STATEMENT OF WALDEN BELLO FOR “FROM REPRESSION TO RESISTANCE,” AN ONLINE EVENT EXPRESSING SUPPORT FOR FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, NOV 21, 2020
Good morning, I am happy to be part of this event marking support for press freedom. While I have mainly been an academic and activist, journalism has been by third profession, having served as an opinion writer and investigative reporter over the last few decades.
It has correctly been pointed out that journalism is one of the most dangerous professions, one that can be compared to that of frontline workers against disease, fires, and natural disasters. Journalists are the people in the front lines when it comes to the defense and extension of an invaluable democratic right—the right of citizens to know the truth. We can never take this right for granted, even in long-time democracies societies like the United States, where there is at the moment an active campaign by the government to suppress the truth about the recent elections that is fortunately being counteracted by an equally vigorous effort by the free press to provide people with access to the truth.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been 87 press people who have been murdered in the Philippines between 1992 and 2020. 19 of these murders have taken place during the last four and a half years. When confronted with these facts, Malacanang [the presidential palace] says it had nothing to do with these murders, which have involved the killings of crusading journalists engaged in exposing corruption and coercion in local politics. This excuse does not wash, since the Duterte administration has, with its promotion and defense of thousands extrajudicial executions in its so-called “war on drugs,” created a climate of impunity that encourages political gangsters at the local level to resort to murder when media people do not buckle down to their threats.
What is just as disconcerting as impunity in silencing critical media voices is the increasing resort to lawfare by authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo Duterte and Reycip Erdogan in Turkey. This refers to the weaponization of the law, of judicial and legislative processes, by the executive. Here in the Philippines, we have had, in recent months, two particularly distressing examples of the weaponization of the law. One has been the denial of the franchise of the the television network ABS/CBN by Malacanang’s so-called “supermajority” in Congress that was motivated by the president’s vendetta against the network for perceived slights against him. The other has been the railroaded trial and conviction on false charges of cyberlibel of Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of Rappler, and Reynaldo Santos, Jr, brought against them by a supporter of the president.
The weaponization of the law has had massive effects on the dispensation of justice and the welfare of citizens. Allow me to cite two instances. One is the case of Senator Leila de Lima. There have been two very significant recent developments in the government’s legal persecution of the honorable senator. One is that agents of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) testified under oath that there is no evidence linking Senator de Lima to illegal drugs trading. The other is that the key prosecution witness, a convicted drug lord, also testified under oath that he had never met, much less given money to Senator de Lima.
Now, under other circumstances, with the collapse of the government’s case against her, Senator de Lima should have been freed immediately. However, most news sources, apart from Rappler and a handful of others, have not dared to highlight, much less, editorialize on these latest developments for fear of becoming the next object of Malacanang’s wrath. So the Senator remains in jail, with the public knowing virtually nothing of the facts that would liberate her.
The second case relates to the recent devastating typhoons. As everyone knows, in the past, ABS/CBN’s regional network played a very vital role as an early warning system and a provider of information for relief and rehabilitation efforts to widely dispersed rural communities. When ABS/CBN was forced to close down its regional stations owing to its loss of the franchise, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of the Philippines predicted last August:
“Millions of Filipinos outside Metro-Manila will lose a fast and credible source of news today as they struggle through a life-threatening crisis…Many isolated and disaster-prone villages unreached by other networks can dangerously lose their access to national news, including government pronouncements….”
That tragic prediction unfolded over the last three weeks as an actor that could have served as the country’s de facto early warning and relief and rehabilitation center in the face of the Duterte administration’s criminal incompetence in dealing with the disasters could not do so because it had been silenced and dismantled.
We allow the destruction of press freedom by tyrants at our peril. It will come back to haunt us, and perhaps sooner than we think.
*Laban ng Masa National Chairperson Walden Bello, PhD, is a retired Professor at the University of the Philippines who is currently Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. A member of the Free Leila de Lima Committee, he served in the House of Representatives from 2009 to 2015. The author or co-author of 25 books, he was given the New California Media Award for Best International Reporting in 1998.