By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – A celebrated Filipino literature and history professor, writer, and poet emphasized the need for solidarity among journalists and writers with the mounting challenges on press freedom in this digital age.
Luis Francia, professor at Hunter College and author of History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos, said that this solidarity “born of our unwavering dedication to the principle of universal free speech to ensure the continued existence of a free press.”
Francia was the special guest invited to speak on press freedom as the hallmark of democracy during the 7th Anniversary of the Fil-Am Press Club of New York on November 16, 2018. “I am honored to be part of this gathering, to celebrate the profession of and freedom to practice journalism. We have every right to be proud of what we do, for without a free press, there can be no democracy, which is why there have always been attempts to erode this freedom.”
Attacks on press freedom here and abroad
In his substantial and brave speech, delivered before at least 100 guests at the Philippine Center on 5th Avenue, Francia cited several incidents on the dangers of exercising free speech in the journalistic field.
The premeditated murder and dismemberment of Jamal Kashoggi, a columnist of Washington Post and citizen of Saudi Arabia at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was one recent example cited by Francia. “Kashoggi’s assassination was shocking because of where it happened, in an official establishment that is supposed to look after the interest of its citizens, not harm them.”
Francia also mentioned the revocation of the press credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta as another press assault by the White House “on clearly unconstitutional grounds.” He criticized Pres. Trump’s continued labeling of the free press as the “enemy of the people” and as disseminators of fake news while at the same time “spewing falsehoods almost every day.”
“Clearly a truly free press wields tremendous power by the simple but courageous act of speaking truth to power, giving credence to the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword, even when those who practice journalism are put to the sword.”
Quo vadis, Philippine press?
Francia noted that Philippine journalists, under the 22-month-old presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, experienced the rise of online harassment made by bloggers and social media pages who were involved in the electoral campaign and until his presidency.
Quoting from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, Francia said that these harassment were perpetuated mostly by Duterte supporters. “When he won the presidency, these same bloggers and pages continued to function as disseminators of his every word and even of false information. This they do while demonizing, along with the political opposition, his critics, dissenters, including journalists doing their mandated duty of reporting the truth.”
“I personally can attest to these threats of violence,” said Francia in his speech. “Every time I write my online column in the Inquirer that is critical of Duterte’s policies, inevitably Duterte trolls, or Dutards, respond with vitriol and sometimes the promise of physical harm.”
Beyond verbal attacks, Francia mentioned that Duterte has also threatened media institutions like the ABS-CBN and The Inquirer. The Philippine president was quoted as saying, “he is open to not renewing ABS-CBN’s broadcast license.” He also had been critical of the Inquirer owners, forcing their eviction from the property leased from the government.
Additionally, Francia cited the case of Rappler which the Securities and Exchange Commission had ordered the revocation of its license to operate in January this year. Currently, publisher Maria Ressa is facing tax evasion charges.
Media organizations like the CMFR, PCIJ, NUJP, and the Philippine Press Institute, there had been nine murders, 16 libel cases, 14 cases of online harassments, 11 death threats, 6 slay attempts, 6 cases of harassment, 5 cases of intimidation, 4 cases of website attacks, revoked registration or denied franchise renewal, verbal abuse, strafing, and police surveillance of journalists and media agencies, said Francia.
Freest in Asia
The Philippines once had the freest press in Asia, quipped Francia, which helped topple the Marcoses and impeached President Estrada. With the advent of digital technology, he said that the need to protect press freedom continues more than ever. “We should be cognizant of the larger picture. If free speech is denied one group, then what guarantee is there that the denial will not be extended to other sectors as well? Only through solidarity can we as journalists and writers ensure the continued existence of a free press.” (Photos by Grace Labaguis)