Black Friday: Only the beginning

Any regime that calls itself democratic would have erred on the side of press freedom and free expression if there were any doubts about a media organization’s non-compliance with the law, or would have allowed it to make the necessary corrections.

Not only are there grave doubts about the Duterte regime’s claims about Rappler news site’s being foreign-owned; it wasn’t allowed to correct whatever errors it may have committed either. Instead, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rushed to stop its operations.

But the regime doesn’t even claim to be in the democratic category, although one of Mr. Duterte’s closest allies, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, did justify as “democratic” his denying opposition congressmen funds for their district’s infrastructure projects. Because they didn’t agree with him, he even announced that he has the right to deny their constituents the benefits the funding and realization of those projects would bring them. The same Alvarez has also threatened to withhold funds from the officials of local governments who’re not supportive of the regime call for a shift to a federal form of government. He says it was a joke. His past acts and statements show it wasn’t.

Every political science freshman knows that Alvarez’s dispensing public funds only to his fellow true believers reeks with the political patronage so characteristic of the scoundrels who infest Philippine officialdom. It also assumes that public funds are his own and not the people’s from whose taxes they’re derived.

Alvarez and company’s autocratic mind-set and claims to entitlement are only among the most recent indications of the perils to which the Philippines and its people have been made vulnerable by the current regime. The country is in fact in the gravest danger since the eve of the declaration of martial law in 1972 because Philippine governance has fallen into the hands of the most reactionary, most vicious, most power-hungry and most violent wing of the dynasties that rule this rumored democracy.

The predatory clique that looks at killing as a necessary part of public policy is focused on remaining in power and restoring a dictatorship through Constitutional amendments that will make a mockery of the Bill of Rights through, among other putrid means, the insertion of the phrase “the responsible exercise” of free expression, free speech and press freedom in Article III, Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution. It is also plotting the extension of the terms of congressmen, senators, and the president, and the suspension of elections during a protracted, 10-year transition from the unitary form of government to a federal one.

In preparation for the achievement of this assault on what little remains of Philippine democracy, these marauders are ravaging the system of government checks and balances by rushing the impeachment of the chief justice and the ombudsman. But they have also have been demonizing, threatening, and intimidating the independent press and media and those courageous journalists who dare report the truth.

As the entire country saw during the Marcos terror regime, the next step in that sordid enterprise is press suppression. Those who foresaw that probability have been proven right by the SEC cancellation of Rappler news site’s certificate of registration, following the order of Solicitor General Jose Calida to that body to investigate the media organization.

The SEC decision should alarm not only the media community but also every other organization and individual engaged in the democratic imperative of monitoring government and holding it to account. The attack on Rappler is only the beginning of the regime assault on press freedom and free expression. Because critical media and their commitment to truth-telling and monitoring government are the arch-enemies of any tyranny, under the same pretext used against Rappler that it is foreign-owned because of the Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) it has issued to foreign investors, other media organizations that have similarly issued PDRs are likely to be gagged as well.

But the suppression of other media organizations and practitioners the present regime wants to silence is certain to follow through some other pretext. Such news organizations as independent radio and television networks, critical broadsheets, and online news sites and blogs, the community press, student newspapers, and the alternative media, with their honored tradition of combating dictatorship, are among those the regime will inevitably try to silence.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s allegation that he had nothing to do with the suppression of Rappler and its being the first step in the curtailment of press freedom and free expression is true only in a limited, literal sense. He may not have directly ordered Calida and the SEC to do it, but they certainly took their cue from him.

During his June 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA), in one of his usual tirades Mr. Duterte threatened to have Rappler investigated for its allegedly being foreign-owned. In the wake of the SEC ruling, he has even justified the attack on Rappler for supposedly lying and spreading the “fake news” of which his overpaid and under-qualified (mis)communication hirelings are the true experts. He also said on another occasion that he would cause the non-renewal of the franchise of TV network ABS-CBN.

Together with his proven hostility to the press, and very early on, in 2016, his justifying the killing of journalists on the flawed argument that they’re all corrupt, these suggest that Mr. Duterte is punishing Rappler for discharging the fundamental journalistic responsibilities of truth-telling and holding the powerful to account. His regime will also do the same to other media organizations and practitioners he and his bully cohorts deem equally guilty of exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed right to press freedom and free expression.

Providing the context of events is among the truth-telling responsibilities of the press. Not only is the suppression of Rappler occurring in a situation in which the regime has been waging a nearly two-year campaign against independent media through the tidal wave of harassments, threats, and false information mostly sourced from the government media system and its online trolls and hired hacks in the corporate media. It is also happening during the regime’s orchestration of its by now obvious march to dictatorship via the railroading of Constitutional amendments. The conditions under which Rappler was targeted shows it to be an assault on press freedom. As the novelist Margaret Atwood declares in her The Handmaid’s Tale, context is all.

In these circumstances, only a broad alliance of media, sectoralm and people’s organizations, human rights defenders, journalists and everyone else who understands the imperatives of free expression and press freedom in the democratization and reform of Philippine society and the making of competent and honest governance can frustrate the fascist conspiracy for the return of authoritarian rule.

During the martial law period, tens of thousands of Filipinos — students, professionals, academics, artists, and journalists — together with organized farmers, workers and other progressives, met the challenge to resist and eventually dismantle the Marcos terror regime. They are once more being called upon to defend themselves and the rest of the people in this hour of extreme peril to everyone’s rights and lives.

If history is any guide, the unity media organizations demonstrated during the Black Friday (January 19th) rally for the defense of press freedom and against dictatorship will be, like the suppression of Rappler, only the beginning. Resistance in various forms and means is the tried and tested and only effective response to tyranny and repression.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
Jan. 26, 2017

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