By JOEY NACALABAN
MORE Cagayan de Oro-based journalists joined calls for the decriminalization of the country’s libel laws in response to last week’s arrest of Rappler chief executive officer and executive editor Maria Ressa due to a cyber libel case.
“It must be condemned,” said Rey Maraunay, manager of Cagayan de Oro’s oldest radio station, DxCC, of Ressa’s arrest. “What the government has done is an attempt to silence journalists and media who are critical towards the government.”
Another broadcast executive in the city, DxIF-Bombo Radyo station manager Celso Maldecir said what was done to Ressa had a chilling effect on different media entities throughout the country.
Maldecir said it was like the government sees journalism as a criminal act.
“It criminalizes journalism,” said Maldecir.
Maraunay said Rappler has been at the forefront of investigative reporting online.
He said the government should be reminded that “the Philipppine laws guarantee the freedom of speech and expression. This is an essential ingredient in any democracy.”
A staunch press freedom advocate in the city, veteran journalist Froilan Gallardo, said the libel and cyber libel laws are like swords held to the throats of journalists. He said journalists have long been calling for the removal of the criminal element in the libel laws, including the new cyber libel law, because it has been used time and again as a weapon against the free press.
Gallardo pointed out that there is an outpouring of support for Philippine press freedom as a result of Ressa’s arrest. “The entire world is behind the Philippine press and Maria Ressa. The Philippines is getting isolated more than ever.”
Gallardo said there is no indication that the Philippine press would succumb to government pressure. “Not even Marcos with his draconian powers could stop the press from speaking out the truth. Not then. Not now.”
JB Deveza, a former editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper in the city who now serves as safety officer for Mindanao of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said he also sees the way the Duterte administration treats the press as an issue on accountability.
“‘President Duterte is not accountable to anybody.’ That is the message the government is sending with Ressa’s arrest. ‘Do not criticize or else,’” Deveza said.
Deveza and Gallardo are among those from Cagayan de Oro who signed the Feb. 15, 2019 “Joint Statement in the Harassment of Maria Ressa” of members and partners of the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation.
The other signatories from Cagayan de Oro are two editors of the Gold Star Daily, Herbie Gomez and Cong Corrales, Xavier University academic Rechelle Ann Barraquias, and Xavier-Ateneo Development Communication Society president Karlo Jess Abecia. Signing the document are 33 partners and 21 members of the Consortium.
The Consortium is a network of journalists, academics, bloggers, and other independents across the country.
It called Ressa’s Feb. 13 arrest as a “continuing harassment” and “a betrayal of the guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution. More, its callous execution is an indictment of a weakened justice system; its devious grounds a dangerous fabrication that affects not just journalists, but everyone.”
It also pointed to what it called as an organized disinformation which “is not an isolated problem; it is part of a larger assault on democracy.” This, it said, has been confirmed again and again in forums across the country, including Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, Angeles, Baguio, Iloilo and Metro Manila
The Consortium there are things to be considered to see the larger context for the attacks on Rappler. These include:
• the President’s threats against a TV network and a newspaper;
• his declaration that press freedom is not a right but a privilege;
• his abusive language directed at journalists;
• the threatened disenfranchisement of media organizations;
• the swarming by bots and trolls of critical or independent voices on social media;
• the distributed denial-of-service attacks on progressive news sites;
• the blacklisting of reporters from coverage of the presidential palace;
• the sidelining or unseating of independent government officials; and
• the continuing attempt to change the Constitution or expand martial law or lay the groundwork for a revolutionary government.
The Consortium also warned about the implications of the Rappler case on press freedom and freedom of expression in the country because of the “extreme legal theory the National Bureau of Investigation used to charge Ressa—that of ‘continuing publication’ in a website—is fundamentally unjust and highly dangerous; it opens every person who posts online or on social media to the legal absurdity of a prescription-less crime of libel. This is useful for authoritarian regimes; it is anathema to democracies.”