[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] What press freedom?

Vergel O. Santos
Indeed, the press was invented for democracy’s own health. That’s why a narcissistic, authoritarian character like Rodrigo Duterte simply cannot abide it.

The Social Weather Stations (SWS) has done a survey on the state of press freedom in the country. Actually, anyone observant enough should be able to tell, unaided by surveys, that it is in mortal danger.

In fact, Philippine surveys not seldom tend to confuse, rather than inform, much less enlighten, thus shaking one’s confidence in what one’s own eyes see and one’s own ears hear. But that’s not necessarily the pollsters’ fault – they basically only ask and count.

The SWS survey is a good illustration. For all its zeal for being timely and relevant and professional and its generally fair record, the SWS is unable to provide the answer to the question it set out to tackle.

Other polls – done on other issues by SWS as well as other pollsters – have raised the same problem: constitutional change, federalization, and martial law are all roundly opposed, extrajudicial killing is condemned, The Chinese are distrusted, yet Duterte, despite his open espousal of all that, remains popular.

I seem to detect two mutually reinforcing factors driving and muddling these surveys: one is the fear struck by Duterte’s draconian regime in the hearts of many, the other, a compulsion among a long-suffering people to try to square everything in their minds in order to rationalize their desperate hopes – they happen to be the precise type to fall easy prey to the Duterte scam, which combines threats and false promises of quick fixes.

I myself began looking at the SWS findings on press freedom but felt discouraged to go on after stumbling over this patent inconsistency: 67% agreed that the Philippine “mass media…have freedom,” yet, 51% agreed that it was “dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the [Duterte] administration, even if it is the truth.” In this case, apart from fear and a sense of self-preservation, a blissful ignorance of the true measures of freedom appears to have helped survey respondents along in their convenient delusion.

The enshrinement of freedom in the Constitution does not by itself constitute any guarantee that freedom lives. That, in fact, suffered a decisive drubbing when Duterte declared, only recently, that the Constitution has no use other than as toilet paper.

The ultimate proof of whether freedom of the press, or any other freedom for that matter, is alive and well is revealed by what happens to you after exercising it. If you are taken to court  or thrown in jail on some pretext or even merely warned that life will be made difficult for you, the chill hits not just you; it goes around discouraging the general exercise of freedom. Is it any wonder that press freedom is exercised, if at all, timidly, fearfully?

Freedom of the press is so fundamental to the workings of democracy that without it all other freedoms are diminished. It may have simply derived from two other freedoms – freedom of speech and freedom of expression – but until any assertions made in the name of those freedoms are aired in the press they fall short of their potential for advancing democracy. The press serves as the institutional medium for the dissemination and the distillation, by public discourse, of anything uttered or otherwise expressed that has any bearing on people’s live.

Indeed, the press was invented for democracy’s own health. That’s why a narcissistic, authoritarian character like Rodrigo Duterte simply cannot abide it.

Why do you think Senator Leila de Lima has been in jail for more than two years now? Or why former senator Antonio Trillanes IV is continuously persecuted? Or why Rappler’s own Maria Ressa is being harassed with multiple court cases? Or why Vice President Leni Robredo and other opposition leaders and churchmen are being targeted for a roundup, doubtless for silencing? 

It is all about words they said – words so revealing of the alarming realities these days that they somehow found airing in the press and a place in the popular consciousness; words that the Duterte regime, in order to escape accountability, tried to suppress, and goes on trying to suppress as these words continue to resonate.

Thus press freedom is appropriated and the press itself hijacked. And the face that the regime deploys as appropriator and hijacker is proving to be a perfectly distracting one: Sal Panelo, the President’s spokesman. 

You just have to give it to him. Every time he opens his mouth in front of Malacañang reporters, supposedly among the select ones from the so-called free press, not only does he go unquestioned, he is indulged, even applauded. And for what? For inanities not even funny or inventive. 

It had better be charm or something known anyway to cause situational insanity. No other circumstance is extenuating. – Rappler.com