Media flag military censorship of university libraries

RODRIGO DUTERTE may not have declared Martial Law, but his government nevertheless uses the military in many aspects of civilian rule. Retired officers of the AFP and PNP have graduated to civilian posts. The implementation of programs such as the pandemic response has emphasized security more than health measures. And the effect has not been benign. 

The anti-communist campaign through the NTF-ELCAC has the military freely red-tagging citizens, journalists included, or branding them as terrorists. Recently, the Philippine Army curtailed access to alternative news providers as confirmed by the Department of Information and Communications Technology. 

As if these actions weren’t disturbing enough, news this month reported the intrusion of the military into the groves of the academe, an area clearly beyond their sphere of competence or authority. 

Cheers to Kodao Productions, an alternative news site; Manila Bulletin Online; Northern Dispatch (NorDis), a community news site; and the Philippine Daily Inquirer for flagging military pressure on three state universities to pull out and turn over “subversive” books to them and the police. These reports underscored the impact of such action on academic freedom.

Aklan State University (ASU), Isabela State University (ISU) and Kalinga State University (KSU) purged their library shelves on different dates in September, with military officials watching. Philippine News Agency (PNA) and The Manila Times described the decisions of KSU and ISU as “voluntary” and with the approval of their Boards of Regents and administrations. But in the Inquirer’s interview with Evangeline Cabello, KSU’s chief librarian, she said she only pulled out the books after police and the military visited KSU’s library. In ASU’s case, PNA reported that the police and military “reached out” to the university, and as described by Flosemer Chris Gonzales, spokesperson of the regional anti-communist task force (ELCAC) “for them to turn over books that are not mentally healthy for students.”   

Reports said that materials which were turned to the military group included reference materials on the aborted peace talks between negotiating panels of the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHIHL) and books authored by Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

While government -run news agencies and privately-owned newspapers like The Manila Times and Manila Standard reported the pull-out, their accounts were slanted and limited to  reactions to those expressed by military officials and alleged former rebels lauding the decision of the universities to “combat communist ideology and insurgency.” 

Reports by Kodao, Bulletin Online, NorDis, ABS-CBN and the Inquirer all included statements from human rights and peace advocacy groups and teachers who called the purging of books “an attack on or surrender of academic freedom.” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, likened the incident to the Nazi campaign to cleanse all aspects of public life according to the regime’s rules, ransacking libraries and burning any materials the party deemed “subversive.” She pointed out that banning books stifles public access to information, and does nothing to resolve the roots of armed conflict. 

The groups Pilgrims for Peace, ACT for Peace, Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura and Taripnong-Cagayan Valley echoed the protest, noting that many of the readings are readily available online, even in international websites such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations’ sites documenting peacekeeping efforts. These groups also recalled that some of these documents were signed by representatives of government and provide a historical record of the government’s peace process. 

Inquirer included the statement of the chancellor of the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV), Clement Camposano, who said that a university is a “free market of ideas” and that UPV would not remove a single “subversive” publication from its library. Bulletin’s report cited the concern of Karl Castro, educator and book designer, that the purging of books happened at a time when the pandemic has already disrupted students’ learning. He noted that even Jose Rizal’s literary works were once deemed subversive, and that libraries should remain safe spaces for learning.

Not all media organizations reported the military action, perhaps because the universities were located in more remote provinces.  But the military attack on the higher education institutions in Northern Luzon and Western Visayas is no less egregious as a violation of academic freedom than if it had been done in a more prominent university in the capital. 

Media should more actively pursue its national advocacy for freedom in the selection of news. Journalists should always be conscious of the duty of the press as a public sentinel, to be alert to signs of danger and peril to public good. The community press should quickly report such incidents. 

Coverage should expand its scope to include more discussion of how the military has no place in many areas of public life. Critical news coverage can make a difference. News reports about the excesses of the military and police must recall the constitutional limits to military or police actions in pursuit of their official objectives. 

The fear of the uniformed agent makes uninformed citizens more fearful and submissive. But it seems that even university officials are not confident enough of their rights, or of their obligation to protect the academic freedom that gives their universities their essential value. 

The armed forces are mandated to protect, secure and defend. They have neither the authority nor the competence to dictate what academic institutions should and should not teach.