Thursday, March 16, 2006

PCIJ under siege

At the senate hearing last Tuesday Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) executive director Sheila Coronel and Daily Tribune editor Ninez Cacho Olivarez gave testimonies on harassment and curtailment of media freedom that media organizations have experienced in the past days.

Sen. Arroyo, woefully paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, said, ``Those who want to destroy the freedom of nations will have to start with the freedom of the press.’’

Clashing with the generals during the martial law years wasn’t so bad after all, I said to Sheila and she agreed. At least we knew the enemy then, we knew their names and their faces. But tangling now with those who operate in the shadows is something else. You have to watch your back.

So many media practitioners have died in the hands of such elements in the past couple of years. The recent government attempts to threaten and harass the media serve to embolden those with shady intentions.

Excerpts from Sheila’s opening statement at the Senate illustrate this.

``Late (last Monday afternoon), three members of the Central Police District, accompanied by sound engineer Jonathan Tiongco, asked a Quezon City judge to issue a warrant that will allow the police to search the office of the PCIJ, apparently in connection with a charge of inciting to sedition.

``The PCIJ received confirmation of the application from well-placed sources in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) and the Quezon City Police. Court and police sources say that an earlier application for a search warrant was turned down last Friday by another Quezon City judge. This apparently prompted the police and Tiongco to apply today for a search warrant with another judge, Alan Balot of RTC Branch 76.

``Alerted by the PCIJ, journalists from various media organizations waited outside Balot’s office while the hearing for the search warrant, which began at about 4:30 p.m., lasted past office closing hours… The judge emerged from his office at about 5:30 p.m., but refused to talk to reporters. Interviewed by GMA-7 reporter Sandra Aguinaldo, Tiongco only said that the hearing had been cancelled. The clerk of court, meanwhile, told Aguinaldo that there was no hearing, only an application for a search warrant…

``The PCIJ was unable to get a copy of the charge sheet, but its lawyers believe that the case is linked to the one filed by Tiongco against the PCIJ late last year. In that case, filed before the Department of Justice, Tiongco said that the PCIJ should be charged with “inciting to sedition” for posting on (its) blog the “Hello, Garci” recording containing the allegedly wiretapped conversations between former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and several officials, including possibly President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

``In that petition, which was ignored by the justice department, Tiongco alleged that the posting of the audio recordings led the opposition to call for the president’s resignation and impeachment and encouraged civil society groups to hold rallies against the president.

``Since the last quarter of 2005, Tiongco and his wife Rona have filed two libel cases against the PCIJ for publishing on (the PCIJ) blog extracts of a police dossier that lists a string of criminal cases filed against him. Rona Tiongco has also sued the PCIJ for violation of her right to privacy. In addition, Jonathan Tiongco has filed a falsification charge against the Center. He also asked, but failed, to get the Supreme Court to issue an injunction against the posting of the “Hello, Garci” recording on the PCIJ blog. Tiongco has also sued ABS-CBN for libel, wiretapping and falsification.

``On Nov. 4, Quezon City Judge Ralph S. Lee issued a 20-day temporary restraining order on the PCIJ blog on the request of Rona Tiongco, who said that the Aug. 12, 2005 post on her husband violated her privacy and that of her children. Mrs. Tiongco, however, was never mentioned by name in that post.

``Jonathan Tiongco has been linked to Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor, who presented the sound engineer in a press conference last Aug. 12, in a bid to question the authenticity of the “Hello, Garci” recording. In a telephone interview with the PCIJ (last Monday), Defensor denied any knowledge of the search warrant against PCIJ.

```There are certain media personalities against whom cases of inciting to sedition will be filed,” he said, but “PCIJ is not one of them.” He said that the only relationship he had with Tiongco was that press conference last year. “I want this clear, we’re not together politically,” he said. “He is more aligned with the opposition. He even filed cases against (former police chief Hermogenes) Ebdane and (former Cabinet secretary and chief of staff Angelo) Reyes.”

``When asked whether an inciting to sedition charge ought to be filed against the PCIJ for posting the wiretapped recordings, Defensor said, “I was the one who said it’s no use stopping the release of the Garci tape.”

``In an Oct. 11, 2005 ruling, the Supreme Court threw out Tiongco’s petition demanding that the PCIJ take down the "Hello, Garci" recording from (its) blog. The high tribunal asserted that the constitutional right to free expression was paramount. "Free expression is guaranteed by the Constitution," the Supreme Court said. " Any deviation from this rule through judicial restraint can only be had after a proper trial of facts."

``The Supreme Court also described Tiongco’s petition as "barely comprehensible" and "bereft of merit…’’’

When the search warrant is served (today?) and the search is carried out I will be present as a member of the PCIJ board. But what is it that the searchers hope to find?