May 14, 2009

Not an isolated case

Cheche Lazaro, a veteran and multi-awarded journalist, who has maintained her independence from the two big networks dominating the broadcast industry in the Philippines by having her own production outfit, would be the last media person one would expect to be on the receiving end of a harassment suit. Her reputation as an investigative journalist who would probe into a controversy as far as she could in order to get at the truth is balanced by her sterling credentials as a fair, honest, thoroughgoing and circumspect reporter. She is an outspoken advocate of media freedom and responsibility and has sufficient connections in high places to somehow inoculate her from the inevitable backlash of her hard-hitting reports. Or so it seemed.

Ms. Lazaro was issued a warrant of arrest on the basis of a suit filed by a certain Ella Valencerina, Vice President for Public Relations and Communications of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). Ms. Valencerina complained that Ms. Lazaro and several others were guilty of violating the Anti-Wiretapping Act when they recorded a phone conversation between her and Ms. Lazaro and subsequently aired a portion of said conversation in a feature story “Perwisyong Benepisyo” about the GSIS premium-based policy in the television show, Probe.

In brief, Probe was investigating complaints of public school teachers that the GSIS policy deprived them of the benefits they were entitled to by basing their qualification on the actual premium payments made by the government agency they worked for rather than the length of service of the employee concerned. They correctly pointed out that delays in premium payments by the Education Department (DECS) cannot be used as justification for depriving them of their social security benefits.

Probe sought an explanation from both the DECS and GSIS. Education Sec. Lapuz accommodated Probe’s request for an interview to get their side of the story but GSIS refused. In an official letter explaining why, Ms. Valencerina said that GSIS would not accede to interviews by reporters connected to ABS-CBN as they had had the sad experience of biased reporting. The official letter asked that Probe give their explanation of their refusal to be interviewed instead of delving on the substance of the charge that GSIS was unfairly and arbitrarily treating its members with the premium-based policy.

The subsequent phone conversation between Ms. Lazaro and Ms. Valencerina revolved around Ms. Lazaro’s appeal that GSIS reconsider its refusal to air its side. But to no avail. When the story was aired, Probe used a portion of the phone conversation, which from the transcript and from the official reply of GSIS to Probe’s request that they give their side, merely stated what GSIS all along had been saying, that they would not explain their side to a media outfit they deemed biased. Whether the image of GSIS was tarnished by the Probe story because of the GSIS management’s obvious lack of transparency and unwillingness to respond to members’ complaints is their own lookout.

But why is GSIS pursuing this case in the first place? What is their aim? To retrieve their reputation? To punish an intrepid journalist? To deliver the message to the media to keep their prying eyes away from GSIS? All of the above?

In the final analysis, Cheche Lazaro is likely to win her case seeing as the charges are so groundless. But she will be made to squirm and the message will have been delivered in the meantime. Newer, younger reporters with neither the weight of experience, nor the awards nor the connections, will learn the lesson that it doesn’t pay to cross the powers-that-be, especially those with hotlines to the highest reaches of public office.

One must remember that GSIS top honcho Winston Garcia is the scion of powerful political allies of de facto Pres. Gloria Arroyo who delivered a comfortable margin of votes for her in Cebu in the fraud-ridden 2004 elections. He allowed himself and the GSIS to be used by the Arroyo administration in a proxy war with the Lopez clan in order to wrest control of the power firm MERALCO from them and as a prelude to establishing itself and its cronies in the lucrative energy sector.

Is Cheche Lazaro’s case an isolated one? Just another case of an untouchable government bureaucrat with a thin skin and a generous amount of hubris ticked off by a pesky, even if professional-looking, reporter?

The answer must be sought after in light of the recent spate of law suits against figures in the opposition, whistleblowers and the unrelenting persecutory criminal suits filed against leaders and members of activist organizations and progressive party lists through the efforts of the Inter Agency Legal Action Group or IALAG.

The perjury case filed against Engineer Jun Lozada by ex-presidential aide Mike Defensor has been widely perceived as part of the continuing persecution of the star witness in the $329-million NBN-ZTE corrupt deal by the Arroyo administration. The case had previously been thrown out by a Metropolitan Trial Court in Manila but reinstated by a higher court.

Personalities from the political opposition have not been spared. Film actor Rez Cortez, a leading figure of the Fernando Poe Jr. Movement, is facing arrest arising from his involvement in the exposé of the “Hello, Garci” tapes, a charge that was thrown out by the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) but was suddenly revived by the Court of Appeals (CA). It will be recalled that the “Hello, Garci” scandal involved no less than de facto President Gloria Arroyo who was caught red-handed talking to Mr. Garcellano alias “Garci”, a top election commissioner, on how she would fraudulently garner a million additional votes to “win” in the 2004 presidential elections.

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Amnesty International (AI) and other human rights groups have already raised the issue of the Arroyo administration’s use of the criminal justice system as a tool for systematic repression against its political enemies.

They point to the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), formed in 2006, as the government body behind the filing of trumped-up criminal charges against leaders and members of progressive people’s organizations and party-list groups.

In his April 2009 follow-up report, Mr. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, pointed out that “The Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) continues to label members of civil society organizations as suspected members of the CPP/NPA/NDF, and the Government has not taken any steps to abolish IALAG. The central purpose of IALAG remains to prosecute and punish members of the CPP and its purported front groups as enemies of the State…”

Mr. Alston noted “The Supreme Court has yet to use its constitutional powers over the practice of law to impress upon prosecutors their duty to uphold and protect human rights and to provide reasoned decisions for probable cause determinations.”

Under the current regime, grave anomalies such as fraud, plunder, extrajudicial killings and abuse of authority of previously unimaginable degree and magnitude have become the order of the day. No wonder Mrs. Arroyo is moving heaven and earth to remain in power if only long enough to find a way out of imminent prosecution once stripped of presidential immunity. #


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