press and violence co-exist. Press is alive if there is violence.
All media entities and personalities report all bits and pieces out of violent acts against any journalist.
News reports of these come in many forms. The massiveness of the reports is dizzying although there is no agreement among them to conspire. They obviously take attacks against anybody of their kind as attacks against the whole of their class. In its move, National Press Club filed a criminal complaint for sedition against Kalinga Governor Jocel Baac because it took his act of smashing a microphone on the mouth of a broadcaster inside the announcer’s booth as an act of hate or revenge against the class of journalists for the purpose of protecting his political power.
Violence is alive if there is press.
Politicians, abusive police and military officials, warlords, gambling lords, drug lords, corrupt public men and all other bad elements of the society are alive when the press is pressing on them.
Assaults come in various ways: some in the form of libel charges; others in the form of killings; some in the form of planting of drug evidence as what happened to radioman Ryan Uy in Dipolog City; still others come in persona non grata declarations as done by Bukidnon Provincial Board to a Venta Birada columnist in Cagayan de Oro City; some come in withdrawal of licenses to operate a radio station as what happened to Bombo Radyo in Cauayan, Isabela; others come in disguised manipulations to harass; some ways are subtle, by means of promulgating policies or rules to deter discovery of hot documents as what was done by then Ombudswoman Merceditas Gutierrez and by the Congress in proposing Right of Reply Law that only silences the guns of the media, or by means of not passing laws that free like Freedom of Information Act and Revocation of libel crimes; and more others of similar purpose.
In the Philippines, the kind of reports and commentaries or opinions coming out in newspapers and broadcasts appear to be fearless assaults against government men and institutions or people of ill-repute.
But they are NOT a gauge to know how free the press is. Rather, this is a demonstration of zeal and passion of journalists unique in Filipinos. They are the class of their own who traditionally insist or defy whatever restrictions, whatever risks, even if these mean sure death.
As if there is glory for one journalist to experience any of these.
This tradition of zeal for the exercise of press freedom makes Filipino journalists a unique breed, sui generis.
With this, we may wonder: “What would happen to our country if our journalists are fearful?” So that if the Philippine press looks like it is the freest in Asia, it does not mean the environment is free.
Rather, it is the passion of the Filipino media men and women to insist to report those things despite the threats of deaths and other forms of prejudice lurking for them.
As such, if we see deaths among journalists, thank them. It is a proof of bravery in insisting to be free.
This is the real picture of the press in the Philippines.
More tangible yardsticks
For many reasons, the discussions of how free the press is are muddled and beclouded by the inherent abstractness of the factors.
For this reason, the National Press Club (NPC) deems it better to gauge the state of the Philippine press as against violent incidents. In so doing, the NPC can say with pride: “Yes, the press can be called free. But it is because many of us pass by bravely free.”
Yes, the NPC is proud to tell the world: “It takes suppression to know freedom. And Filipino media men know press freedom by heart.” Thus, the NPC looks at the weighing scale of violence against press freedom to know which is weightier.
The profoundness of the subject matter prompted the NPC to limit the records from the time President Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III was proclaimed the winner in the 2010 Presidential Elections and during the time that began when he took oath as the 15th President of the Philippines on July 1, 2010.
Three in a row welcomed P-Noy
The inauguration of P-Noy was met with three deaths happening in one week of June: June 14 to June 19.
In the evening of June 14, Desidario Camangyan, 50, of Sunrise FM radio, was shot dead in Manay, Davao Oriental reportedly over illegal logging that he criticized.
In the evening of June 15, Jovelito Agustin, 37, of Aksyon Radyo Laoag, was gunned down at a boundary of Laoag and Bacarra, Ilocos Norte reportedly over criticisms he hurled against corruption.
Agustin’s nephew was riding home with him on the motorcycle but he survived the attack and served as a witness.
In the evening of June 19, Nestor Bedolido, of Kastigador weekly, was assassinated in Digos City allegedly over criticisms against a politician.
The killing of three journalists in a span of a week is the second worst record under the watch of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—and the second all-time worst.
The worst is the massacre of 58 persons that included 33 journalists. This occurred on November 23, 2009 in the town of Ampatuan, province of Maguindanao.
Critics say that these media killings are manifestations that Gloria cajoled her political babies who then grew up to making impunity ordinary ways to keep political powers.
But the reports from the fields gathered made the NPC infer that deaths occurred because slain journalists passed by bravely free.
Journalists killed since July 1, 2010
If only to serve as a wakeup call, the NPC narrates here the eight deaths that have occurred in P-Noy’s time this far.
His first month in office shows two deaths. His second month shows one death. The succeeding months until his sixth month, the guns of would-be reporter’s killers have been silent.
But in December while the year 2010 was drawing to a close, one of the guns surfaced to kill once a month until March of 2011 when the occurrence served as the sixth death anniversary of feisty woman announcer Marlene Esparat in Tacurong City for being the first to expose the so-called “Fertilizer Fund Scam.”
These eight journalists who have been killed in the present presidency are the following:
1. July 3, 2010 — 75-year-old radio commentator and community journalist Jose Daguio was shot dead at 8 p.m. while having a dinner inside his house in Barangay Tuga, Tabuk, Kalinga. The police claimed he was killed by known cattle rustlers.
2. July 9, 2010 — Miguel Belen, field reporter of DWEB FM station in Nabua, Camarines Sur, was shot at along Zone 3, Barangay San Jose Pagaraon, Nabua at 8:30 p.m.
3. August 1, 2010 – Edilberto Cruz, publisher of Salida tabloid in Nueva Ecija, was shot in the evening while driving a motorcycle along Maharlika Highway in Barangay San Juan Accfa, Cabanatuan City
4. December 10, 2010 – Edison Flameniana Sr., columnist of Mindanao Inquirer was shot dead in Tabudok, Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur
5. January 24, 2011 — Dr. Gerry “Doc Gerry” Ortega was shot dead while inside an Ukay-Ukay Store in Puerto Princesa, after coming from his radio program
6. February 1, 2011 – Cirilo Gallardo, 38, a broadcaster of DWWW Spirit 96.9 FM and a teacher of the Divine Word College, a resident of Barangay Velasco, Tayum, Abra, was found dead with 13 stab wounds inside his room at the transmitter site of the radio station in Barangay Bangbangar, Bangued, Abra.
7. March 24, 2011 – Len Flores Somera was shot dead on the nape in Maysilo, Malabon City while she was waiting for a ride to her radio program over DZME.
8. June 13, 2011 – Romeo Olea, reporter-announcer of DWEB-FM based on Nabua town, who is also a writer-reporter of Bicol Mail, a regional newspaper, was shot at 5:30 p.m. while driving his motorcycle. The incident occurred in front of Holy Child Learning Center at the Iriga-Nabua boundary while on his way to report to work. He sustained two gunshot wounds in the stomach of a 9-mm gun.
Cases filed on these killings
Cases have been filed against suspects in three of all these killings that occurred after it was made clear that P-Noy was already the winner of the May 10, 2010 elections. The only cases that have no cases filed yet are the killing in Zamboanga del Sur, that of the assassination of the Cabanatuan publisher, and that of Somera.
In fact, P-Noy announced in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) that cases were already filed against suspects in the killings of Camangyan, Agustin and Bedolido.
In the case of Camangyan, the police filed a murder case against PO1 Dennis Lumikid and barangay captain Romeo Antoling and two John Does, or unidentified persons. The Provincial Prosecutor of Davao Oriental found probable cause for Lumikid and dismissed the charge against Antoling.
The Philippine National Police Regional Office No. 11 organized Task Force Camangyan for this purpose and it sought the help of the regional state prosecutor to assign to them a prosecutor for the buildup of the case.
In the case of Agustin, the PNP Regional Office No. 1 organized Task Force Agustin and it resulted in the filing of murder charge against Bacarra, Ilocos Norte Vice Mayor Pacifico Velasco and Velasco’s alleged former aide Leonardo Banaag.
Banaag was charged in court while the case was dismissed as against Velasco for lack of evidence.
In the case of Bedolido, charges were filed against the self-confessed gunman identified as Voltaire Mirafuentes, 27.
Mirafuentes claimed in his extrajudicial confession that the brains behind the killing of Bedolido are Davao del Sur Governor Douglas Cagas and Matanao Mayor Butch Fernandez.
Cagas denied the allegations and said that efforts to implicate him in the Bedolido case were the handiwork of his political enemies. “These are all trumped-up charges against me by my political enemies,” Cagas said in a statement sent to journalists.
In the case of Daguio, the re-activated Task Force Usig’s work resulted in the filing of charges against Edmund, Willy and Lando, all surnamed Bilog, and Daldin and Edgar Guiawan.
Police said Willy was identified by witnesses as the one who shot the 75-year-old Daguio inside the victim’s house. It was also reported that Willy was involved in cattle rustling, along with the other suspects.
Police said that the Guiawan brothers are wanted for double murder and a warrant has been issued for their arrest.
In the case of Belen, Special Investigation Task Force (SITF) was tasked to dig into his case, resulting in the filing of murder charges against Eric Vargas y Jagurin, 34, and the alleged gunwoman Gina Bagacina, a.k.a. Liezel.
It has been different in the case of Cruz. A task force was also organized to investigate his killing but no result has been reported up to this writing.
No report yet has been obtained in the case of media killing in Zamboanga del Sur.
While the gunman who was caught while running away and his self-confessed companions are now being tried in the slaying of Doc Gerry. The suspected brains, former governors Joel Reyes of Palawan and Antonio Carreon of Marinduque were freed by the DOJ panel despite the evidence to the contrary.
No arrest has yet been announced in the murder of Len Somera.
Investigations are also in the dark as to the case of Olea.
The lack of fear
Nevertheless, the NPC believes that if only the national leadership could instill fear among the violent lords of politics and power, only then that the real free press exists alone.
But how can fear be developed when the Congress is not willing to pass Freedom of Information Bill?
How can fear be developed when the Congress cannot impose a political will to empower the press by removing criminal punishments due to defamation?
How can fear be fear when the suspected murderers get free after investigations despite the strong evidence to the contrary as what happened in the cases of former governors Joel Reyes of Palawan and Antonio Carreon of Marinduque?
How can fear be fear when witnesses are killed or intramurals are allowed to be done by defense counsels before trial can begin as what happened in the Ampatuan trial?
How can fear be instilled when the police and other law enforcers are not actually working to know and arrest the killers? Really, gone are the stories of famed detectives of the Manila’s Finest then known for arresting criminals after painful and long investigation works. Today, criminal cases live or die in the hands of handling lawyers.
How can fear be fear when the proposed Super Body vs journalists’ killers was approved only for the President to backtrack?
Is it not time for us to switch to the Jury System of justice if only to stop those violence against journalists and make their truly serving the people?
In Jury System, 23 persons raffled from the people are the ones doing secret investigation to know who should be charged in court in every case; another group of 12 secured in secrecy after being chosen from the people decides the guilt or innocence of the accused for every trial. Even if the enemies of press freedom are buyers or terrorists of justice it would be many times harder for them to do so under this regime.
Shelving of the NPC-proposed ‘Super Body’ vs killers of journalists
Immediately after P-Noy took his oath, the NPC submitted a proposal for the creation of a “super body” versus journalists’ killers.
By the way, we wish to correct some faux pas. We don’t say it “media killing” because it could mean a killing done by media men. Neither we call it journalists’ killing for it may mean a killing done by journalists. We don’t call it “extrajudicial killing” because there is no judicial killing since the abolition of death penalty.
Anyway, the “super body” proposal was presented to Secretary Leila De Lima and she was immediately impressed, causing her to endorse the drafting of an executive order for its creation.
The recommendation got the immediate approval of the President that he even announced that he has ordered the drafting of an executive order for this.
In a twist of fate, other “bright boys” of Malacañang changed the course of the wind. There was no announcement whether it was to be withdrawn but the orders issued to constitute task forces were visible signs that the “super body” proposal of the NPC was already shelved.
In fact, Senator Chiz Escudero openly rejected the “super body” idea, insisting it was not necessary.
This diminished quickly the excitement among all media members.
Silencing through fabrication of cases
Since the past, the usual means of politicians and public officials in stopping criticisms against their conduct in office has been the filing of criminal libel cases, thinking that the media men they charged would stop writing or broadcasting criticisms against them.
But they have learned that filing of libel cases has not been enough.
There have been public officials who now resort to entrapment by means of arranging a meeting with targeted journalists.
When the journalists would appear in meetings, the readied money would then be handed over even without being demanded.
When the envelope of money that has fluorescent powder would come in contact with the journalist’s hand, operatives would then appear and arrest the journalists.
While there have been cases done against corrupt journalists, many turned out to be cases of planting of evidence.
During the regime of then President Ferdinand Marcos, there were cases where critics were charged with inciting to rebellion or inciting to sedition. These kinds of writings or broadcasts are classified as political libels for the criticisms were directly addressed against the beclouded government.
During the time of Gloria, Prof. Randy David and company were charged too while marching against a hated EO.
Another technique used by vice lords or politicians is sending death threats to critical radio and press commentators.
So many death threats were reported. One such incident happened in Cagayan de Oro City. Here, Manny Agustero of DxIF, Bombo Radyo, received four death-threat calls in October of 2010 after he criticized the existence of illegal lotto outlets in the city.
The worst technique thus far
The worst mode now used is planting of evidence for non-bailable criminal cases so that once the critic is in jail he can no longer speak ill of them.
One of this occurred in the case of Dipolog City radio commentator Ryan D. Uy, of DxFL, fm.
In his daily radio program Uy hit the illegal jai alai and video karera operations in the city. He was at first offered to take a weekly amount of P3,000 in exchange for his silence.
When Uy refused the offer, he was subjected to surveillance that he was being stalked. In one day, police operatives in big number cut Uy’s path while he was driving his motorcycle. They arrested him for driving without a helmet.
Uy also received death threats that he regretted to have ignored. Despite all these, Uy continued his tirades against the police.
Thus, at 11:30 in the evening of October 29, 2010, Uy was mauled on a dark portion of General Luna St. in front of the Provincial Capitol of Zamboanga del Norte.
The incident was noticed by a newly-elected barangay chairman who then tried to get footage of what was happening through his cellular phone. Unluckily, the barangay official was noticed and policemen arrested him and confiscated his cellular phone.
Subsequently, Uy who was already slumped on the pavement unconscious was bodily carried to a mobile car. Both Ryan and the barangay official were brought to the city police precinct where the radio reporter was literally thrown to the detention cell while the barangay chairman was made to sit by a table waiting for hours for nothing until he was saved by a board member of the province.
Uy was never brought to a hospital despite the injuries sustained all over his body. His arrest allegedly in a buy-bust shabu operation was never recorded in the police blotter.
At 7:00 in the morning of October 30, his father Mariano, who is also a radio commentator, went to the city police station and asked to be allowed to see his son but he was refused. Their lawyer Cres Palpagan came over to request to see the son but he was refused, too.
Thus, they called for the help of Zamboanga del Norte Governor Rolando Yebes and it was only then that the father and the lawyer were allowed to see Ryan.
It was incredible for the city police to claim that it was a legitimate anti-drug operation and that the injuries were due to the resistance made by Ryan by means of rolling his body on the pavement.
First, how can Ryan resist when these operatives had guns and that it was as if half of the men of the city police station were there?
Granting it was true, why did they not bring Ryan to a hospital right after the arrest and why they did not enter the incident into the police blotter? Ryan’s body was checked by a doctor only at 8:30 a.m. and the incident was entered in the blotter only after the governor intervened.
According to Dipolog journalists, the intention was to kill Ryan. But because people were already milling around, the police resorted to planting of shabu evidence to make it appear that he was arrested in a shabu-buy bust.
To give effect to their second plot, the cops executed affidavits, which, however, squealed the truth: it was a joint affidavit of arrest couched in general terms without a statement that there was a pre-arranged signal for arrest. The two other affidavits are the same as the first, except for the names of the affiants and a few roles they wanted to portray as having been taken, respectively.
Moreover, there was no saying in those affidavits that there was a pre-arranged signal that was planned and executed. Without this pre-arranged signal to be given by an operative who actually bought the drug, there is no way for the rest of the policemen involved in an operation to know whether the targeted seller of drugs was actually caught in the act or not.
The case of Ryan Uy and the deaths of journalists, all occurring after P-Noy won as the president, are a grim picture of the state of the press in the country in general and in the provinces in particular.
Hoping for Freedom of Information Bill to resurrect
The NPC is hopeful that the Congress would finally enact Freedom of Information Act.
This is so desired because it will greatly help the journalists’ work in gathering of information and facts. With the law in place, it would be easier for any reporter to secure data from any government office.
The NPC injected into the proposal to make the compliance time for the requested documents to be shorter to three days and that to make all information, including confidential ones, free for all 20 years after the data were filed and kept.
But there is no positive sign for FOI resurrection.
Hoping for repeal of libel
In the same manner, the NPC is hoping for libel law to be scrapped from the Revised Penal Code.
In the modern world where nobody is rioting just to protest a defamatory publication: this is no longer practical. After all, this gives doubt to the Constitution’s declaration that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of the press…”
There is anyway a remedy for civil suits for those whose egos are big.
Those who argue that this will encourage abuses by mediamen can also argue that the laws against press will encourage more dangerous abuses of policemen and politicians
If crimes are declared as crimes because they are offenses against the people of the Philippines, we can also say that writings that criticize hurt not the State and not the people but offend only the corrupt, the abusive, the thieves, and the enemies of the society.
There is no doubt that all perceived defamations in every work of a journalist against abusers and thieves are for the people.
Thus, it is awkward to entitle a libel case: “PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES VS JERRY S. YAP.”
Hoping for death of Right of Reply Bill
The NPC also hopes the Congress would not entertain or it would discard the Right of Reply Bill filed by some lawmakers.
If passed, the Right of Reply Bill will violate the right of the editors and publishers to choose what kind of news or opinion items to publish.
This is because they would be compelled by law to publish reactions from those aggrieved by the news or opinions to publish these replies in exactly the same page and the same space, or the same air time and length of time and in the same time slot.
Allowing this reply as a law will also violate the right of the publishers to property. The cost of the spaces and air times are to be seized without compensation. It is unjust enrichment to the corrupt, the abusive and the thieves to be helped by the State to compel the editors and publishers to shoulder the expenses of publication.
Besides, this is not needed because those who are aggrieved can easily post their replies in Facebook and in many other online publications or they are free to open a new newspaper to publish their replies and rejoinders.
Like the FOI bill and the libel decriminalization proposal, the state of the press on this issue is dim.
Hopeful for speedy trial of Ampatuan Massacre
The press is also hoping that the current pace of the “Trial of the Decade” coined for the trial of the massacre of 33 journalists and 25 other persons would not end up literally as “trial of the decade” to end in at least one decade.
To pursue justice for the murdered journalists, the press commemorated the first anniversary of the massacre by means of staging different indignation actions.
On the part of the NPC, it staged a press jury trial to convict the Ampatuans to die by burning, which was executed by means of burning the effigy representing the tyranny in Maguindanao.
The NPC also collaborated with Bayan-National Capital Region and Alyansa ng Filipinong Mamahayag (Afima) to stage “UNREST,” a musical and poetry show dedicated to the massacre and other human rights victims.
Like all other press organizations across the country, the NPC staged a protest caravan to shout to the whole world its demand for justice for the massacre victims.
Capping the commemoration, the NPC, in collaboration with Afima, filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to constitute the present court handling the massacre as a special court relieved of all other cases and duties in order for Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes to focus on and give more time for the trial.
It was also asked in the same petition that a television monitor be placed outside the court where the Ampatuan trial is being held in order to accommodate more people who want to watch the proceedings if live coverage cannot be had.
The good news are these: (1) The Supreme Court granted the live coverage prayer; and (2) It also granted the petition of the NPC and Afima and the Ampatuan court is now a Special Court exclusive only for the massacre trial.
All these calls for justice were repeatedly staged by the NPC by the holding of a concert for justice during the Human Rights Day celebration last December 10.
Additionally, the whole press in the country condemned the delaying tactics being employed by the lawyers of Ampatuan, particularly Atty. Sigfred Fortun.
In all these activities, the NPC slammed the fact that only Andal Ampatuan Jr. has been arraigned among the Ampatuan suspects. Only lately that Andal Sr. was arraigned. But the other Ampatuans are yet to be arraigned.
The NPC is alarmed by the twist of tweets of another suspected brain, former ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan.
Once an accused remained not arraigned, or not read of the charges, all pieces of evidence submitted to the court cannot be used to convict those who were not yet arraigned.
One lesson learned from these is that the press may win if it shows overflowing passion in demanding for what it wants.
Indeed, Edmund Burke is not yet correct when he said, “For evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
It must be: “For evil to triumph is for good men to do not enough.”
(Text of speech set to be delivered July 28, 2011 before a press forum at Miriam College.)