Is the Press Being Muzzled?

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, Al-Jazeerah, 22 August 2003

Last Friday, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo scolded the GMA-Channel 7 television reporter Tina Panganiban Perez for allegedly abetting rebellion by interviewing Sen. Gregorio Honasan before the state of rebellion had been lifted. She even publicly questioned whether her superiors at the network knew what she was doing, telling Perez that she would check with GMA management to find out if she had their approval to interview Honasan.

Shocked by the president's outburst, Perez just remained silent as the president berated her. Perez later explained that of course she had the permission of her superiors at the network, and that all their reporters were even encouraged to go out and try to be the first ones to interview Honasan.

Perez had told the president that she had interviewed Honasan on a certain date, but Arroyo contradicted her by saying that an intelligence agent had followed her and seen her interviewing the senator before the state of rebellion had been lifted.

Whether or not this makes any difference depends on which side of the fence you're on. To reporters, anyone who is of interest to a current development is fair game for an interview, even if he is the suspected head of the July 27 coup attempt. And in any case, the government hasn't charged him with anything yet, so what's the big deal?

It's really not the job of the press to point out the location of persons on the run to the government. That is the job of intelligence agents who work for the government. If President Arroyo was mad because it took a TV reporter to lead them to Honasan, why did she take it out on Perez? And if the government already knew where the senator was, why didn't they arrest him? Perhaps it's because they didn't, and still don't, have enough evidence that would stand up in a court of law?

After many in the press expressed shock and outrage at the president's dressing down of Perez, the president's handlers must have realized what a mistake it had been to do so and the furious spinning of damage control swung into action. Arroyo visited the headquarters of GMA- 7on Saturday to assure network officials that she wouldn't press charges against Perez. But the damage had already been done, and it sent a chilling message to all journalists that if the government doesn't like your stories, for whatever reason, threats can me made against you.

It's just so sad that in a country such as the Philippines, where freedom of the press has a long and healthy tradition (not withstanding the martial law years of the Marcos dictatorship), a president feels she can intimidate a TV reporter for having interviewed a senator that she doesn't like.