Press freedom
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - June 22, 2020 - 12:00am

Maria Ressa, with her contacts in international media, has taken the role of press freedom defender. The international press and many in the Philippines lament the Court of Appeals decision as symptomatic of the death of Philippine democracy under President Duterte. They are wrong in assuming that the Philippines is a democracy. We are not a democracy – not while many Filipinos eat only once a day.

Maria Ressa’s case has internationalized a domestic problem, and attracted a slew of prominent sympathizers in the United States and among the global NGOs. President Duterte is independent, even reckless. He remains popular, drawing his strength from the people. As long as he has this support, powerful international sympathizers do not matter.

Of course, President Duterte had it coming. His abrasive personality and foul language make it easy for critics to ridicule and demonize him. A narcissist, he dislikes criticism and his relations with media have been adversarial.

Press freedom is not our major problem. The Duterte regime must be criticized for far more serious failings – inaction in the face of China’s intransigence and violation of Philippine sovereignty, the extra judicial killings, government corruption and incompetence, dismal poverty, and continuing moral decay and erosion of our justice system. I have all the admiration and respect for journalists like Marites Vitug, Sheila Coronel, Howie Severino, and more like them for the excellence and profundity of their journalism, illustrations of their commitment to freedom and to a better Philippines.

How does press freedom in the Philippines compare with other countries in the region? Criticize the government leaders in ASEAN’s most prosperous member Singapore and you are either fined or your business is closed. In ASEAN’s most charming city, Bangkok, criticize the royal family and you will be imprisoned. And in China, the most powerful and richest country in Asia, there is no press freedom at all, but where is the international condemnation for it?

I have said before that press freedom per se does not always bring either security or prosperity. In fact, it could aggravate poverty, when media moguls want to control politics and the economy. Media can very well enfeeble a nation and divide it. On the other hand, it can condone authoritarianism if this is what the media moguls want.

It is good that on occasion, the courts should pronounce guilty those who commit libel. Some journalists defame private individuals who take no defensive action, because filing and sustaining a libel case in court is often time-consuming and expensive.

I am reviled often but I no longer bother to react, except way back in 1967. Let me recount the background. In 1965, when I returned to Manila after a posting in Colombo, Ceylon, I obtained a grant of $10,000 annually to put out a journal, Solidarity. In the editorial page of the journal, I stated that the publication was assisted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom with offices in Paris.

Then in 1967, it was revealed that the Congress was funded by the CIA. A writer from the University of the Philippines wrote that I was a CIA agent. I sued for libel. I asked the help of the young lawyer, Artemio Panganiban – he later became Supreme Court Chief Justice – and he assigned his young associate, Romeo Veloria, to handle my case pro-bono.

In my defense, I presented the Solidarity editorials demanding the closure of the Parity and Military Bases agreements with the United States. I won the case. The University of the Philippines writer was fined. But even to this very day, every so often, someone who does not like what I write brings up the old bogey.

The court decision on Maria Ressa is now a public document. We should read it. Our vigilance should not only focus on our freedoms but also on the sanctity of our justice system.

We must not cease to scrutinize ourselves. So many of us, including susceptible sympathizers and sincere libertarians, equate democracy with its surface trappings of free institutions, all of which we inherited from the United States. We must now, on our very own, build a just and sovereign nation independent from our American tutelage.

The Philippines, alas, is a colony exploited and tyrannized by its own elites. No, the true essence of democracy in this unhappy country is in the stomach, when the jeepney driver can eat a meal that is also served in Malacanang. For that, I’ll sacrifice press freedom.

MARIA RESSA
Philstar
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