As Filipinos prepare to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution, the recent arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa reminds us that the fight to restore democracy in the country is far from over.
On those fateful days—from Feb. 22 to 25, 1986—hundreds of thousands of Filipinos gathered on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) to call for an end to the Marcos dictatorship, regain their freedom, and restore democracy in the country that was for decades the bastion of democracy in the region.
Ferdinand Marcos and his family fled to Hawaii at the end of those four historic days, ending almost 14 years of strong man rule and giving Filipinos hope of a new dawn of freedom. Every year since, thousands of Filipinos gather again at the EDSA Shrine, built to make sure we remember those four crucial days, to celebrate the event.
But this year’s commemoration, as in the previous two years, will serve more as another call to action – to defend democracy and make sure that the freedom gained 33 years ago will not be lost again.
The continued harassment of critics of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the repression of press freedom, the rampant disrespect for the rule of law, and the reemergence of strong man rule reminiscent of the iron-fist leadership enforced by Marcos remind us more forcefully that the spirit of EDSA must live on.
One must be blind not to look at Ressa’s arrest as an assault on press freedom. We cannot look at it as a simple cyber libel case but consider it in the context of the pattern of harassment the Duterte administration has imposed on the progressive news site.
The President must have been so peeved by the articles critical of his administration published constantly by Rappler that he had to make special mention of the news organization in his State of the Nation Address in July 2017, accusing it of being owned by Americans and that it was being funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, a wild accusation that critics and the opposition are used to hearing from the President. Remember that he has also accused the Liberal Party of plotting to oust him with the help of the CIA and some prominent Filipino-Americans.
It was during the same SONA that Duterte also made allegations against the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN, which he claimed were putting out fake news and were biased against him. He accused the owners of the Inquirer of non-payment of taxes and holding on to government land beyond the terms of the contract. The Inquirer owners eventually gave up the lease on the questioned land. In fairness, the Inquirer editorial staff has continued to defy Duterte in its commitment to truth.
Duterte, on the other hand, accused ABS-CBN of pocketing his money during the 2016 elections without airing his campaign advertisement, a claim for which he never presented any evidence. He said Congress is certain to remember these when it decides whether or not to renew the network’s franchise, which expires next year.
Shortly after the denunciation at the SONA, the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Rappler’s closure. Although the closure order was made by the SEC through the revocation of the website’s certificates of incorporation and registration, it was obvious that the SEC acted under pressure from the administration.
The Rappler eventually reopened while awaiting adjudication of the case and continued its search for the truth, but Rappler and Ressa were later on slapped with tax evasion cases.
While the Duterte administration continued its persecution of Rappler and Ressa, international organizations recognized the veteran journalist’s commitment to press freedom. TIME Magazine named her one of its Persons of the Year last year as one of a selection of journalists combatting fake news all over the world. She was also presented the 2017 Democracy Award by the National Democratic Institute in Washington DC, the Golden Pen of Freedom Award in June last year by the World Association of Newspapers, and on November 20 last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists bestowed her its 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award at its annual International Press Freedom Award ceremony held in New York City.
These awards must have peeved Duterte because shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice gave the go-signal to the filing of cyberlibel case against Ressa. While Malacañang and Duterte’s defenders insist Duterte had nothing to do with it, that government entities like the DOJ and the NBI were instrumental in the revival of a case that happened almost seven years ago and four months before the law on cybercrimes was passed show with certainty that this government would do anything to harass its critics.
One only needs to see the pattern of harassment on Duterte’s fiercest critics to realize that Ressa’s arrest is not just an assault on press freedom but on democracy as well.
This month marks the second year of the arrest and detention of Sen. Leila de Lima, who investigated the alleged Davao Death Squad while she was chairman of the Commission on Human Rights and justice secretary and who became the President’s harshest critics when she became senator. Last year, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who dared criticized his war on drugs, was ousted by her peers using a petition for quo warranto filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, which questioned Sereno's integrity over the alleged non-filing of some mandatory asset declarations.
In July last year, warrants of arrest were issued against four former members of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives—former Representatives Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casiño (Bayan Muna), Liza Maza (Gabriela), and Rafael Mariano (Anakpawis) for the alleged murder of two Bayan Muna critics in Palayan, Nueva Ecija in December 2003 and May 2004, respectively.
Also last year, libel charges were filed against another fierce Duterte critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, in Davao City.
All these moves show a non-tolerance for criticism by this increasingly repressive regime. They are obviously made not just to harass the harshest critics, but to send a chilling message to those who would dare defy Duterte that they could be next.
As the people gather on EDSA to celebrate the four days that marked the end of strongman rule and restored democracy in the country, let us not lose sight of the fact that democracy and freedom are again under threat and that we must remain vigilant and willing to defend them.
Val Abelgas is a former managing editor of Manila Standard and now lives in the US. He may be reached at email@example.com