Arroyo’s Fortress and the Nosy Press

MANILA, Philippines — “She became defensive and she built this fortress around her from 2005 onwards until practically the day she left office in 2010.” 

Philippine Star reporter Paolo Romero still recalls the days when he would run after then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Malacañang only to get a tight smile instead of an answer to his question. Romero, his colleagues and media critics said with controversy after controversy rocking her administration, Arroyo tried to keep herself away from the prying eyes of journalists. 

“She held about less than 10 press conferences in the last five years of her administration and that’s quite a few. Not all of them were the free-wheeling type, most were just focused on her events,” said Romero. The former president of the Malacañang Press Corps has been following Arroyo since her days in the Senate. He also covered the Palace during the Ramos and Estrada presidencies.

In a lecture on the state of the media during the Arroyo years, journalism professor Luis Teodoro pointed out that Arroyo did not just limit media access as a result of political scandals, she also failed to address attacks on the press. Teodoro’s lecture is part of the University of the Philippines’ Assessments on the Presidency and Administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a project of the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP NCPAG). 

“There were questions about her legitimacy and I think one of the consequences of this was Mrs. Arroyo felt that the press was too pesky, too inquisitive. What happened was there was de facto indifference on attacks on press freedom,” Teodoro said during the lecture on Sept. 1, Thursday, at the UP NCPAG. 

Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, said that with 79 journalists killed during the nine-year rule of Arroyo, her government set a record. The figure includes the fatalities from what he described as a defining incident in Arroyo’s leadership: the Maguindanao massacre, which claimed the lives of 32 journalists on Nov. 23, 2009. 

Teodoro noted that the number of journalists killed during the Arroyo presidency was way higher than the 21 media workers killed under then President Corazon Aquino’s term, 11 under former President Fidel V. Ramos, and six under the short-lived administration of ex-President Joseph Estrada. This, he said, makes the Arroyo period “outstanding… in terms of the number of journalists killed.”

Libel, restrictions, taray 

Aside from media killings, Teodoro cited the libel suits then First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo filed against 46 journalists as one of the anti-press initiatives during the Arroyo presidency. 

Among those sued were members of the Malacañang Press Corps but Romero said his peers remained professional despite the case. 

“For a journalist to be sued is something. You have to be callous not to be affected [but] they just kept their personal issues to themselves. I admire some of them, they were sued and their reports were straight, not out of context or erroneous, even at the height of the court case when FG was really so adamant.” 

Romero said covering Arroyo was a huge challenge because of her reluctance to answer political questions, and the priority given to journalists from government media. On top of that, reporters had to deal with the president’s temper. “You know her as really strict,mataray and [one who] doesn’t want her time wasted.”

One frustration of the Star reporter was Arroyo’s refusal to face the media at the height of reported coup attempts. “The point is the bigger the news, it’s more important that the president will be the one who is talking. May destabilization, ang gusto mong hanapin kaagad as a journalist, ’yung object ng destabilization or coup then ihaharap sa iyo, spokesperson? That gives you the impression na talagang beleaguered [ang pangulo].” (When there is a destabilization plot, as a journalist, you want to find the object of the destabilization or coup, but they instead let you speak to a spokesperson? That gives you the impression that the president was really beleaguered.”) 

The media’s battles 

Still, reporters did not let Arroyo’s wall bar them from getting the story. She hardly granted ambush interviews but Joyce Pañares of Manila Standard Today never stopped trying. 

“Attempt ka lang nang attempt. You ask her questions ‘pag may ambush interviews. Kung hindi siya sumagot (If she doesn’t answer), that’s the norm but if she answers, then you get the story. It’s another thing if you stop asking just because she’s not answering.”

Pañares said Arroyo’s attitude toward the media forced her to be creative. “You need to develop sources other than the usual or the official ones. Kailangan mas masipag kang manguha ng documents because it’s the only way you can get things na pirmado niya.” (You need to work hard at getting documents because it’s the only way you can get things that she signed.) 

Yet the media had to do more than ask questions and research. Teodoro said media advocacy groups took on a greater role in helping prosecute killers of fellow journalists, and in defending press freedom in instances like the state of emergency in 2006 and the 2007 Manila Peninsula siege. “The media had to fight in several fronts … so I think that damage was done to the press as an institution.” 

For Romero, the Arroyo years highlighted a crucial function of the media. “It magnified the role of the media because of all these exposés. It showed the role of the media in shaping public opinion.” 

Accessible but backtracking 

Over a year since President Benigno Aquino III replaced Arroyo, reporters have noticed a major difference in the Palace. Parañes said while Arroyo relied on her spokespersons, Aquino is his best mouthpiece. 

“Now you have a president who grants ambush interviews. President Aquino is more accessible,” said Pañares who is now president of the Malacañang Press Corps. 

“Like on foreign trips, GMA would also give informal interviews but somehow, you feel you’re always on your toes, always guarded. President Aquino, he starts with a joke. He knows how to make you feel comfortable.” 

Teodoro, however, said Aquino can do more about providing media access by fulfilling his campaign promise to support the passage of the Freedom of Information bill. “But he has since backtracked on that position and Malacañang has prepared a rather restrictive version.”

As for Romero, he continued following Arroyo in Congress where she sits as Pampanga representative. Asked if the new post made the former president take down her wall, he said, “She’s more comfortable but openness is still a door that’s narrow to pass through. The job is more relaxed but she’s still the same, still careful, still safe.”