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Philippine plan to limit press freedom draws flak

Move to insert the phrase responsible exercise of freedom of speech in charter leaves media open to oppression, critics say

Joe Torres and Mark Saludes, Manila

Joe Torres and Mark Saludes, Manila

Published: January 23, 2018 07:09 AM GMT

Updated: January 23, 2018 07:12 AM GMT

Philippine plan to limit press freedom draws flak

Members of the Philippine media hold a demonstration in Manila on Jan. 19 to protest what they described as attempts to suppress press freedom in the country. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

A proposal in the Philippine Congress to qualify a provision in the country's constitution on freedom of speech has drawn flak from various quarters.

Allies of President Rodrigo Duterte in the House of Representatives proposed to insert the qualifier "responsible" in the constitution, to read "No law shall be passed abridging the 'responsible exercise' of freedom of speech."

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines described the proposal as "dangerous" because it would "enshrine prior restraint as part of the basic law of the land."

The group said it would spell "the end of the inalienable rights and freedoms" the provision seeks to protect.

The National Press Club of the Philippines said the proposed amendment "lays the groundwork for sanctions against journalists who would be accused of "irresponsible reporting."

Pau Gutierrez of the National Press Club said it is "tantamount to prior restraint."

"Who would define what is responsible in the exercise of press freedom or the people's right to free expression?" he added.

Archbishop Rolando Tria Tirona of Caceres, chairman of the social action arm of the bishops' conference, said the proposal is a move of a "frightened and insecure government" that is "not worthy to lead the people to truth, justice, and to total good."

"[Have] courage not to compromise the freedom of telling the truth despite pressure from those in power," Bishop Mylo Vergara of Pasig told members of the press during a forum on Jan. 19.

The prelate, who heads the bishops' Episcopal Commission on Social Communication, however, lamented reports that media practitioners are also being paid "to frame news and even distort truth."

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Despite the many challenges, Bishop Vergara said media practitioners should continue to be faithful in reporting the truth.

Later in the day, journalists held a candle-lit demonstration to protest the decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke the license of the online news site Rappler.

The commission revoked its license for an alleged violation of the constitution that prohibits foreign ownership of media companies.

The Photojournalists' Center of the Philippines said the issue is not just about the Rappler decision, "but the fact that it might be used as precedent to harass other media entities."

Archbishop Tirona said the move "smacks of a reign of terror, an arrogant, and high-handed warning to media practitioners that do not kowtow to the [Duterte] administration."

He urged media practitioners to take part in opposing attempts to suppress press freedom. "Catholic media must always side with freedom, which is the sure way to human enrichment," said the prelate.

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