Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Can GMA escape the wrath of the press?

In taking over the Peninsula Hotel and demanding that President Gloria Arroyo finally step down last week, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV must have hoped that somehow a few of the protest votes that had made him a senator last May (four years after he led the 2003 failed Oakwood mutiny) would incarnate around the hotel to protect him from the police, just as the EDSA I crowds protected the rebels in 1986.

Nothing like it happened. Instead of getting rid of Mrs. Arroyo, Trillanes merely disappointed many of his supporters, and probably put paid to whatever real plans the opposition might have had for Mrs. Arroyo before 2010. The hotel episode had no discernible planning or public support; it looked like a hasty rerun of the first eruption at Oakwood.

Trillanes’s lawyer has accused the police of roughing up his client. For her part, Sen. Miriam Santiago has proposed that Trillanes be expelled from the Senate for grossly disorderly conduct. None of these cut more deeply than the embittered lament of former Trillanes supporters and fans who say he has totally lost it. “It’s all gone into his head,” said one, “he seems to believe he can now walk on water.” One formerly supportive cleric could only mutter expletives.

Until the police began rounding up the suspects, it appeared a clear win for government. It took the high-handedness of the police, who did not seem to know they were already winning, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which was already theirs. By arresting and putting in handcuffs the 30 or so newsmen covering the event, one 81-year-old retired bishop, a younger priest, and a former vice president, the police completely cancelled their gains and unwittingly opened a second front against their president.

The old foes of Ferdinand Marcos were the first to point out that not even during the darkest days of martial law did they see anything like it. Were the political opposition to fold up, this new front could hold, manned by media men and clerics who are not likely to forget the incident. Life would not be easy for the regime even if it stayed. We learn early in school that the pen is mightier than the sword; in this information age, this includes television, computers, the internet. The clerics have the word of God.

This is not to suggest that the media could ever be faultless. They could be corrupt, superficial, bigoted, relativistic, but they have the last word always. They represent a universally desired value ---press freedom --- and they constitute a universal brotherhood (and sisterhood). Upon the proclamation of martial law in 1972, when Marcos ordered the newspaper offices padlocked and press censorship imposed, the international press was the first to tell him that he had more to gain from suffering the political agitation and personal calumnies of the anti-Marcos press than from closing down the most inflammatory and offensive newspapers.

It turned out to be prophetic. The media never forgave Marcos. Even after he had lifted martial law, some of the foreign wire services continued to refer to him as “Dictator Marcos” rather than “President Marcos.” As press secretary, presidential spokesman, and information secretary (then minister) from 1969 to 1980, I was attacked by some of the Palace courtiers for allegedly maintaining despicably good relations with the world media, while Marcos was stuck with a bad press. To this day, some so-called scholars and academics writing occasional pieces out of Hawaii or Canberra have not abandoned the use of “Dictator Marcos.”

The press had an unusually long honeymoon with Cory Aquino, and up to a point with Fidel V. Ramos. But it played a distinctive role in cutting short Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s presidential term of six years. Erap’s fight with the Philippine Daily Inquirer was particularly fueled by the decision of his businessmen friends, particularly those in the movie industry, to stop advertising in the paper----reportedly at the President’s behest. I never saw evidence of Erap’s hand in it; I am more inclined to believe that an over-eager factotum bit more than what he could chew, and presented Erap with a fait accompli. Erap was probably pleased with the initial result, without analyzing its real implications or consequences.

PDI survived the ad boycott, but Erap never regained the paper’s respect. Since his conviction by the Sandiganbayan on Sept. 13, 2007. the newspaper has lost no opportunity to describe Erap as “the convicted plunderer,” even after he had received full pardon, which formally erased not only the punishment but also the crime of which he had been convicted.

In the Manila Pen incident, the police argue that they had repeatedly asked the media to vacate the premises, but that they simply ignored the police. They suspect the media of having gone there not simply to cover the event but also to lend support to Trillanes. They find it highly suspicious that the press and TV cameras got there even ahead of Trillanes. They seem never to have heard of the media getting advance tips from those who want to ensure maximum coverage of an event. Thus, based on the most shaky assumptions, they simply handcuffed everyone and hauled them off to Bicutan. Truly unfortunate.

Maria Ressa of ABS-CBN is right. The media were there to cover the event; it was not for the police or the government to tell them how to do their job and when to leave. The attempt to evict the media from the scene prior to the police assault was an attempt at censorship. The media had every right and reason to resist, and they did. Of course, any of the reporters and cameramen could have gotten hurt had there been a stampede, an explosion or a shootout. That was the risk they took; it did not constitute a crime for which anyone of them could be or should be arrested.

Apparently, Mrs. Arroyo realized the mistake as soon as she saw it, and ordered the police to “expedite the processing” of the media representatives. She could not, however, embarrass or dress down the police. That was too little, too late. The war with the media is on, and there is very little one can do about it. But Secretary Ronnie Puno of the Department of Interior and Local Government, who is on top of the police, could probably still save Mrs. Arroyo a lot of trouble if he should assume full responsibility for the mistake, and give up his position to placate the press.

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