HomeCommentaryPress freedom under siege

Press freedom under siege

In an address to the Foreign Press Association at the Vatican in May last year, Pope Francis pointed out: “Freedom of the press and of expression is an important indicator of the state of a country’s health. Let’s not forget that one of the first things dictatorships do is remove freedom of the press or mask it, not leaving it free.”

I recall his words in light of recent developments in the Philippines, where the current political dispensation appears more than eager to set aside one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in our 1987 Constitution. There, it says very clearly: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, of the press, on the right to peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

The sudden shutdown of the media conglomerate ABS-CBN after its 25-year legislative franchise to operate expired on May 4 underscores what seems to me a distinct pattern to undermine press freedom by all means necessary.

In March, a Senate hearing on the issue elicited a promise by the head of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), that they would definitely issue a provisional authority to ABS-CBN once its franchise expired on May 4.

This promise, along with similar assurances from leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate that they would come out with separate resolutions urging the NTC to issue the media network a provisional authority while its franchise renewal is still up in the air, is what kept ABS-CBN confident that there would be no more problems with the renewal of their franchise.

That is, until the afternoon of May 5, or a day after the ABS-CBN franchise expired, when, like a bolt from the blue, the NTC issued a cease and-desist order (CDO) that effectively stopped the media network from continuing to operate.

The NTC order came on the heels of a warning from the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) that the officials would be slapped with graft charges if they issued a provisional order allowing the media network to operate even if its franchise had already expired.

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In short, the executive department, through the NTC and OSG, ganged up on the media network, thus pulling the plug on ABS-CBN operations until Congress decides to renews its franchise.

When Congress will do that, no one knows, except perhaps the president who holds all the levers of power in the country despite frequent lip service to the separation of powers in a democratic set-up.

All this has taken place at a time when the entire nation is preoccupied with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic that has already infected more than 10,000 Filipinos and cost more than 700 lives at this point.

The national government’s failure to defend press freedom is well in evidence in the continuing attacks against predominantly community journalists, whether in print or in broadcast. Thus far, 16 journalists have been killed under mysterious circumstances in various parts of the country. We have yet to hear of a single prosecution or conviction of the suspected killers or their masterminds.

Then there’s the weaponization of existing laws to bring the online news network Rappler to heel through various means. The Rappler editor-in-chief, recognized no less by Time Magazine as among the staunchest defenders of press freedom in the world today, faces a slew of libel cases for her stand against the government’s bloody war on drugs. Rappler has also come under scrutiny by the government’s regulatory agency for alleged violation of laws regarding its ownership.

Press freedom is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Weaponizing the law to stifle dissent and contrary opinions erodes the very foundations of our democratic system.

Pope Francis has assured journalists: “The Church is on your side …. Whether you are Christian or not, you will always find in the church the just esteem for your work and the recognition of the freedom of the press …. We need journalists who are on the side of victims, on the side of those who are persecuted, on the side of who is excluded, cast aside, discriminated against.”

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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