Journalist groups in Southeast Asia recently issued this statement of support for Filipino journalists in their struggle against the husband of the nation’s most powerful woman:
Statement of support for Philippine journalists from free expression groups around Southeast Asia
26 November 2006
We, representatives of journalist, media, and free expression organizations from around Southeast Asia, and collaborating under the network of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), applaud the initiative of our colleagues in the Philippines to defend their rights in the face of blatant abuse and harassment from the husband of Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
We strongly support the filing of a class civil suit against Mr. Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo for his abuse of power and his clear attempt to undermine press freedom in an important member of the Southeast Asian community.
The Philippines is in the clear minority of countries in Southeast Asia with a functioning—if perennially vulnerable—free press. In this light, the deterioration of the conditions for press freedom under the regime of President Arroyo is a troubling trend that causes anxiety in the rest of the region.
We note with alarm that over the past months, Mr. Arroyo has sued 43 reporters, columnists, editors and publishers of various publications for libel. Many of the journalists he sued had linked Mr. Arroyo to unexplained wealth, vote-buying for his wife’s 2004 electoral win, and money laundering.
Although all these issues comprise serious public interest matters that merit scrutiny by the people through the press, the President’s husband is seeking damages totaling P141 million (about US$2.8 million), thereby sending a chilling message to journalists and the Philippine media in general. Backdropped by the alarming rate of murder of journalists in the Philippines, particularly under the Arroyo administration, the antics of the President’s husband underscore the overall decline of official respect for press freedom in the country.
It is in this light that we encourage our Philippine colleagues in their efforts and initiative to fight back against this clear attempt to harass their ranks. If the presidential spouse intends to send a message that journalists who dare to cross him will face a libel suit, then the victims – both the press and the people – must push back with a stronger message that contempt of press freedom is contempt of the people.
Retaliating against the charges filed against them, the journalists are in turn suing Mr. Arroyo for abuse of power and for seeking to undermine civil liberties, and they are therefore seeking P87 million (nearly US$1.75 million) in damages, in a symbolic campaign to charge Mr. Arroyo one peso for each of the 87 million Filipinos he wants to deprive of free expression.
The countersuit against Mr. Arroyo—signed by 42 of journalists he had sued yet evidently failed to intimidate—is inspiring, groundbreaking, and potentially standard-setting not just for the Philippine media, but for free expression in the whole of Southeast Asia, if not the world.
As one of those rare havens for democracy in the region, and as party to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, the Philippines is challenged to set a higher standard with respect to human rights, of which freedom of expression is paramount. Beyond the court case against Mr. Arroyo, we also urge Philippine legislators to decriminalize libel, a move that has found support from more than 600 journalists and 30 local and foreign media organizations.
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Philippines
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Alliance of Independent Journalists, Indonesia
Institute for the Study on Free Flow of Information, Indonesia
Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia
Mizzima News, Burma
Timor Leste Journalists Association
Alliance for Freedom of Expression, Cambodia