|Philippines: Tarnished and compromised environment for the free press|
|Written by Southeast Asian Press Alliance|
|Thursday, 22 January 2009 15:56|
Despite constitutional and legal guarantees for free expression and press freedom, the Philippine press remains vulnerable to legal attacks, repressive policies, and a culture of impunity that continues to see journalists being murdered, particularly in rural areas.
More killings and incidences of harassment continue to dampen the state of press freedom in the Philippines. The number of slain journalists in the line of duty rose from two in 2007 to six in 2008, and Seapa’s founding member, the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, points out that since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001, 39 journalists/media practitioners — practically half of the number since 1986—have been killed in the line of duty.
In 2008, the assassination of two broadcasters from the Radio Mindanao Network (RMN) in the space of a week underscored the continuing impunity by which Filipino journalists are being attacked in the country. On Aug. 4, 2008, Dennis Cuesta of dxMD-RMN in General Santos was shot by a gunman. He died five later. Another RMN broadcaster, Martin Roxas of dyVR-RMN, was killed on Aug. 7, 2008 in Roxas City.
In the face of this, there are heightened efforts to combat impunity in the country. At the initiative of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the prosecution of the killers of broadcasters Rolando Ureta and Herson Hinolan resumed in May. F(FFJ is a coalition of six media organizations in the Philippines.) FFFJ has also continued to assist in the legal battle for the prosecution of the alleged masterminds in the 2005 killing of Sultan Kudarat-based journalist Marlene Esperat. A new case against the alleged masterminds in the Esperat case — Osmeña Montaner and Estrella Sabay — was filed before the Tacurong City Regional Trial Court on Oct. 20, 2008, and the court issued warrants of arrest against the suspects the following day.
To discuss solutions against impunity against journalists in the Philippines, CMFR and Seapa held an international conference on impunity and press freedom in Manila in February 2008. With support from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the conference drew from international lessons and experiences on impunity — calling in experts and advocates from as far as Latin America — and received overwhelming support from various sectors in the Philippines, from media to civil society and human rights groups, to the legal community and the judiciary.
Meanwhile, Filipino journalists continued to wage their own battles in law and in court. The year 2008 gave them a mixed bag of victories and setbacks.
There were a handful of decisions and directions from the judiciary favorable to the press and the defenders of its rights and freedom. For example, the Court of Appeals in 2008 allowed a case to proceed against the husband of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo: a class suit in defense of press freedom, and which pushes back against a rash of 11 libel cases the presidential spouse, Mr. Miguel Arroyo, had filed against 46 journalists in 2007. Mr. Arroyo had moved to quash the challenge, but the Court ruled in September that there was enough basis and interest to allow the case to move forward, particularly on questions of abuse of power and moves to undermine Constitutional guarantees to press freedom.
Meanwhile, even as press advocates continued to campaign for the decriminalization of libel in the Philippines, the country’s Chief Justice issued an administrative circular on Jan. 25, “encouraging” judges to prioritize the imposition of fines over the option of imprisonment in libel cases. A regional court for its part ordered the release of a journalist that had been in prison for two years, and one regional court granted a petition to move the location of a crucial case to a more neutral territory, significantly bolstering efforts for that case and the overall anti-impunity campaign.
Despite these bright spots, however, the Philippine press experienced several setbacks in its fight for the freedom and rights of journalists.
Notably, Amado Macasaet, president of the Philippine Press Institute and publisher of the national daily Malaya, was arrested on Sept. 4, 2008 for a nine-year old libel case filed by former Rizal governor Casimiro Ynares and Narciso Santiago Jr., husband of Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.
Meanwhile, Tribune publisher and editor-in-chief Ninez Cachos Olivares was convicted of libel on June 5, 2008 for a 2003 article accusing an ombudsman of hiring people from his own firm to handle his client’s complaint. There are 47 other libel cases filed by the law firm against Olivares pending in court.
Beyond individual cases, the Philippine Supreme Court in September upheld President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s invocation of executive privilege as legitimate grounds to prevent a Cabinet member from testifying on a case involving corruption in the highest levels of government.
Press freedom and transparency advocates say the decision was one of the biggest blows to the causes of the media, access to information, transparency and good governance in 2008. And it illustrates the continuing vulnerability the Philippine media has to atrocious and compromised policies, outright violence against the press, and weaknesses in the rule of law.
[The foregoing is part of the yearend report issued by the Southeast Asian Peace Alliance. Please click here to read full report.