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Shrinking Space of Press Freedom

I have been in hiatus from my regular column in the Bicol Mail for the last several weeks. The reason was because I was finishing a textbook on ethics. I thought I would be able to do both – write an article for the Bicol Mail and concentrate on textbook writing at the same time. It was not meant to be, I found out later.

The good thing is, as I delved into my research work to gather ideas that would help me in writing the textbook, I realized to the fullest that our lives are shaped by the circumstances in which we live and the choices we make. There is nothing more relevant today than thinking about issues of good and evil, right and wrong and what we can do about them.

This brings me to the issue of freedom of the press and intimidation of the press in our country today. There has been an increasing number of clashes between the government and the press practitioners (some of them, at least) who want to be able to question and criticize the government fairly without fear of being humiliated, threatened, prosecuted or even killed.

But I know that the ideal is sometimes not real.

Just look at some of the headlines: Catanduanes Newspaper Publisher Slain. Broadcaster-University Professor Killed in Ilocos Sur. Blocktime Radio Anchor Shot Dead in Kidapawan City. Hard-hitting Masbate Columnist Gunned Down. Broadcaster Shot Dead in Zamboanga del Sur. Radioman Shot Dead Day after Ombudsman Ousts Bislig Mayor.

These headlines are clearly an attack on press freedom. What else would you call it? It’s frightening that criticizing the government in an article or in the radio can lead to someone being killed.

The constant attack and filing of legal cases against Rappler and its staff, banning some of its reporters from press briefings and public presidential events, is clearly an attack on press freedom. It has a chilling effect on any journalist who wants to write something that may not be favorable to the government. The government has even threatened not to renew the license of the TV network ABS-CBN.

This threat to revoke the license of ABS-CBN is uncalled for. It’s reminiscent of the Marcos days when journalists and TV stations were censored and faced an array of threats and intimidation.

While the Constitution of the Philippines guarantees press freedom, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte continues to intimidate media outlets that criticize his policies and demand accountability, resulting in an increasingly shrinking space of press freedom.

This attempt to silence independent journalism has led Sister Mary John Mananzan, former president of St Scholastica’s College, to describe journalists and media practitioners as “an endangered species” under the Duterte administration.

Said Mananzan in her opening remarks at the recent 13th Hildegarde Awards for Women in Media and Communication: “In this administration, I think these journalists and these media practitioners who are socially-oriented and gender sensitive, I think they are an endangered species. You see that. How they are persecuted...They are arrested, so all the more, they are needed in our time.”

In any democratic society like the Philippines, the people should never be deprived of the most fundamental access to what the government is doing. The people have the right to know and a free press is the only key to make this happen. When the people lack this access, they are not citizens but subjects who are under the complete control of the state. Such a condition is not healthy for democracy.

Sometimes I feel that writing an article criticizing the government is an exercise in futility. What gives me hope are journalists like Felipe ‘Ipe’ Salvosa. He was the managing editor of The Manila Times who protested the publication of a story linking three media organizations including a lawyer’s group to an alleged plot to oust President Duterte. He resigned rather than be a part of a ploy that twists journalistic principles to serve a political purpose.

Salvosa set a clear example to all Filipino journalists that truth matters and still worth fighting for especially nowadays that the space for press freedom is shrinking.

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