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Threats to press freedom, civil liberties scrutinized in KAMALAYAN forum

Last July 24, a Kapihan ng Malalayang Lasalyano (KAMALAYAN) forum was held via Facebook Live to tackle ongoing issues and renewed challenges concerning press freedom in the Philippines. KAMALAYAN is intended to serve as a safe space to discuss social issues, with dialogue encouraged between panel members and the audience. The latest session, titled Kilos Midya para sa Demokrasya, was moderated by Angelo Herrara, the Center for Social Concern and Action’s (COSCA) Advocacy and Adult Formation coordinator.

Joining the dialogue were Inday Espina-Varona, former chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines; Rose Dumada-ug, Editor in Chief of Ang Pahayagang Plaridel; Kaycee Valmonte, Story News Editor of ABS-CBN News Channel and former Managing Editor of The LaSallian; and Marianne De Jesus, national secretary of the College Editors Guild of the Philippine.

Who killed ABS-CBN?

The death of ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal bid at the House of Representatives has generated extraordinary attention in recent weeks, even at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. Varona stood firm in her conviction that “it was Congress [who] basically killed ABS-CBN.” But the veteran journalist also highlighted, “There was no way Congress was doing that without President Rodrigo Duterte’s blessing.” Varona pointed to multiple times that Duterte had threatened the network in the past, including in a controversial July 13 speech in Sulu.

During the speech, the President railed against the network and the Lopez family, saying, “‘Yun namang ABS-CBN, binaboy ako. Pero sinabi ko kapag ako nanalo, bubuwagin ko ang oligarchy ng Pilipinas. Ginawa ko.” The quote was edited out when it was broadcasted on Radio Television Malacañang’s channels.

(ABS-CBN mocked me. But I said to myself that if I win, I will destroy the oligarchy in the Philippines. I did it.)

Varona also refuted House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s claim that ABS-CBN lost its franchise due to legal lapses, pointing out how “a parade of government regulatory agencies from the NTC to the BIR…appeared in Congress to say [that] there are no cases against ABS-CBN.”

Although an invitation was extended to the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), Herrera explained that the office declined, citing preparations for the President’s State of the Nation Address.

Instead, PCOO pointed to an online article released by the Philippine News Agency, which underlined Malacañang’s firm denial toward any involvement regarding the non-renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.

‘Terrorism’ under the the Anti-Terror Law

Adding to the heavy burden of journalists is the emergence of the new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020. The “worst” thing about the law, Varona argued, is its broad definition of the word “terrorism” that encapsulates all kinds of dissent. “Ang kaaway ng gobyerno, pure and simple, are the people who speak out, who speak back, who blow the whistle against their abuses,” she pointed out. 

(The enemies of the government are those who speak out.)

She also highlighted how the judiciary’s role is minimized in the ATA. Instead of allowing the courts to function, anyone can be branded as a “terrorist” and detained without a warrant for up to 24 days. The law also includes provisions that alllow for 90-day surveillance and wiretapping of those suspected of terrorism, as well as life imprisonment without parole for those convicted. 

Varona stressed that the ATA is unconstitutional, as it allows people to be declared “guilty until proven otherwise,” which she claimed is “totally opposite [to] what the constitution [states]—to be seen as innocent unless proven in the court of law.”

Dumada-ug added that campus journalists felt a heightened sense of fear after the bill was passed. According to her, this mainly stemmed from an uptick in legal cases filed against those who voice dissent against the government.  Valmonte cautioned that even if individuals are able to express opinions freely online, there is still a risk that “whatever you say may be used against you”.

Regulating journalism

During the open forum, a question arose regarding the need to regulate journalists, and if they should be subject to years of training and licensing before they are given “access to the public airwaves” like lawyers.

Varona responded that journalists are currently under self-regulation. Organizations such as the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), for example, regularly administer tests to its members. According to the KBP’s website, the organization has created a set of standards for monitoring television and radio broadcasters.

Varona also pointed out that unlike other professions that perform “empirical studies”, journalism is more subjective because it requires personal analysis. This makes it impossible for the government to judge and exclusively designate “who is worthy to be a journalist” because politicians and media personnel tend to have opposing viewpoints, she argued.

Fighting to be heard

Media practitioners, student journalists, and any other citizen who wish to voice out their opinions on any platform should be responsible, according to Varona. She furthered, “If we are going to express opinions on social media, it would be good if we first check with legitimate news organizations.” These organizations, she said, employ experts and professionals who analyze different angles before coming to a conclusion. 

“No matter what the [anti-terror law] says, we should not be afraid of speaking out,” Varona reiterated, explaining that having credible evidence should be enough to give citizens more confidence to voice their viewpoints. Adding to this, speaking in a “respectful tone” when expressing our sentiments should be the rule of thumb, as she advised, “Do it firmly, but also politely.” 

Varona admitted, however, that no matter how much care a person exercises, they could still be wrongfully accused and stripped of their basic human rights. Valmonte added that the current situation in the country warrants the need to be more active regarding social issues. 

Wala namang mangyayari kung hindi tayo magsasalita,” she argued. “If we keep our voices down, we are siding with our oppressors.” 

(Nothing will happen if we don’t speak up.)

For campus journalists, one way to protect each other from attacks would be to band together, explained De Jesus. She said in Filipino, “If one is attacked, it can be defended by its fellow publications.” De Jesus pointed to the challenge faced by ABS-CBN, where other media outlets, not just ABS-CBN, are actively fighting for press freedom. 

With this, Varona urged ordinary citizens to “stand up, learn our craft properly, and be brave enough to say, ‘I will not be silent, I know what I am doing, and I will continue doing that.’” 

Dani Patalinghog, Editor in Chief of Green & White and former Editor in Chief of The LaSallian, closed the session with a reminder to all journalists not to give up even if their “efforts may seem futile”. 

“No effort truly goes to waste. Our words, though they may not yet reach who we want to reach, can influence others to introduce changes in ways we do not expect,” she said.

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