Is the press to blame if it has become wary? Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a memorandum declaring July 25 as National Campus Press Freedom Day—an apparent attempt on the government’s part to fend off accusations of press intimidation aimed towards student publications critical of its actions.
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) had recorded and reported 99 attacks against the press for the first 22 months of Duterte’s administration. Killings, media coverage bans, unjustified criminal and civil cases against the press were effected in order to intimidate and impair the press.
Just last August 23, The Pillar, the official student publication of University of Eastern Philippines (UEP), has become the latest victim of press intimidation by the police after they organized a candle-lighting ceremony for the victims of recent Negros Island killings. The police said that the event might be a “threat” to the safety of the campus.
Even before this, Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa had expressed his desire to create a law which allows “intensified police visibility” in campuses to curb alleged recruitment of left-leaning militant groups. The enactment of which would also enable Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to conduct their own form of indoctrination within schools and universities.
The government’s dire attempt to control the opposition at the expense of hampering activism and threatening academic freedom cannot be concealed.
More often than not, student-journalists who are critical of the current administration are also the victims of red-tagging. Student-activists who are outspoken in their opposition against the oppressive regime are labeled as “brainwashed.”
With the slightest dissent from the press, President Duterte has always been quick to respond with profanities and threats. When he vowed to protect press freedom all the while lambasting critical media, it only showed his lack of sincerity and will to truly uphold freedom of expression and speech—especially when these entail resistance against his tyranny and criticism of his oppressive administration.
To resist and to be critical shouldn’t be reduced into something as trivial as being “brainwashed”—as this would only reveal how detached the government is from the realities of oppression it aided to create and perpetuate.
And these realities, for the press, are crucial to its truth-telling. Young student-journalists are constantly being challenged on how to communicate these narratives as an exercise of their freedom to express, as a fulfillment of their responsibility to the uninformed, and as a realization of their vow of allegiance to the voiceless and the most vulnerable.
Press freedom is initially cultivated in the halls and classrooms of schools and universities. Where students develop their ability to be critical in their views, press freedom thrives. Institutions of education should be safe places for any kind of discourse, may it be in the form of dissent or otherwise—for these institutions should transcend mere absorption of whatever information is being handed over. These institutions are expected to also become structures for challenging and establishing perspectives.
When the supposed theory where the government is duty-bound to protect press freedom does not coincide with praxis—where brutal assaults are being effected by the same body, the press cannot help but to be wary. Even so, the press remains unfazed in rousing the indifferent, asking the unpopular questions, pursuing the truth, and furthering the discourse.
Although the enactment of the new law is a crucial step for press freedom, the injustices committed towards the press cannot be concealed nor be forgotten by merely declaring a distinguished day for press freedom.
Unless someone is held accountable for the said injustices, the press refuses to forget and to be lulled. Unless the law materializes into something observable, the press refuses to fall into the traps of false security.