Empty holidays

Yesterday, the House Committee on Public Information approved a proposal to declare November 23 as "Press Freedom Day", marking the day when 58 people, 34 of them journalists, were brutally murdered in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao three years ago.

Many considered the crime to be a low point in the culture of impunity prevalent, most said, during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. How could the Ampatuans, the most influential family in the impoverished Mindanao province, get away with amassing large sums of money and a huge cavalry of weapons? At first glance this question is a no-brainer. They're the Ampatuans. They have a grip on major positions of power in the province. And then the connection was made between their presence and Arroyo's success in the province during the controversial 2004 elections.

When Noynoy Aquino overwhelmingly won the presidency in 2010, he promised - like every other politician, really - that he would bring hope to the country, by finally eradicating the culture of corruption. He vowed to make governance transparent and accountable. He vowed that the Philippines' potential, squandered over decades of flaccid leadership, will finally be realized. Yes, I know his words sound lofty, loftier than humanly possible, but he is sufficiently popular among most Filipinos anyway. Two years later, most of his promises remain unrealized, and some have decried his emphasis on rhetoric rather than action, but many still hold hope that he'll follow through on his campaign promises.

The skeptics and the critics feel that Aquino is not doing enough to follow through. The disconnect between what the classes and the masses hear are still there: businessmen are told of rising exports and credit ratings, while laborers know their salaries aren't enough to feed their families. Despite some shining examples of government finally working for the people, the majority of elected officials are still up to their old ways, dominating with dynasties and lopsided contracts and pointless projects. "This is where your taxes go," the signs say, in small print, relative to the town mayor's name. The president may be popular, but there is no consensus on what the state of our country is: most will say that nothing has changed, despite the government's efforts to convince us that, yes, things are looking up, and the sun is finally shining.

There are still a few measures, they say, before government can really be transparent and accountable. One of the important methods is the passing of a freedom of information law.

I was introduced to the idea of an FOI law when I took up investigative journalism. My teacher, award-winning journalist Tess Bacalla, told us something that we honestly never thought about, or at least I didn't: as citizens of the Philippines, we have the right to demand information from our government regarding the way they operate. They have the responsibility to comply with such requests, as long as they are reasonable and doesn't encroach in critical matters, in the soonest possible time. They should not throw us roadblocks, preventing us from knowing where the fees we pay for business permits, or the fees we pay to get our driver's licenses, go. As budding investigative journalists, she said, that is our most important weapon.

Of course, we've gotten used to the premise that government agencies are aloof, unreachable, untouchable, even. Now we're faced with the idea that we can ask them anything and they are supposed to answer - and it's regardless of whether we're journalists, journalism students, or anybody else, for that matter. But the roadblocks will still be there, which is why, she stressed, the passing of a freedom of information law - which enshrines our such rights, and applies a framework for government agencies to comply at the soonest possible time - is needed.

Proponents have said that the passing of the FOI bill would help Aquino's aim of making government more transparent, more accountable, by opening most government records to public scrutiny. It certainly would make a journalist's job easier: no more weeks spent waiting for documents to be released, no more bottlenecks and red tape. The truth, or at least facts that lead us to it, can come out faster.

But that law, alas, isn't as sexy as the other hot-button topics preoccupying the country. What would the common man get from the FOI bill if he doesn't know what to look for? And what would we - talking from a congressman's perspective here - get from supporting such a law? Congressman Erin TaƱada, who co-wrote the bill, tested the waters for a possible senatorial bid by advocating the passage of the FOI law, but it tanked quickly and he was nowhere come the week of filing of candidacy. It is an important law, but it's not as controversial as, say, the polarizing reproductive health bill. No wonder Aquino barely mentions it during his speeches, choosing to talk about more pressing matters instead: sending Gloria Arroyo to jail, and getting a new girlfriend.

The House Committee on Public Information dithered on its mandate to deliberate on the FOI law. The bill languished in Congress for years, and in the 15th Congress - the current one - there were only two meetings on the matter at committee level. The first was scuttled because of a lack of a conference room to hold meetings in. The second, yesterday, saw the FOI bill put in the back burner, in favor of Filipino sign language and the declaration of Press Freedom Day. They did get to the FOI bill, but the discussion centered on the controversial right of reply bill - which would obligate media outfits to provide equal air time to government officials - and its non-inclusion in the meeting's agenda. Ultimately, a lack of quorum meant the committee couldn't make a vote, and the legislation failed to cross over to the plenary level.

Proponents of the law have blamed the delaying tactics of Congressman Ben Evardone, who heads the committee, to the bill's failure. More damning is the perceived lack of support for the bill from MalacaƱang itself. The executive branch insists they're not delaying the bill, but Aquino's different priorities definitely doomed the measure.

Aquino definitely prioritized the controversial Cybercrime Prevention Act, a law that provides stringent penalties for crimes such as hacking, identity theft and possession of child pornography, among others. To be fair to him, this law is needed - with the country's economy relying more and more on technology, a law that protects interested parties from new threats is needed. But his signing of the law despite a much-contested provision on online libel - and his later statements along the lines of "if you say something wrong, you must pay the price" - suggest that he wants to muzzle, at least partly, our rights to speak out. Or perhaps our right to speak out against him?

The outcry against the law compelled the Supreme Court to issue a four-month temporary restraining order on its implementation. It also forced our senators, some of which were in favor of the law, to move to amend the law, by either striking out the provisions on online libel, or decriminalizing libel altogether (since the whole thing is based on our an antiquated application of the law by our then colonists, the Americans - to squash any dissent). But five weeks later, we've all shut up, and so have the senators.

Not everyone, though. Gringo Honasan recently issued a bill that would decriminalize libel, but at a cost: journalists will be required to apply for licenses, which in itself is a threat to press freedom. Say, if I pursued a career in journalism, become a licensed journalist, perhaps ended up doing investigative reporting, and I doggedly go after a series of documents that would prove critical in this report I'm making. Inevitably I'd step on some toes, and in fear of their positions being compromised by this report I'm making, they strike the first blow, by revoking my license, for whatever reason, instantly discrediting all my hard work, and my reputation. Suddenly, shutting all of us up is quicker. What about columnists? What about bloggers like me, who get sufficiently incensed by such brazen moves to protect their asses by blocking a law that would benefit all but anyone who has anything to hide?

A perception - I don't know how prevalent this is - is that the more negative reports there are circulating in the media, the more negative the image of our country becomes. Our government, to be more specific. And in a country where approval ratings are treated like manna from heaven, it's no surprise to see our leaders try to gain control of the national discourse, making sure it puts them in a good light. Joseph Estrada's moves led to the closure of The Manila Times, who was then critical of his administration; he failed to intimidate the Philippine Daily Inquirer with an ad boycott. Gloria Arroyo's husband, Mike, made a hobby out of suing journalists for libel, although he was forced to withdraw them when doctors literally told him it was bad for his health. And now, Noynoy Aquino, bent on proving to an increasingly skeptical country that he is actually doing something, is resorting to draconian measures, ones that remind people of martial law in the 1970s.

While that hasn't quite worked, he's used the might of his press department, and the drones who follow his every word, words like "panlilinlang" and "pandaraya" - which he used yesterday, by the way, as part of his statement on the release of the results of the investigation into the plane crash that killed interior secretary Jesse Robredo, although it could be about anything and everything else. The best way to grab the conversation, after all, is to stick to your message, and shout it out loud.

Yesterday, the House Committee on Public Information approved a proposal to declare November 23 as "Press Freedom Day", marking the day when 58 people, 34 of them journalists, were brutally murdered in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao three years ago. The journalists were there to cover the beginning of Esmael Mangandadatu's bid to run as governor of the province. He had the female members of his family do the filing, believing that they will not be harmed; he thought the presence of many journalists would do the same. Their convoy was blocked. The women were raped. Everyone was shot dead, and every trace buried, with hopes that they'll just disappear.

The journalists knew there were threats to Mangandadatu's life, and by extension, theirs, but for the sake of their duty, they went there anyway.

Three years on, the message couldn't be more clearer.

I-press freedom mo mukha mo.

And your responses...

Well written and very informative. I did not know about Honasan's bill (It's full of crap if you ask me.).

Blogger Isa11/14/2012     

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