World Press Freedom Day 2009

Today is World Press Freedom Day.

It should be a happy day for the Philippines, considering that we always boast of having the freest press in Asia, but for journalists, it is an opportune time to remember the many members of the media worldwide who have been arrested, jailed and killed in the line of duty. Okay, not just to remember, but to demand justice for them.

[Ironically, the UNESCO is celebrating World Press Freedom Day in Qatar where journalists are being prevented from organizing themselves. The IFJ is boycotting the event in Doha in support of Qatar’s journalists.]

Despite the trappings of formal democracy, the problems of a muzzled press is also felt here in the country. According to the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists:

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, a member of the International Federation of Journalists, meanwhile has documented 100 questionable deaths of journalists.

In its latest report, Getting Away with Murder, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the Philippines at 6th place among 14 countries “where journalists are murdered on a recurring basis and governments are unable or unwilling to prosecute the killers” from 1999-2008. The CPJ has repeatedly lambasted the Philippine government for failing to find and convict the killers and masterminds of the slays.

Another report, this time by the IFJ, dubbed the Philippines among the worst hotspots for journalists.

Reporters Without Borders has also assailed the Philippines over the slays.

To mark today’s event, journalists went to Bulacan, home province of Philippine press freedom icon Marcelo H. del Pilar, to pay tribute to the profession’s fallen members.

Elsewhere, Filipino journalists who strive to be truthful vis-a-vis the government face libel suits that could send them to jail. Journalists have filed a countersuit against First Gentleman Mike Arroyo who has charged 40 media colleagues with libel. Congress is also seeking to pass a dangerous “right of reply” law.

These are all aside from the day to day challenges journalists face, the meager pay and lack of adequate protection for most journalists especially those in the community press and provincial media outlets.

In schools, administrators routinely prevent students from exercising editorial control on student-funded newspapers and publications. The rule in schools seems to be to censor students’ free expression and to punish students who exercise their constitutional rights. This obviously does not augur well for producing graduates who freely think and produce creative works. There is also a bias against and creeping criminalization of student journalists who see links between school issues and larger community and national issues, as in education vis-a-vis national government priorities. The College Editors Guild of the Philippines, which has been in existence since 1931, has been tagged as an “enemy of the state” for preaching its brand of committed campus journalism that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

What about new media and citizen journalism? They are the wave of the future. Governments may clamp down and shut down newspapers and broadcast networks, but it is now very difficult, if not impossible, to thwart citizens from being the media themselves. Expanding internet and mobile network coverage and the desire of young people to express themselves have propelled the rise of new media networks and blogging.

It is a good thing that these segments of the media have not been hit by crackdowns by schools, companies and government in a big way (except the QCSHS incident) but new media practitioners should organize themselves to better use the medium to democratize media content and to reach a wider audience. Perhaps between now and the 2010 elections, citizen journalists and mainstream practitioners may sit down and map out a plan for a truly great election coverage that would best serve their publics. In the meantime, new media publishers should resist the temptations of corporations, advertisers and traditional politicians who seek to prostitute the medium into something that closely resembles or mimics the worst of old media.

The situation of journalists show us that we have much work to do to make our democracy authentic and substantial. For in the final analysis, a truly democratic and free country  respects press freedom encourages and does not punish journalists, and allows the people unhampered access to information and to media so that they could freely make choices to help determine the course which the nation and any individual should take. Anything less is a sham.

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