End Human Rights Violations; Stop the Killing of Journalists!

Statement of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication on the first year of the Aquino Presidency, July 25, 2011

BENIGNO AQUINO III became President a year ago on the wings of Filipino hopes for change, and their loathing for one of the most unpopular Presidents in Philippine history. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s legitimacy was seriously in question, and to stay in power she practically encouraged human rights violations through such acts as applauding the work of the notorious General Palparan. She also systematically harassed the independent press, and by the force of that example emboldened the killers of journalists and media workers. Before her term ended corruption had metastasized throughout the entire government and political system; human rights violations had escalated to a level unheard of since the Marcos dictatorship; and the Ampatuan Massacre—the worst attack in history on journalists, the free press and democracy itself—had happened in the Maguindanao turf of one of her warlord allies.

Mr. Aquino was elected on a promise to end poverty by ending corruption. But in the first months of his term he also pledged an end to human rights violations and the killing of journalists, while assuring the press community that, unlike his predecessor, he would defend press freedom rather than undermine it.

But a scant month and a half in office, in August 2010, in apparent ignorance of the self-regulatory regime in the media, Mr. Aquino threatened to file criminal charges against some of the journalists who were in violation of the ethics of their profession during the coverage of the August 23 hostage taking incident, while refusing to take any action against
his friends in government who were primarily responsible for its bloody conclusion. In the ensuing months Mr. Aquino kept up his criticism of the press, accusing them at one point of irresponsible behavior, while, in a call reminiscent of Joseph Estrada, he urged the business community to advertise only in “responsible” media organizations.

photo from http://www.president.gov.ph/

Initially assuring the press and the public as a whole of his support for a Freedom of Information (FOI) act, Mr. Aquino did not include among his priority bills the Tanada FOI bill that had been filed in the 14th Congress. His communications group subsequently proposed a bill that, among other reprehensible provisions, would bestow on an Information
Commission the power to hold anyone in contempt and to declare any information on government matters temporarily or permanently exempt from public disclosure.

In response to the objections of various media groups, the Aquino administration drafted a second version, in which the only change was to make government officials and employees who violate the provisions of the proposed law subject to criminal rather than administrative sanctions. The other provisions to which there are serious objections have been retained. As a result, any FOI bill passed during this administration is likely to restrict rather than enhance public and media access to information.

Meanwhile, the killing of political activists and journalists has continued, with over 25 extrajudicial killings recorded in the first six months since Mr. Aquino came to power, while the killing of seven journalists during the past year constitutes a record to equal that of 2006, when seven journalists were also killed for their work. The killings are taking place in the context of raids, arrests and other harassments against mass organizations that have since resumed after a brief hiatus. 

Our very own Film student Maricon Montajes remains in jail in Batangas since June 2010.

That Mr. Aquino, among other failures, has not stopped human rights violations and the killing of journalists is due to his adoption of a supposedly new counter-insurgency policy, the aimless drift of his administration, the corrosive factionalism among his officials, his inability to control the military, and his unwillingness to even attempt the dismantling of private armies.

And yet a year is more than enough preparation for Mr. Aquino to begin to put an end to human rights violations and the killing of journalists. He can start by dismantling the private armies that in over a hundred places in the Philippines were behind or were involved in the killing of journalists. He can also seriously examine the wisdom of the “new” counter-insurgency policy that his administration is implementing. Of equal urgency is his making civilian control of the military a reality, as a necessary first step in stopping both human rights violations as well as the killing of journalists, in both of which military men have been involved as perpetrators, torturers, gunmen and co-conspirators.

photos from http://www.president.gov.ph/