Media warned against interviews with Sulu rebels
() - March 6, 2005 - 12:00am
Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye warned the media yesterday that they could fall foul of anti-sedition laws if they aired interviews with insurgents and militants.

His remarks came amid a controversy over a military official’s call for a law that would penalize media agencies that air interviews with rebels.

Bunye said in a radio interview that there was already a law that "prohibits the airing of, let us say, interviews where the one being interviewed calls for the overthrow of the government."

Bunye said this would be applied "on a case-to-case basis, depending on the content of the interview. If the interview contains what is called a virtual call to arms, that is seditious and that is punishable."

He did not say if anyone would be charged or what the penalty would be.

He said he was not yet informed of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s plan to bar journalists from interviewing known terrorists and penalize them for violating such rule.

"But we are not very familiar with what the AFP wants to do. We will have to check on that," he admitted, adding that anti-sedition laws were not meant to gag the media.

Earlier this week, deputy military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan said penalties should be imposed on media organizations that allow "known terrorists or terrorist organization to use their facilities," to attack the government and incite rebellion.

Adan said it was not an infringement of press freedom as "these terrorist groups have already committed themselves to the destruction of the state and people’s liberties."

He said there should be a distinction between those who have legitimate grievances with government and a "terrorist group identified with violence."

But Adan said nothing has been finalized or agreed upon on the penalties for journalists who would violate the proposed rule.

"We have not defined (it yet) but tougher penalties (must be considered) and it (interview) should be an offense," he said.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) issued a statement on Saturday condemning Adan’s proposal as "pure and simple censorship and an imposition of prior restraint on the press."

The NUJP added that such policy would lead to the banning of journalists from conflict areas, and would let just a few people dictate what the public should know.

Adan’s proposal was part of new measures the military has raised to strengthen the anti-terrorism campaign in the wake of a series of deadly bombings by the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist group.

It was an apparent reaction to frequent interviews with communist insurgent spokesmen on popular radio stations and the airing of statements from an Abu Sayyaf spokesman.

"The press does not belong to the government and its allies. Certainly, media cannot give the government blanket authority to define what is anti-people or anti-state," the journalists’ statement said.

The Abu Sayyaf say they are fighting for an Islamic state in the south but are widely regarded as a criminal group for a series of kidnappings for ransom and bombings in the past decade.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla arm have been waging an insurgency in the hinterland for 36 years.

CPP spokesman Gregorio Rosal severely denounced yesterday suggestions by the military that mediamen should refrain from interviewing people like him who have been tagged by the government as "terrorists."

Rosal has issued statements to media on behalf of the rebel leadership, on issues ranging from the peace talks, politics, the economy, battles between soldiers and NPA rebels.

According to Rosal, Adan’s proposal "will open the floodgates for outright suppression of press freedom and the people’s civil and political rights in the name of the anti-terror dogma."

He added that such a gag on media is meant "to suppress the people’s resistance" against the Arroyo administration’s economic policies, which the CPP-NPA-NDF believes are being dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. — AFP, Aurea Calica, Benjie Villa, AP

The interview ban being sought by the military, Rosal said, seeks to prohibit "the revolutionaries from broadcasting their ideas, which are far more superior and truthful than the lies and misinformation constantly spewed by President Arroyo and her spokesmen in the AFP and Malacañang."

Rosal can usually be interviewed over his mobile phone in the morning. On special occasions he invites journalists to his rebel lair. Rebel media liaison officer Anne Buenaventura also sends out Rosal’s statement daily via e-mail.

A ban on interviews with underground personalities is a salient feature of the proposed anti-terrorism bill.

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