More imagined than real

By Ermin Garcia Jr.


LAST week I wrote about my take on the claim of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, student activists and the owners of Rappler that press freedom in the country is curtailed all because the Securities and Exchange Commission found Rappler violating the constitutional ban on foreign stake or ownership in a Philippine media establishment.

I followed it up with an expanded rationale of my stand on the issue and posted it on Facebook. To my surprise, when I thought it would be passed off by many as just another commentary, it received more than 1,700 ‘likes.’ And, more than 1,000 shared my post (that included blogger RJ Nieto of Thinking Pinoy. His repost generated more than 2,300 likes!).

Did I say something that was not known to a confused public about what an attack on press freedom means given the claim of Rappler?

Apparently so. Most were under the impression that press freedom is deemed under attack by a government if anyone in media critical of government is perceived to be harassed. Nothing can be further from the truth.

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NO PROOF.  How could the people know any better when legitimate journalists are actually an uncomplaining lot?

When an editor or reporter is sued for libel, it really rarely makes the frontpage treatment in our media outlets (print, broadcast or TV).

When a print or broadcast journalist is waylaid, the news normally only has a two-day life span in all media outlets.

In both instances, media never cried curtailment of press freedom in the past but accepted such occurrences as hazards of the trade, simply warning of the “chilling effect.”  But in truth and in fact, editors and reporters are hardly affected by these harassments.

Apparently, when Rappler on its own fired the first volley to claim that it is under attack, all because it’s ownership is being questioned, most were wont to agree.

My take, therefore, of what constitutes curtailment – being ordered to stop writing critical of government –  came as a clarification and an enlightenment. My pointing out that Rappler’s editors never complained of having experienced anything what I described surprised many. (And to this date, Rappler never contested my view).

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REAL CURTAILMENT. Allow me to describe to you the curtailment of press freedom that Sunday Punch and I experienced in the 70s:

When martial law was declared in 1972, Marcos ordered all media establishments closed.

The closure order was enforced to the letter by sending armed military personnel to stand guard by the gate leading to the Sunday Punch office and at the printing press that published our paper weekly. The guards prevented any of our editorial staff to enter the office. Only I, as owner, was allowed. Our photographer was not allowed to take pictures of students being arrested.

After two days, I received a call from Camp Crame, ordering me to resume Sunday Punch operation, the only paper in Pangasinan allowed to do so but with one caveat –  we cannot write anything critical of martial law.  I had to meet the staff about the order and the condition. We reached the decision that in order to allow the staff to continue earning their keep, we had to continue the operation as ordered. With it was the decision to lift our slogan – No man is to be reverenced more than the truth– that accompanied our masthead.

Then our worst nightmare happened. Not having to write critical of the martial law government was one thing, but being ordered to submit our articles for censorship to the provincial constabulary commander was another.  When I hesitated, the commander with whom I had a rift with two months earlier, sent soldiers again to bar my entry into my office. He ordered me closed. When Camp Crame heard about it, the order came for me to ignore the provincial commander and resume my operations, again with one request – to please cooperate with the commander in the future.

Then, a final humiliation came. The commander asked his aide to order me to report to his office in Lingayen, 14 kilometers of rough road, for a meeting.  When I arrived I was made to wait for 3 hours. And when he finally came out to see me, he said: “What are you doing here?”  Of course he knew, then dismissed me casually.

A day later, I was advised by an intermediary from the commander that he will stop harassing the newspaper if I will stay out of the province. He wanted me exiled.  Again I discussed the new order with my staff that I had to get out to keep the newspaper going for their sake. But to continue to run the paper while on exile forced me to travel Friday nights from Manila to Dagupan to work with the staff, and exited back to Manila once the paper hit the streets.

This went on for 2 years until the commander was transferred out of Pangasinan.

There is your example of sheer curtailment of press freedom.

Back to the present, Mr. Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. No media establishment to this day has reported having been controlled or ordered what to write and report.

Where is the perceived attack on press freedom called out by Rappler?  Its editor was quoted: “No changes, business as usual.”

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PROTESTING STUDENTS. Last week, college students in Metro Manila have started to organize a series of mass rallies to protest their perceived attack on press freedom and looming dictatorship.

Are our students so naïve today as not to be able to discern fact from rumor, from fake news?

With the exception perhaps of the political forces out to destabilize the Duterte government who will just be waiting in the wings for the tipping point to happen, the students’ protests will not likely earn wide public support.

In fact, to the protesting students dismay, the support for Mr. Duterte’s quick response to college students availing of full scholarships in state universities and colleges (SUC), paid for by taxpayers, was instantaneous. 

Indeed, if the students in SUCs do not value their free education and would rather take to the streets to stage meaningless rallies and demonstrations, Mr. Duterte is correct to have other deserving students take on the slots for scholarships of these students who’d rather stay out of their classrooms. We can’t waste public funds on them.

But a more curious thing is:  Who is mobilizing the students when their issues are more imagined than real? Could the mobilization of students being funded by Omidyar Network, the questioned investor in Rappler? (Omidyan has gained notoriety in international circles for supporting efforts to destabilize governments that are not friendly to American interests).

I sure hope the editors and reporters of Rappler are not party to Omidyan’s designs, if true.

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