, JANUARY 19, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacañang hit back yesterday at the New York-based Freedom House that downgraded the Philippines’ state of democracy to “partly free,” saying the private watchdog ignored positive developments in the country.

Following a survey it conducted, Freedom House relegated the Philippines from a list of totally free countries to partly free. The Philippines was one of three countries – including Thailand and Togo – that received a downgrade from the private democracy watchdog.

The Philippines received the downgrade due to a spate of political killings specifically targeting left-wing political activists, the organization’s website said.

In a statement, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Freedom House failed to do a proper study on the country’s state of freedom and democracy and was apparently swayed by propaganda from critics.

He said Filipinos “live in a free society, and that is the undeniable truth.”

“We should be wary of private foreign groups that claim to be expert watchdogs on freedom and democracy,” Bunye said. “Our people know best.”

He pointed out the Philippines held local and congressional elections in May last year and many potential candidates have been preparing for the 2010 elections this early and these are examples of the vibrancy of the country’s democracy.

“Let us be undaunted by outside forces that rely on propaganda rather than systematic and thorough research and consultations to underpin their statements,” Bunye said.

He said Freedom House should have at the very least sought the government’s side to verify information they have on the Philippines.

“If they had, they would have known that we have a free press, a pro-active Congress, and constitutional processes and principles that uphold human rights,” the Palace spokesman said, even as he voiced suspicions as to the motive of the report.

“We don’t know who funds foreign groups such as Freedom House, nor were we told about their research procedures,” he said.

“What we do know and must always remember is that we Filipinos are the best experts on the Philippines,” Bunye said.

The international community has been voicing its concerns over the unexplained killings and disappearances of hundreds of journalists and activists in the country.

The Arroyo administration has repeatedly denied that its security forces were behind the killings and disappearances, even as the Supreme Court took a pro-active stance in forcing the authorities to produce missing individuals believed to be in their custody.

GMA is to blame

Senators said onus of the blame lies on President Arroyo for the downgrade of Philippine democracy by the New York-based Freedom House.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr and Senators Francis Escudero and Loren Legarda shared the same sentiment that the Arroyo administration’s rampant disregard of the rule of law, the unsolved and mysterious killings and efforts to trample upon the people’s basic rights are major reasons for the country’s democracy downgrade.

But Sen. Edgardo Angara, now allied with the administration, contradicted the assumptions of Freedom House, saying the Philippines remains to be one of the countries with a very strong democracy.

“No. I think we’re still an operating democracy, we have the most critical media in this part of the world, we have a rowdy political class. Despite those handicaps, we express our opinions freely,” Angara said during yesterday’s Kapihan sa Senado.

Pimentel said the Philippines’ adherence to democracy has continued to dwindle since the time of ex-President Ramon Magsaysay in the 1950s.

“Our democracy during the ’50s is as tall as Ramon Magsaysay. Now it’s disheartening to know that the country has (been) dwarfed (in the fight against) corruption and in the implementation of the rule of law,” said Pimentel, apparently taking a broadside at the height of President Arroyo, who is reportedly barely five feet.

Escudero said everything in the country has been downgraded, from the US Federal Aviation Authority ratings to the country’s democracy ratings.

Meanwhile, Legarda said restrictions on press freedom and the right of the people to peacefully assemble without being violently dispersed by the police are among the biggest threats to Philippine democracy.

“For sure, freedom is not absolute. But when even constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties are threatened, then something is wrong,” said Legarda, a former broadcast journalist before she became a politician.

Likewise, Legarda warned about the chilling effect of government pronouncements on how it would use “reasonable force” against members of the working media.

“What is reasonable force to them? They better define it now so everybody is properly informed and to avoid excesses,” Legarda said.

She pointed out that the calibrated preemptive response (CPR) policy of the government, in lieu of maximum tolerance, is very questionable as it runs against the provision of the Constitution which states that no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech and expression.

In view of the forthcoming mass actions in relation to the Mendiola massacre and Edsa Dos anniversaries, Legarda reminded the police that “the people and members of media are not the enemy.”

She said that journalists have to be where events are unfolding so they can report the news to the people, a prerequisite of a healthy democracy. -With Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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