An Uneasy Peace: Media and government continue to eye each other with suspicion

Media and government continue to eye each other with suspicion
An Uneasy Peace
By Nathan J. Lee

More than a month after Presidential Proclamation 1017 was lifted, journalists remain restive and worried.

“Things have gotten more tense for the media despite the lifting of 1017 because of the series of announcements and ‘leaks’ from government agencies (saying that) several media agencies and personalities are under surveillance and may be charged with sedition,” Ed Lingao, head of ABC-5 network’s news operations, declared.

ABS-CBN News Channel’s (ANC) Ricky Carandang agreed, noting that “the veiled threats to the media have gotten less veiled and more overt since it (PP 1017) was lifted.”

There has been no cause for celebration either for Sheila Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). “Justice (Secretary Raul) Gonzalez has said he is monitoring the PCIJ… He made this statement… long after the emergency was lifted,” she said. “Perhaps it’s not the police, but certainly it’s the DOJ (Department of Justice). The threats and harassment continue despite the lifting of the state of emergency.”

Indeed, on March 15, Gonzalez said over ANC that the admi-nistration was monitoring the PCIJ for possible charges of inciting to sedition as a result of the posting of “Hello, Garci” audio files on its website.

“It is very clear they have been posting on their website many things (that) I consider (to be) inciting to sedition. We are studying them,” Gonzalez was quoted as saying.

Earlier, the justice secretary announced that the DOJ was investigating seven journalists for possible charges ranging from inciting to sedition to rebellion. The journalists were not named.

Whom to believe?
While Gonzalez was stepping on the gas on media, one of President Arroyo’s officials has chosen to shift gears.

“There are certain media personalities against whom cases of inciting to sedition will be filed, pero hindi kasama ang PCIJ,” Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor said, as quoted by PCIJ. But he, too, did not name the media personalities concerned.

On March 20, The Manila Times reported that government intel-ligence operatives were hot on the heels of two journalists—later identified as Philippine Daily Inquirer city editor Gerry Lirio and reporter Fe Zamora—who allegedly met twice with a Chinese-Filipino believed to have funded the botched rebellion against the administration.

Lirio and Zamora have written a special report published by the Inquirer on March 11 and 12 tracing the events that led to the aborted military coup.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Col. Tristan Kison warned that the Inquirer could be charged with libel or sedition for publishing “baseless articles” allegedly peddled by “unseen hands and puppet masters” to divide the military.

On March 20, Defensor denied allegations that Malacañang had ordered the intelligence commu-nity to spy on some members of the press suspected of involvement in destabilization efforts. The former environment secretary said he has not seen any of the stories written by Lirio and Zamora that could be branded as “seditious.”

More brazenly, however, two apparent attempts to raid the PCIJ were foiled when the police reportedly failed to secure a search warrant. The warrant was supposedly sought by Jonathan Tiongco, an audio technician who tried to pin the PCIJ on charges of inciting to sedition.

But Tiongco denied asking for a search warrant against PCIJ. In retaliation for Coronel’s assertion that he was behind the petition for a warrant, Tiongco filed perjury and obstruction of justice charges against the PCIJ last March 20 at Pasay City Prosecutor’s Office. He also filed five counts of libel against Coronel, her lawyer, and nine other media executives and journalists just last March 27.

In another incident, The Daily Tribune’s website ( was shut down on March 14 and 15, allegedly because of hackers.  Tribune editor-in-chief Ninez Cacho Olivares and columnists Herman Tiu Laurel and Ike Señeres were summoned by the DOJ to appear on March 31 and April 10 to answer charges of inciting to sedition. The charges were filed by the Philippine National Police (PNP) on March 3, the date of the lifting of PP 1017.

First blood
But it was not print journalists alone who were in the line of fire. Neither were they the first to be hit.

A two-hour public affairs radio program, Ngayon na, Bayan!, was taken off the air by the station where it was being aired, dzRJ. The program was produced by an independent multimedia outfit, Kodao Productions Inc.

Ngayon na, Bayan! was suspended on Feb. 24, and eventually cancelled a week later. Station owner Ramon Jacinto said the show was killed due to “political differences” with Kodao.

The production believes, however, that it was more than just political differences that prompted the station to act that way.

“Based on the timing of our suspension… we have a strong reason to believe that the dzRJ management finally gave in to pressure from Malacañang,” Kodao said in a statement on March 19.

The cancellation was followed by the government’s presentation of a witness named Jaime Fuentes who accused the production of being a propaganda unit of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The producers believe that Fuentes’s assertion might have been an offshoot of its recent interview with Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal, spokesman of the communist New People’s Army.

There were loopholes in Fuentes’s allegations, one of which was his claim that he worked for Kodao since 1987. Dee Ayroso, Kodao’s director for radio, said the outfit started operating only in 2001.

In a statement printed in the Inquirer’s “Talk of the Town” section last March 19, Radyo Bandido (Rajah Broadcasting Network), dzRJ’s mother com-pany, said that “while the station respected the views of the produ-cers (Kodao) and, in fact, gave them five years of free time even though other block timers paid for their time, Ngayon na, Bayan! did not adhere to the understanding that the program would strictly be educational…”

“Up to this point, the program is still suspended,” Radyo Bandido added. “There is no final decision to cut it completely.” The radio station also denied being pressured by the Arroyo government.

An article in the Philippine Journalism Review (now called the PJR Reports) written in September 2001 by Ruth Cervantes, one of the program’s hosts, said that Jacinto “generously” provided air time for the program “in keeping with the spirit of People Power 2,” the revolt that unseated former President Joseph Estrada.

The article also quoted then station manager Denny Muñoz as saying, “[The program] is an offshoot of People Power 2. With the Estrada administration, talagan ’yang mga kabulukan ni Estrada, gustong palabasin doon.”

And now with the Arroyo government, Muñoz also said, “We serve as the watchdog. So any erring official… aatakihin natin on the issues. Walang personalan, trabaho lang.”

Ngayon na, Bayan!, which aired daily from Monday to Friday, won the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas Golden Dove Award  for Best Public Affairs Program for Radio in Metro Manila (2002) and was a consistent finalist in the Catholic Mass Media Awards (2001-2005).

“We are still hoping that its (dzRJ) decision is not yet final,” UP journalism professor Danilo Arao, one of the program’s hosts, said.

His optimism rests on slippery ground, however, as another radio program, Buhay Manggagawa, hosted by Ramon Ramos, was also sacked by dzRJ.

And recently, Justice Secretary Gonzalez announced that the government will monitor media broadcasts for rebellious remarks and reports. Three rebellion cases were filed so far, according to Gonzalez, but declined to name the individuals charged.

To the Senate for succor
With Malacañang waging a war on media, journalists hoped to find succor in the Senate. On March 14, PCIJ’s Coronel and Tribune’s Olivarez attended a Senate hearing where Coronel revealed attempts by Tiongco and the police to obtain search warrants against the PCIJ from two different courts in Quezon City.

Olivarez revealed that the police tried to padlock the Tribune but were unable to do so because it only had sliding doors. She also claimed that the phones in their offices have been bugged.

In another hearing conducted by the Senate on March 9, television network executives like ABS-CBN’s Maria Ressa and GMA-7’s Jessica Soho sought the repeal of the National Telecommu-nications Commission’s provision on the revocation of the franchises of broadcast networks who are allegedly engaged in biased and “subversive” reportage. They argued that such a provision was unconstitutional and an assault on press freedom.

Eventually, even some of Arroyo’s allies cautioned her from clamping down on media.

“Don’t listen to them, Madame President. The enemies of press freedom are the real enemies of democracy,” pro-administration Sen. Ralph Recto said, referring to the President’s advisers who have been counseling her to exert control over media.

“Cool off and cool down,” Rep. Antonio Cuenco told the President as he advised her to learn from the lessons of history.  He added that the government “should be poun-ding hard on political adventurists and extremists in the military establishment involved in the destabilization plot against the government,” not on media.

Still, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye would insist that, “The press is not a target of censorship but some members of the press have been charged with violations of law and shall be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizens.”

“We believe in freedom of the press but we do not believe in special treatment of media practitioners who run afoul of the law,” he said.

In an earlier statement, Bunye said necessity and survival guide the actions of the state in cracking down on what it perceives to be seditious news reporting. “From the start, we have drawn the line between responsible reportage and the media being used as a propaganda tool of groups out to overthrow the democratic system.”

To prove that democracy continues, Bunye pointed out that media groups were able to file a petition before the Court of Appeals seeking a stop to actions by government officials that attack, directly or indirectly, media.

Six media organizations and 73 journalists (as of press time) has filed the petition that specifically sought: (1) a prohibition on the government’s imposition of any form of content-based prior restraint on the press; and (2) the annulment of issuances that bar the media from airing or broadcasting news and commentaries deemed to be “subversive.”

According to PP 1017, the causes and claims of the suspected rebels “have been recklessly magnified by certain segments of the national media.”

Justifying her moves against media, Arroyo said in a radio interview, “I do not always seek praise releases.” Rather, she said she was looking for a journalist who “often criticizes, but also knows (his/her) limits.”  Who would define those limits was not exactly clear.

On the other hand, the PNP said it was no longer monitoring the activities of media practitioners. According to the PNP spokesman, Senior Superintendent Samuel Pagdilao Jr., “The closest thing to monitoring that we do is read the newspapers, watch TV and listen to radio broadcasts.” He added, “But even while doing so, we are not in the business of reviewing the editorial content of published articles.”

Not a single case was filed against any journalist or media organization during the effectivity of PP 1017, Pagdilao boasted, although he cited as an exception the cases of Olivarez and the two Tribune columnists.

Despite what would seem to be Pagdilao’s reassurance, journalists are still worried.

Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development said, “I do not, even for one moment, believe that the government has ‘loosened up the pressure.’ On the contrary, I think this is part of the calibrated measures to send chilling signals to the media and journalists that they are being watched even if the government is saying otherwise.”

No quick solution
“There have always been bad eggs, (and) that goes with all organizations,” Lingao admitted. “However, government has shown it can’t tell the difference between bad journalism and seditious journalism.”

“If we rely on government to set the standards for reporting, then no critical journalism will be possible,” Coronel emphasized, adding that holding the media responsible for their reporting is the task of the media and its readers, not the government.

Carandang said the “free market” (the audience and readers) is the best judge of whether or not the media is acting responsibly.

For Batario, the problem of media excesses is something that doesn’t easily go away. Yet, he said, he believes “all these should be addressed by the media and never by the government.” He cited ongoing “discussions and agreements on media reforms at the national and local levels such as the Plaridel Declaration on Media and Governance” as indication that “there should be cause for some optimism that many of the problems that hound the media can be addressed over the long term.”

According to Coronel, “mentoring, training, and the strict enforcement by news organizations of codes of ethics and professional conduct” are better ways of promoting professionalism and ethical behavior in media.

“You cannot compel the media to be more professional by pointing a gun to their heads,” Coronel concluded. “Scared journalists are not better journalists.”

But the government’s tack on ethics and professionalism seems to skirt the real issue which is suppression of media.

In the Inquirer’s  “Talk of the Town” section on March 19, Coronel blasted Gonzalez for trying to intimidate the PCIJ and media as a whole.

“I would like to ask the justice secretary: When the PCIJ published its exposés on the unexplained wealth and mansions of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001, were we also inciting to sedition? Our reports were used in the impeachment charge against Estrada, were we inciting to sedition then? If some people went to Edsa after reading our reports, was that inciting to sedition?” Coronel asked.

What is patriotism for the bene-ficiaries of media’s boldness would appear to be sedition for its victims, however deserving they might be.

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