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Attempts to silence media have chilling effect on press freedom – senators

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By Vanne Elaine Terrazola 

Senators said attempts to silence and intimidate members of the media may have a “chilling” effect on press freedom.

Senator Grace Poe, who chairs the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, on Thursday expressed concern over threats to the press after the arrest of online news website Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa late Wednesday afternoon for cyberlibel.

Senator Grace Poe (ROY DOMINGO / MANILA BULLETIN)

Senator Grace Poe (ROY DOMINGO / MANILA BULLETIN)

Poe admitted to being “puzzled” on the arrest and said she wanted to look into the details of Ressa’s case.

“I think that we should fear more if the press is silenced because it is really through the freedom of speech that we are able to guard the different institutions of government; that we are also able to uphold democracy in our country,” Poe said at the sidelines of the launch of the Department of Transportation’s “Serbus” program which provides free bus rides for commuters using the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange.

She said she hopes that the courts will observe due process “because it is enshrined in our Constitution that we should protect press freedom.”

“Without going through the merits of the case, I am praying that the courts will continue to be fair and objective and will not forget the safeguards, not just for press freedom, but for individual freedoms,” she added.

Senator Francis Escudero, likewise, stressed the importance of the press.

“Every government needs a free and unbridled press and should avoid sending/creating a chilling effect on members of the media. As Voltaire said: ‘I may not agree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’,” Escudero posted on Twitter.

Poe, meanwhile, questioned the officers of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) for threatening staffers of Rappler for covering the arrest of their chief inside their office in Pasig City.

She believed that NBI officers do not have “any basis” for barring Rappler reporters from taking videos of the arrest, since it would also ensure that processes are followed properly.

“Mas gusto kong malaman, ano bang naging dahilan ng NBI doon. Kasi para sa akin mas nakakabahala ‘yon na ‘pag mayroong mga nangyayaring ganyan, hindi puwedeng i-cover ng media (I wanted to know what was the basis of the NBI for prohibiting them. Because for me it is worrisome, especially when similar arrests happen and that media won’t be allowed to cover those),” Poe said.

“Naiintindihan ko ‘pag (I understand preventing them from doing that if it is an) ongoing police investigation that might jeopardize the safety of individuals and the operation itself; pero kung na-arrest na nila ‘yung tao, anong makakasama doon (but if someone is already being arrested, what’s the danger in recording that)?” she added.

In one of the videos posted by Rappler reporters on social media during the service of the arrest warrant against Ressa, an NBI agent was recorded as saying: “Can you stop doing that now? Is it okay? And tell this to your colleagues, because definitely, if we see our faces on the net, you’ll be sorry. You’ve been warned. We’ll go after you.”

Poe urged authorities from the NBI to be transparent about Ressa’s case to address allegations that the move was done to harass the press, especially those who are critical of the Duterte government.

“I hope that whoever is in charge will come out and speak transparently about the merits of the case and also the reasons behind their actions, because the public deserves an explanation regarding this, so as to dispel any fears and doubts about an unfair treatment,” she said.

Ressa was freed Thursday after posting a P100,000 bail before the Manila Regional Trial Court. She spent Wednesday night at the NBI headquarters.

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