APRIL 9, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Stung by the New York Times (NYT) editorial criticizing President Arroyo for her "authoritarian tendencies" and alleged efforts to muzzle the press, Malacańang urged members of media yesterday to use their power wisely to unite the country and inform the people, rather than misleading them.

As this developed, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo wrote the NYT on Friday to protest its editorial, saying Mrs. Arroyo remains "determined to preserve the wide democratic space that makes Philippine society the freest in Asia — even if it is this democratic space that is abused, manipulated and exploited by partisan politics and violent groups."

In a speech during the 25th anniversary of a newspaper based in Iloilo City, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye pointed out that the press, whether at the national or community level, still holds the power to shape public opinion through editorials and commentaries, and even by how their banner headlines are worded.

"I urge the media to use its power wisely, to unite and not to divide the people, to depict the truth and not to distort it, to inform rather than mislead the public," Bunye said.

He said high on the agenda of the Arroyo administration is preventing violent, cowardly assaults on crusading journalists and solving their murders.

Bunye admitted that, as a former journalist, he is saddened by attacks on a free and fearless press "by those who cannot and would not withstand public scrutiny."

"I believe that there can be no better disinfectant for the ills of society and crimes committed against the people than the sunlight of a free and responsible press," he said.

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) records show that a total of 76 journalists have been killed since 1986.

Bunye pointed out that in order to protect the rights and lives of the press people, the President has put up a rewards for those who could provide authorities with information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators of such crimes. Mrs. Arroyo has also set aside P5 million to help families of the slain journalists.

"If you know of any journalist whose life is under threat, please let us know so that proper measures can be done to address such threats," he said. "Speak up and let us know because the Constitution grants you that right just as it grants our people the right to timely and relevant information especially on the affairs of the state."

RP democracy still ‘active and vibrant’

Meanwhile, Romulo told the NYT in a letter that democracy in the Philippines remained "active and vibrant" as shown by its fully functioning legislature, the courts and media establishments.

He added that the Arroyo administration is determined "to win the war against terror with full respect for the rule of law and maintaining — as well as strengthening — our democratic ideals."

The Times editorial on April 5 was titled "Dark Days for Philippine Democracy" and it criticized the Arroyo administration for various measures supposedly oppressing civil liberties.

But Romulo said the President " will continue to be a reformer — of the economy, of politics and of society."

"These reforms are at the core of a growing economy, a stronger peso, more robust stocks, greater investor confidence, a leaner bureaucracy, better governance, and growing prospects for lasting and meaningful peace in the southern Philippines," he said.

Romulo said the legislature, the courts and the media "remain powerful institutions and enduring symbols of our active and vibrant democracy. In Congress, whether sincere reformer or obstinate obstructionists, all are subject to the same rules that govern democratic life."

He also said the work that started with the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada "is far from over."

"That work is sadly hampered by political divisiveness and intrigue and hindered by direct threats of armed violence," Romulo said.

He noted that many international observers were present during the May 2004 elections and those who came with open and objective minds left satisfied that the elections were valid.

As for Proclamation 1017 that declared a state of national emergency, Romulo said it was issued last Feb. 24 "in defense of democracy."

"The decision was difficult, though necessary. The threats to our democratic way of life, to the freedoms and liberties that we value as a people were true, real and imminent," he said.

"During this time, we received the support and understanding of the international community. The resident diplomats in Manila had a deep understanding of the actions taken by the President. They were acutely aware of the prevailing atmosphere of destructive divisive politics within which violence, mutiny and rebellion were being nurtured. They knew that the threats were real," he added.

Romulo said the government was grateful that several countries had openly expressed support for Mrs. Arroyo’s actions, which were undertaken "through the force of the Constitution and the rule of law."

"If terrorism thrives where democracies are weak, then the fact that terrorism has failed to take root in the Philippines speaks volumes. We have scored dramatic successes against terrorists, working with our allies in giving no quarter to evil," he said.

Romulo said the government is "successfully preventing terrorism from spreading to the rest of our country and to our region. We are fighting terror at great cost and sacrifice."

Pro-Arroyo Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, meanwhile, said the opposition remains true to form with its members claiming the NYT editorial reflects the United States government’s sentiments toward the Arroyo administration.

At the same time, he denounced opposition members as "loony," claiming they know nothing except how to exploit every bit of propaganda hurled against the government.

He said the US Embassy had already disavowed the NYT’s editorial comments and attributed these to the operation of a free American media, very much like the one in the Philippines.

"If the US Embassy itself has already distanced itself, and US officials have in the past come out strongly in support of the Arroyo administration, then the opposition has no cause to claim otherwise," Pichay said.

He said the editorial was "offending" and lamented that the newspaper’s writers "accepted hook-line-and-sinker the opposition propaganda" but miserably failed to even mention the plot of some groups to oust Mrs. Arroyo.

"Rather than unfairly condemn our government, perhaps the (NYT) writer wants us to roll over and let the forces who want to put up a ruling junta take over without a fight," Pichay said.

He added that "perhaps when we have again become a banana republic, the (NYT) editorial writer would be happy because Uncle Sam could then come over here and liberate the Filipinos and restore democracy."

Pichay said the views expressed in the Times editorial were "obviously lifted chapter and verse from the lines expressed by opposition members," since these views continue to be expressed freely by local media.

"If there really is a curtailment of our freedoms, we don’t see it in our own media, which is living up to its reputation as Asia’s freest," he said.

Pichay said the NYT was remiss in failing to recognize that there had indeed been concerted attempts by various conspirators to unlawfully seize power from the Arroyo administration.

"We will never allow our freedoms to be trampled upon. But they should not be so quick to fault us in cracking down against adventurists and… plotters who are using our people as pawns while they are actually pulling the strings in the shadows," he said. — With Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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