NUJP's 5th Congress Statement
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) wraps up its 5th Congress held August 27 to 28 in Tagaytay City secure in the knowledge that the free and independent Philippine media's staunch defense of freedom of the press and of expression has expanded the frontlines with more committed journalists rallying to the cause.
But at the same time, this Congress also reflected the sober realities journalists face as the war against civil liberties in the country appears to have intensified and reached a more vicious stage.
As our keynote speaker, the venerable Vergel O. Santos, reminded us in the wake of National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales' ominous pronouncement about the supposed communist infiltration of the media, "We may even be in bigger trouble than we think."
As he so aptly pointed out, the 50 or so journalists slain since Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power "are enough to staff one national daily and that, therefore, their murder means the silencing of one potential collective voice of public conscience - silenced for precisely doing what it is in its perfect nature to do so - speak."
Not to mention the often odious working conditions and even more odious economic benefits so many of our colleagues, especially those in the frontlines, the provinces where the calling to serve the people's right to know is most needed, have to bear with.
And there among us, delegates to the NUJP's highest policy-making body, were living proof of the risks and dangers we face.
Tony Abejo of the NUJP's Ozamiz chapter is publisher and editor of the Malindang Tribune, a family-run community paper in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental.
Carolina Montilla of the NUJP-Tacloban is publisher/editor of the Eastern Times, based in Leyte's capital city and serving Eastern Visayas. Maureen Japzon is an editor and feature writer of the community paper and, incidentally, was voted by the Congress to the
NUJP National Directorate.
Last Friday, the eve of his travel to Tagaytay, Abejo received no less than eight text messages on his cellular phone, warning him to "be cautious" and, eventually, suggesting that he divide what little wealth he had among his wife and children because he would "rest in peace."
Tony can only think of one reason for the ominous messages: Retribution for using his newspaper as a platform to rail away at official incompetence and corruption.
Indeed, for Tony, threats have been a constant companion for the last 14 years. This time, though, he acknowledged, they appeared to be striking closer to home, the venom seemingly more potent than before.
Not that he fears as much for himself as for the future of the harbinger of truth he has worked so hard to establish if those who seek to slay him - and the truth along with him - succeed.
Roli Montilla is no stranger to the dangers that face the Philippine press either.
When Martial Law was declared, her colleagues at the national daily she used to work for had to all but bodily shove her out of the country to escape the wrath of the dictatorship.
She returned from exile and to the profession she loves. Only to find that the dangers she faced then remain and have, in fact, grown in the midst of our supposedly restored democracy.
It is not only Roli who is at risk but practically everyone who works for and with her at the Eastern Times.
In July, a Samar-based columnist for her paper received a letter bordered in black ribbon from an "Anti-Communist League" telling him to "regret what you have done." Since then, Roli told the Congress, the columnist has reported being trailed by motorcycle-riding men, the dreaded common thread in the pattern of murders that has ravaged the ranks of both the Philippine press and legal dissenters.
As have two of her staff reporters in Tacloban, one of them treated to the sight of an arrogantly flaunted bulge at the waist.
Roli and Maureen have been receiving text threats regularly.
That Tony, and Roli and Maureen, notwithstanding the personal worries that weighed heavy on them, showed up at the Congress and lent their time and experience to strengthening the NUJP is a tribute to their courage and dedication and the truism that, indeed, real strength lies in unity.
The unity of those who share the same dream of a free and independent Philippine press serving the people's right to know and their right to free expression, the unity of those who together wage battle against those who seek to stamp out the truth in pursuit of selfish interests.
Tony, Roli, Maureen, the writers of the Eastern Times and all of our threatened colleagues are what the International Federation of Journalists fittingly paid tribute to, Filipino journalists who "continue to strive for increased professionalism and a strong, independent and free media" and "defend the public's right to know, despite regular and violent attacks from all sides."
They are, as Vergel Santos fittingly observed, "freedom's last line of defense" in the face of "one evidently desperate president," a national security adviser "out of an old dangerous mold of official enforcers - those programmed to feel more needed as their bosses feel more insecure," their favorite general, "who seems to relish being called 'executioner' as an affirmation of efficiency - efficiency in a barbaric sense," and a government gripped by an "official cold-bloodedness and twisted sense of retributive proportion."
Our threatened colleagues are the raison d'etre of the NUJP. They ARE the NUJP. And they are the best proof that, at the end of this arduous path, the Philippine press and the Filipino people we serve will emerge unbowed, triumphant.
Jose Torres Jr.
August 29, 2006