Thursday, April 13, 2006


The New York Times
April 3, 2006


MANILA, the Philippines -- The Philippine news media, among the most exuberant and freewheeling in Asia, are coming under serious government pressure for the first time since the rule of Ferdinand Marcos more than 20 years ago.

Along with hints that the government may restrict public assembly, the campaign against the press strikes at the heart of the freedoms won in 1986 when Mr. Marcos was driven from the presidency by a popular uprising.

The pressure involves warnings, watch lists, surveillance, court cases, harassment lawsuits and threats of arrest on charges of sedition. No members of the press have been arrested, although three journalists have been charged with rebellion. No news outlets have been shut down, although troops surrounded several television stations for more than a week recently.

Journalists say the situation is particularly unnerving because of the uncertainty of what is happening or may happen to them.

"I have a number of people on my list," Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said in a recent television interview. "We are studying them."

This aggressive posture follows a one-week state of emergency imposed on Feb. 24 by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in response to what she said was a coup attempt involving an array of enemies who have been calling for her resignation.

Since then, the police have broken up several gatherings that were seen as critical of the president and have briefly detained some participants.

The gatherings included an annual celebration of International Women's Day on March 8, in which a congresswoman who opposes Mrs. Arroyo was detained, in the words of the police, "to get her out of harm's way."

They included a mock beauty pageant in which each contestant was to be made up with a mole on her face in imitation of Mrs. Arroyo.

They also included something that at first seemed like a joke � small weekly protests at which participants did nothing more than buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The protesters got away with that one, but on March 19, the same group was dispersed by the police while walking through a park wearing T-shirts reading "Out Now," an evident reference to the president.

Officials have spoken of intelligence they received about planned gatherings in the same manner they have talked about monitoring reporters � vaguely, seemingly counting on the uncertainty to be more intimidating.

The director of the National Police, Gen. Arturo Lomibao, has told news outlets that they must conform to certain unspecified standards, which it will be up to the government to interpret on a case-by-case basis.

He referred to a new catchall regulation that bans "actions that hurt the Philippine State by obstructing governance including hindering the growth of the economy and sabotaging the people's confidence in government and their faith in the future of this country."

Apparently, the goal of all this is to promote self-censorship, said Maria Ressa, senior vice president for news and public affairs at the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Network, the nation's largest.

"It's crazy," she said. "You don't know what's happening but you feel they can move on you at any time."

Ms. Ressa has been a leader in demanding clarification of the government's policies toward the press and in filing a class-action lawsuit to bar prior restraint.

"There is definitely fear and uncertainty," she said. "When government officials say, 'We have the power to shut you down, we have the power to look at your content,' it's intimidation."

Editors and news directors say they have prepared for possible searches or arrests by backing up computer files, setting aside bail money and instructing their staff members on their legal rights if the police enter their offices.

The government has singled out in its threatening statements the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, a small, aggressive group of journalists led by Sheila S. Coronel, a prominent journalist.

The center's exposes of corruption, presented during congressional impeachment hearings, helped bring down Mrs. Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada.

Government officials have said they may charge Ms. Coronel and members of her staff with sedition, but they are imprecise about who may be charged and on what evidence.

"It's very insidious," Ms. Coronel said. "They say they are studying filing sedition charges. They say they have lists, but they don't say who is on them. This is not how the game should be played. We know our rights, and we should not be harassed by psychological pressure."

Ms. Coronel was one of a group of young women who were reporters and became well known for defying Mr. Marcos in the early 1980's, a time when journalists were being harassed and arrested.

"People went to prison, people died for this freedom," Ms. Coronel said, "and if you give it up it is a betrayal of all the sacrifices that people have made in the past, people I know personally. It really makes me mad."


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