Thu, May 04, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Freedom of the press under siege in the Philippines


Press freedom has deteriorated in the Philippines as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration becomes increasingly intolerant of criticism and coverage of alleged anomalies in her government.

At least three journalists, including the publisher of the newspaper most critical of the government, have been charged with inciting to sedition since February when Arroyo declared a weeklong emergency rule to thwart an alleged coup plot against her.

Several others, including producers of an award-winning television news magazine and editors and reporters of an investigative journalism group, are under investigation for similar allegations and other criminal charges.

"There is a thin line that divides the freedom of the press and the press being used to propagate the cause of rebellion," said Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez in ordering the investigations and warning that media were being monitored.

The crackdown has only worsened the already perilous climate in the Philippines for the media, which has been tagged as the second most dangerous place for journalists in the world, next only to strife-torn Iraq, after 13 journalists were killed in 2004 and 10 last year.

Numerous assassination attempts and death threats have also been reported.

Most of the journalists who have been killed were reporting on corruption and illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, smuggling and illegal gambling, and most of the suspects in the killings are government, military and police officials.

While the government has tried to assuage fears of a systematic attack against the media, international and local press freedom watchdogs have expressed alarm.

Freedom House, which is a non-governmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, said the that government's intolerance toward the media has contributed to the significant decline in press freedom in the Philippines.

"Press freedom declined in the Philippines because of a continued high level of physical violence directed against reporters coupled with increasing official intolerance towards investigative journalists," Freedom House said in its 2006 report on media independence.

It rated the Philippine press as only "partly free" since 2003 under the Arroyo administration.

The media crackdown is an apparent bid to control information going out to the public as Arroyo battles calls for her ouster as well as threats of coup d'etats over allegations she cheated in the May 2004 presidential elections.

Vergel Santos, chairman of the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, said the government's policy toward the media appears to be "to stonewall, conceal or mislead."

"They are the first to accuse the media of unfair or unbalanced reporting," he said. "They hold the key news balance. All they have to do is come out, answer certain questions, but they don't want to."

Santos noted that despite constitutional and democratic guarantees, the Philippine press was again being suppressed under the Arroyo government 20 years after the country and the media won its freedom back from a dictatorial regime.

"Media freedom derives from the greater freedom, which is freedom of expression, and freedom of expression itself is under siege," he said. "The state of freedom is not measured by what the Constitution, the law or tradition provides. It is measured by the risks one takes exercising press freedom."

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