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'A free press talks'

Publication Date : 03-05-2012

 

"Silence kills democracy but a free press talks." 

That statement, startling for its simplicity and blunt-force impact, can very well serve as slogan and rallying cry for today’s World Press Freedom Day.

It was made by investigative journalist Umar Cheema of Islamabad’s The News in an interview with WAN-Ifra, the global organisation of the world’s press, where he recounted how he was abducted in September 2010 by yet unknown persons, stripped, humiliated and beaten for his critical reporting against the Pakistani government.

But far from being intimidated, Cheema went on TV to report his ordeal and subsequently continued his work of reporting on government venality.

In our own country that is among the most dangerous places for journalists in the world, Cheema’s statement rings particularly true.

The number of journalists killed since the 1986 Edsa revolt that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and restored democracy stands at 150, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

As many as 39 journalists were killed in 2009—a number that includes at least 30 media workers shot dead in the infamous massacre in Maguindanao in south Philippines that shook the world. Ten journalists have been killed since the second Aquino administration was ushered in with renewed hope in 2010.

Today’s World Press Freedom Day is an appropriate occasion to recall the efforts of power-holders and their minions to whip the press into line. Who can forget the reported remarks of Jose Miguel Arroyo, the husband of then President Gloria Arroyo, to the Negros Press Club in 2005?

He was quoted as saying that no journalist had so far been killed in Negros because media practitioners there were “responsible” and, unlike those in other places, particularly Manila, knew how to “police themselves.”

It may have been a classic case of opening one’s mouth and putting one’s foot in, but in that chilling manner did the then president’s husband pronounce the apparent rationale between the murder of journalists noteworthy for their critical reports and commentaries—the ultimate punishment for failure to toe the government line.

As though ensuring that all his bases were covered, Arroyo had also filed at least 17 libel cases against 46 journalists, including a number in the Inquirer, in connection with reports linking him to corruption and other controversies.

But subsequently, after surviving life-threatening open heart surgery, he announced that he would withdraw all these cases. He said it was an effort at "making peace", although the respondents, riled at the idea of the cases being dropped merely by his grace, expressed readiness at fighting the charges in court.

All these—along with the ad boycott brought against the Inquirer in July-November 1999 by the Estrada administration and its allies in big business with the intent of forcing the newspaper “to its knees”—illustrate how press freedom continues to be attacked by power-holders that will brook neither opposition nor the exposure of illicit acts.

This state of affairs prevails in the Philippines (which ironically provided the world a template on wresting freedom from strongman rule through peaceful means despite the violence inflicted on it) and in other countries where democracy is presumed to hold sway and where, as in the Arab world, despots are seeing the handwriting on the wall and moving to push back the beginning of the end.

"In the absence of a free press, there is no democracy,” Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the Yemen-based organisation Women Journalists Without Chains, declared in an interview with WAN-Ifra. Speaking of the importance of a free press for the changes taking place today in the Arab world, Karman said: “A free press is the headline for democratic transition; it is an essential cornerstone of any country based on democracy. Freedom of expression is the right that the youth of the Arab Spring used to commence their revolutions; they exercised this very human right, supported by a free press that had been violated and suppressed for many years. A free press should be the standard of any country with claims to democracy. It is both the means and the goal of any change.”

These are words that will ring true anywhere on the planet.

 

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