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DEFENDING JOURNALISM: Take the viewpoint and standpoint for truth and fairness for the people

Bayan Muna partylist Representative Carlos Isagani T. Zarate challenges journalists to “take the viewpoint and standpoint for truth and fairness for the people” at the launch Saturday, 18 November, of the book, “Defending Journalism. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

(Keynote address of Bayan Muna partylist Representative Carlos Isagani T. Zarate at the launching of the book, “DEFENDING JOURNALISM” at the Roma Room, Pinnacle Hotel in Davao City on Saturday, 18 November 2017. Zarate wrote for the Media Mindanao News Service and Malaya before he became a lawyer and legislator. A publication of the International Media Support, ‘Defending Journalism: How national mechanisms can protect journalists and address the issue of impunity’ is a comparative analysis of practices in seven countries).

Good Morning!

It has been said that those in power and the media have always been at odds.

Whether arrayed in settings under repressive governments, or, immoderate corporate greed, or, the hegemonic influence and intervention of big countries, or, even under the depredations of society’s anti-democratic institutions, members of the media would often ruffle the hair of the powers-that-be.

Thus, it is also journalism that is first in the crosshairs in times of heightened repression. Indeed, journalism, was and still is, a dangerous profession, especially under a world order where economic and political powers are controlled by a few.

That your profession – nay, our profession, is dangerous is perhaps an apt testament to the immortality of an idea, and how, when it is planted into the minds of the people, threatens to topple even the most well-entrenched status quo. Indeed, people, journalists, could be killed, but the idea lives on.

Colleagues and friends, today, I raise my pen as we salute and celebrate the launching of a very timely book that talks about how journalists around the world — especially in those critical, conflicted and security-challenged areas – are managing to overcome the odds pitted against them.

Hearty congratulations are due to the International Media Support (IMS), as well as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Asian Institute of Journalism (AIJ), the National Union of Journalist of the Philippines (NUJP) and all the people who made the publication of “Defending Journalism” a reality.

In these challenging and still perilous times for the media, a book that chronicles the state of press freedom, and, how media practitioners had adapted to the conditions of their work, certainly will not only provide insights for other journalists around the globe for them to be on guard of the risks of their vocation, but, also will serve as a cautionary tale on the dangers and perils in society with a suppressed press.

From the rapidly flourishing media in Afghanistan despite attacks, to the increasingly repressive government in Indonesia, and, to some degree now, even in the Philippines, to the challenges of caste and tribe lines in Nepal, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to the political instability and internal conflicts in Colombia and Nepal, to the violent extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and, to the profit-seeking and self-serving interests of big business and media moguls who control media’s vast infrastructure, the book that we are launching today provides an encompassing range of issues and concerns, and, the adversities that the media faces today.

Despite the geographic, political, and economic disparities among the seven countries cited in this book project, yet, may I cite three common threads or similarities that are very apparent.

Foremost is the fact that “freedom of the press” does not genuinely exist in its truest sense in any of the countries cited, despite legislations and other edicts supposedly to ensure its respect and exercise. The media is dominated, controlled, and/or suppressed by government, its security forces, paramilitary organizations, organized crime and other vested interest groups.

Second is that women in the media also suffer yet another layer of marginalization in the form of labor discrimination and sexual abuse.

Lastly, violence against the media takes place with impunity in all the seven countries, particularly in Asia.  I need not cite the particulars here, but, suffice it to say that, as aptly observed in this book, the past five years or so “have been some of the bloodiest for journalist and media workers.”

However, despite these odds, journalism in these countries is thriving. Even with the turmoil brought by regime changes, the rise and fall of monarchs, of war and peace and everything in between, the media persisted in these countries, and, even expanded. To communicate, truly, is part of being human.

It continues to be our source of inspiration to know that there are people who will defy repression by pushing for a freer press even if it cost their liberty and even lives.

The Book cited UNESCO’s report of 827 journalists to have lost their lives in the course of the last decade, or, at least one casualty every five days, all in the pursuit of bringing information to the public. Adding to these are the countless other violations endured by media workers like kidnapping, arbitrary detention, torture, harassment, and seizure of property.

This is why it is heartening  to see that despite the perils, journalists still prowl the streets, the battlegrounds, the slums, the mansions, the Halls of Congress, the parliaments of the streets, the urban jungle and the mountain ranges, if only to capture and report on the strife, poverty, injustice, and the people’s struggles and realities.

To see injustice, to be moved, touched, or be disgusted by what one sees, and through words invoke the same emotions onto others, and perhaps, even convince them to act upon it — the media has its own cogent power. Such a power, though, I must emphasize, carries not only great responsibility, but also,   old and emerging dangers. Such a power poses a real threat, “a clear and present danger” to the status quo.

In this light, it is very important that in “defending journalism”, we must all come together. Justice and protection mechanisms, the involvement of civil society and peoples’ organizations, and, the journalist organizations all play important and crucial roles in protecting the lives of journalists, as well as for press freedom to thrive, more importantly in the subject countries of this Book.

Here in the Philippines, journalists and media workers are once again living in very challenging times. While we have now a President that repeatedly denounced the killing of journalists and vowed to prosecute the perpetrators, yet, on the other hand, the spate of extrajudicial killings in the past year or so has only even reinforced the notion that the state of impunity is still running amuck in our country today.

Some of you were among the first responders to the thousands of mostly poor killed in the past months as a result of the government’s “bloody war against drugs.”

You did not only witness deaths but also the anguish of the victims’ mothers, fathers, wives and husband, their sons and daughters their loved ones. And, apparently there was also that hope that you could capture, even interpret, the abysmal pain and anger in your stories and photos.

Yes, it is the media, I submit, that should also be alarmed first by the militarist and fascist solutions to the myriad problems that our country faces.

There is perhaps no sector that has the best memory of the terror unleashed by the dictatorial Marcos regime than the media. Newspapers, TV and radio stations were shut down. A Ministry of Information reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia was put up in its stead. From there, a stream of disinformation — fake news, as we call them today — and praise releases ensued. And, in its stead, only censored or approved texts and photos were allowed to be published.

I am proud to say that the Philippine press was undaunted by the tyrannical rule in the past. For even as the government clamped down on the media, around Marcos buzzed the mosquito press, biting in his soft spots. I believe that the same undaunted spirit still persists today, even though, ironically, here we are now, gathering in a place where a state of martial law is currently still in place.

We are, of course, also comforted by the fact that in our country today, monitoring and reporting threats and abuses versus journalists are now being ably done and responded to by strong organizations of journalists, like the NUJP (National Union of Journalists of the Philippines), and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility or the CMFR, the Alternative Media group, among others. These organizations, which have solid and credible reputations, have the capacity to raise awareness and advocacies for the defense of journalists under threat or attack. They have also a record of maximizing the use of the Philippines’ legal systems and expanding their reach and influence to similar-minded organizations here and abroad.

However, colleagues and friends, we all know that to monitor violations and enable your ranks to guard against attacks should not be the only endgame in this quest to “defend journalism.” In the Philippines, for instance, no one is apparently safe in a society monopolized by a ruling few and who have all the resources to crush anybody that stands in their way.

Next week, on the 23rd of November, marks the eighth anniversary of the single deadliest attack against journalists in history – the Ampatuan Massacre – in which 57 individuals were murdered, including 32 journalists and media workers. More journalists have been killed since then — 40 and still counting.

I was in London in November 23, 2011 as a speaker, together with then IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) Chair Jim Boumelha, on a forum about the Amapatuan Massacre sponsored by Amnesty International and the Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines. It was also during that time when the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of civil society organizations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression, declared 23 November as the International Day to End Impunity, to mark the 2009 Ampatuan massacre, now considered as emblematic of the the state of impunity that reigns still in our country.

Colleagues, yes, we strive for a society that does not persecute its media and its people, for a government and justice system that protects the people, and ensures them of their civil and political rights, including the right to information. We strive for a time that this book –Defending Journalism– would be less relevant, but probably, only to remind people the dangers of a suppressed press.

My fellow journalists, at this juncture, let me then challenge you to take the viewpoint and standpoint for truth and fairness for the people.

I made this challenge in the context that most, if not all, media infrastracture in our country, and even elsewhere, are now owned by big business and vested interest groups. More than ever, the challenge for a truly independent press is paramount.

It is undeniable, too, that there still exists today in our midst colonial and elitist, even anti-poor and anti-left biases and influences that thrive and even dominate our media landscape.   Our challenge then is to be truthful, balanced and be pro-people in our reportage

Also, we all know that rich and powerful system and practices of bribing and corrupting many media practitioners are a scourge of the profession. Along with defending this noble profession, we have to continuously strive for a professional, corruption-free practice of journalism.

Finally, we should realize that the power of the Fourth Estate is impotent when severed from the people. We should guard our ranks from the same oppressive structures that shackled the rest of our people. It is in telling the stories of our people, the poor and marginalized especially, expose the oppressive, corrupt, and, tyrannical, that we truly advance the cause of defending journalism. And only in the elimination of these oppressive system that we can realize a truly free press.

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