#WorldPressFreedomDay: Locking down press freedom

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STATEMENT

A turn for the worse – this best describes how the fundamental freedoms of speech, expression, and of the press have been abridged in the past months, with the attacks against press freedom escalating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, May 3, as the world observes World Press Freedom Day, we of the alternative media reiterate our condemnation of the Duterte government for its relentless assault on our fundamental rights.

Still fresh from the onslaught of press freedom violations in 2019 – from cyber attacks to death threats, illegal arrests, and even killings – the attacks have continued and even intensified in 2020.

In the first months of the year, the Duterte regime renewed its threats to stop ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal. On the legislative plane, an ‘Anti-Terrorism’ Bill was being railroaded in Congress— a bill which contains provisions that can silence and destroy any and every form of dissent.

Meanwhile, attacks including intimidation, arrests, and red-tagging against members of the alternative media were being recorded in the early parts of the year.

The incidents include the case of Northern Dispatch managing editor Sherwin De Vera and correspondent Paola Espiritu, whom the Police Regional Office-Cordillera labeled “personalities of a communist front organization”, and the arrest of Eastern Vista executive director Frenchie Mae Cumpio, along with four other known human rights leaders in Tacloban City last February. The 8th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army labeled Cumpio, who remains in jail, as a high-ranking officer of the Communist Party of the Philippines, a ridiculous yet dangerous allegation that puts other community journalists like her at grave risk.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, a public health emergency that the Duterte administration has clearly turned into another weapon in its arsenal for domination. With the pandemic, and the granting of unprecedented powers to the president, all aspects of Filipino life were locked down – livelihood, access to services, and even civil liberties.

With the “martial-law like” enforcement of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon and key regions in the country, security forces were quick to abuse their powers. Day after day, reports of intimidation, filing of cybercrime charges, arrests, and even killings, have surfaced.

Those who speak out and express their grievances on government’s response to the pandemic face censure by national and local officials and state forces, an army of trolls online, or cyberattacks against critical websites. Several netizens have either been arrested or issued subpoenas by the National Bureau of Investigation– the most recent, a Norzagaray teacher who got arrested for posting online a question about government aid.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), not to be left out of the picture, also imposed a new requirement: the accreditation of journalists and media workers intending to cover or travel within quarantine areas – a clear form of prior restraint, a means of controlling the flow of information, a way to direct what gets reported and what doesn’t.

Just this May 1, the series of attacks further escalated, with the police force deliberately misinterpreting the calls for mass testing, and instead launching a series of mass arrests. A total of 92 persons were arrested in separate incidents– a clear illustration of the systematic repression in the country. Among those forcibly nabbed were 42 members of a progressive organizations in Jaro, Iloilo while they were holding a protest caravan in connection with the killing of Bayan Muna officer Jory Porquia. Seven community journalists, including the daughter of Porquia, were also nabbed and charged with violation of BP 880, disobedience to persons in authority and Republic Act 11332. In Quezon City, a similar incident occurred, with the police taking into custody 18 people involved in running a community kitchen, including Altermidya correspondent Jandeil Roperos and Anton Narciso of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines.

The abuses have targeted even citizens who volunteer to help communities get by in these trying times. In an unprecedented case that reeks of the government’s clear lack of compassion and any sense of human rights, Bulacan police recently apprehended six volunteers of Tulong Anakpawis-Sagip Kanayunan, along with former Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao, who were on the way to a relief drive in Norzagaray, Bulacan. They were charged with sedition for possessing copies of alternative newspaper Pinoy Weekly, which were misrepresented as “anti-government propaganda materials”.

Instead of providing health-based medical solutions to the pandemic, the Duterte administration is using the public health crisis to control public opinion and quell dissent. It is beyond reprehensible for an administration to conveniently utilize something as deadly as the coronavirus to realize its dream of total control.

Should the alternative media, community journalists, and the Filipino people, allow these transgressions to continue? The answer is a resounding no. In times of crisis, when information is vital for survival, and when reports on the situations of the marginalized and underrepresented are of utmost importance, it would be a high crime for the alternative media to discontinue operations, stand still, and do nothing.

While ECQ guidelines may hamper their operations, they should find ways to report each and every transgression committed in these abnormal times. They cannot allow the transformation of the Philippines into a place where dissent as a criminal act has become the “new normal.” Press freedom should neither be quarantined nor locked down.

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