What DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo wants to do with Jordanian journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani – either out of ignorance or over-enthusiasm – is unacceptable and is unconstitutional. Roberedo’s order denies every journalist in this country, foreign and local alike, a fundamental human right protected both by the Philippine constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, freedom of the press.
Atyani and his Filipino crew composed of audio man Ramelito Vela and cameraman Rolando Letrero went missing in Sulu last week, and were initially feared to have been abducted by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Now it turns out they are indeed inside the terror group’s lair somewhere in the jungle fastness of Sulu, but not as captives but to interview one of the group’s commanders.
Secretary Robredo wants the bureau chief for Southeast China of the Al Arabiya TV news network sent home and declared persona non granta for interviewing the Abu Sayyaf without informing the government. He is also is quick to invoke the Human Security Art against the Jordianian journalist, which move only confirms our worst fears about the same law: that it may be used to unduly restrict media reportage or commentaries on what should be everyone’s concern.
And given the murky history of terrorist groups in Southern Philippines, including their alleged ties with shady characters in the police and the military, the automatic invocation of the HSA against any media reportage on terrorist activities could well be deployed as a tool to repress any call for public accountability for any official mischief.
Secretary Rebredo should know that mere press statements issued by government officials warning media about alleged or imagined infractions of the law is prior restraint that casts a chilling effect on free expression.
And since when did journalists need to ask for permission from the government to be allowed to exercise their profession?
In the case of Chavez v. Gonzales (G.R. No. 168338, Feb. 15, 2008), the High Court addressed the unconstitutionality of press statements issued by a top official of government warning media of criminal consequences, saying that these cannot stand constitutional scrutiny, for the reason that: “[a]ny act done, such as a speech uttered, for and on behalf of the government in an official capacity is covered by the rule on prior restraint.”
Perhaps, he needs some reminding that this case arose from warnings issued by the then Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales and the National Telecommunications Commission against the airing of the “Helllo Garci” tapes. Gonzales threatened to prosecute any media entity that did so.
And the Supreme Court stamped its foot down on it: “in resolving this issue, we hold that it is not decisive that the press statements made by [government officials] were not reduced in or followed up with formal orders or circulars. It is sufficient that the press statements were made by [them] while in the exercise of their official functions. Undoubtedly, Defendant Gonzales made his statements as Secretary of Justice, while the NTC issued its statement as the regulatory body of media.”
As a supposed advocate and icon of good governance, Secretary Robredo should know that free expression is good governance.
It is good governance because allowance for free expression on the public interest empowers citizens; it grants citizens information and opinion on questions that concern the commonweal, and in many circumstances, exposes official wrongdoing that otherwise would have been whitewashed by “praise releases.” -30-