Freedom of the press is never freer than when it comes at a steep price.
And what a steep price it is. As I write this, Eastern Vista’s Frenchie Mae Cumpio, only in her early twenties, remains in jail under trumped-up charges since her arrest in Feb. 7, 2020 with four other activists.
The recent request by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for Pres. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to free Cumpio and end his “predecessor’s abusive acts and policies targeting independent media and journalists” hardly chipped away at the current administration’s resolve to continue Rodrigo Duterte’s anticommunist fearmongering.
This is probably why the recent arrest of Adora Faye de Vera, sister to Commission on Higher Education (CHED) chairman J. Prospero de Vera III, hardly came as a shock to many. McCarthyism remains in full swing in the Philippines, and in such a manner as to even jolt the CHED chairman enough to distance himself from his 67-year-old sister shortly after the arrest.
For those unaware, Adora Faye is a published poet and a survivor of torture and rape under Martial Law in the 1970s.
Tucked underneath layers of cover is the funding for the red-tagging crusade. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) under the Marcos Jr. administration may enjoy a made-to-order cut of the 2023 national budget than earlier reported.
Suffice it that the P10 billion allotted for the country’s number one red-tagging organization, lower than the previous administration’s allotment, will now fall under the Assistance to Local Government Units — Local Government Support Fund (ALGU-LGSF). It is said that this makes the money more readily available —kind of flick-of-a-finger mode — than when it was placed under Unprogrammed Appropriations (UA) in 2022.
Money is not only a great enabler, as one favorite columnist once wrote, but that it came from taxpayer’s money makes the tax-paying public, quite indirectly, enablers themselves. This is unacceptable. The sheer vastness of what our taxes can do and accomplish — and this without our permission — should make us seriously rethink the legal limits of our national spending.
The people must be given the choice as to what and where this money should be spent. It should be par for the course that we have a say on these matters. Each year, trillions are already being lost to corruption worldwide. That’s money that could’ve been spent on education and healthcare, to name a few.
I find it rather disturbing that many Filipinos are not shocked at finding out that the Philippines has been ranking badly in the global corruption index. Studies by the Ombudsman reveal that 20% of the national budget is lost due to graft and corruption. In Duterte’s final year in office, the Philippines had slipped “two spots to 117th out of 180 countries in its index, a historic low for the country,” based on figures by Transparency International.
I seriously doubt this will improve under Marcos Jr. His clear indecision on the matter of revealing or not his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) in past interviews has forced us to participate, albeit reluctantly, in this political guessing game.
The Freedom of Information Bill, a largely botched campaign promise made across several administrations, was never anything but a bribe, itself a sweetened carrot dangled to win over votes. After having won the seat, it’s every single one for himself.
This is where freedom of the press comes in because without it, we’re all pretty much left to struggle in the dark. We cannot succeed in any endeavor, no matter the zeal we put into it, if our mind is divided against itself. By that I mean the severe lack of closure on many issues, to say nothing of the need to hold certain people in power accountable.
Not knowing is already half the battle lost. With a press parrying the blows from all sides — red-tagging, cyber-libel cases, trumped-up charges of terrorism, illegal detentions, difficulties imposed by the pandemic, troll attacks, website closures, assassinations — it’s near impossible to do the job with a certain amount of consistency, let alone in-depth coverage of important issues.
So, where should the Philippine press go from here?
Notwithstanding what the press has to endure every single day, it’s with a happy disposition that I note their continuing vigilance. Throw in the rump of problems the long tradition of public skepticism against journalists for all I care, but the country club air trolls are desperately trying to create against newshounds hardly put a dent on the dogged and indomitable quality of the profession.
While most everything and everyone, for reasons of fear or what-have-you, will, at the end of the day, pay fealty to powerful men, journalism has chosen to defy the mob mentality, taking the road less traveled by, for want of a better cliché.
Having a lot more on their plate taught journalists to multitask in ways not even machines are capable of achieving — fighting off persecution from all sides while getting down to business, fists raised. We have arrived at the point where safeguarding the national memory has become part of the calling, not just a job.
This is not only true for the Philippines but elsewhere. As I write this, Russian authorities in the Crimean Peninsula have ordered the two-month incarceration of journalist Vilen Temeryanov for “terror” charges. Evangelos Areteos, a Greek journalist, was denied entry into Turkey. Egyptian journalist Raouf Ebeid is facing charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and spreading “fake” news. Taliban-occupied Afghanistan is making it really difficult to cover the news in that part of the world. In Ukraine, international and freelance journalists have been the target of the Russian war machine, killing more than 10 as of today.
In Mexico, the deadliest place so far to practice journalism, 150 have been killed since 2000, 15 of whom in 2022 alone. The CPJ reports: “In June, journalist Antonio de la Cruz was shot to death in northeastern Mexico as he was leaving his house with his 23-year-old daughter. His daughter later died from wounds suffered in the attack that killed her father.”
The price journalists pay is undeniably steep. Duterte’s long, unmistakable shadow hovers like a storm. This reminds me of the words spoken by Ermin Garcia Sr. (posted on Facebook by De La Salle University historian Prof. Jose Victor Torres), journalist for The Sunday Punch and one of the first journos to be murdered in the Philippines on May 20, 1966.
“The only newspaperman hero is a dead newspaperman,” he said. “Those headlines on your weekly newspaper are printed not only on printer’s ink. They are emblazoned with the sweat, the tears — and possibly yet — the blood of your newspaperman.”
If trolls think that ignorance gives them a sense of unity, the heroism of our colleagues gives journalists everywhere a sense of absolute dedication to duty. It is there we draw the line, thus the words of the late National Artist for Literature, Cirilo F. Bautista:
“There can never be a ceasefire in the writer’s war with the irrational, the incompetent, and the corrupt.”
*August 30 is National Press Freedom Day based on Republic Act 11699 signed in the 18th Congress, in honor of Marcelo H. del Pilar’s birth anniversary.