Seares: Military ‘can censor or shut down’ media in Mindanao

IT WAS a threat not raised publicly since martial law was proclaimed in Mindanao last July 23, this time on national stage no less, during Wednesday’s joint session of Congress.

And it’s this: Government can take over media during the period of emergency. Martial law in Mindanao was to end this Dec. 31 but has been extended until the yearend of 2018.

Slightly dissimilar messages were made before lawmakers and elsewhere on the issue of what the military can and might do:

u25a0 Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra, in reply to Sen. Risa Hontiveros’s question, said they can make warrantless searches and seizures, suppress peaceful assemblies, and assume control over media.

u25a0 Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, military spokesman, said they can censor media, including social media. (At first, he said “censure” but later told Agence France Presse [AFP] he meant “censor.”)

u25a0 National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said they will restrict only information that puts security of operations and safety of their soldiers at risk.

Form of repression

The pronouncements differ in the form of the intrusion: from censorship to outright take-over.

We can only speculate and imagine what will happen under each scenario: from AFP persons scanning news stories before publication to soldiers dominating the editors’ desks.

During Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law in the seventies, the most repressive assault was closure of the publication or broadcast station and hauling off journalists to jail. (“Manila Times” was the biggest and most prominent victim.)

The military couldn’t take over then; they didn’t have skilled persons for the job. Even censoring content proved tough; eventually they just settled to giving lists of “no-nos” and encouraging self-censorship. Dread of the arrest and seizure order (Asso) the next day was more efficient than a soldier pacing the newsroom at night.

What’s going on there?

Emergence of the threat against media perks up curiosity among us outsiders who are not practicing journalism in Mindanao.

What has been going on there?

Possibilities: (1) Mindanao media has been “behaving” and the military has had no reason to flex muscles or (2) some form of control is being used but the press there, used to praising the president and the government, is not complaining.

What does Mindanao media know that we don’t know?

A theory is that the government may be sending a trial balloon, not for Mindanao media but for those in Luzon and the Visayas. It wants to know how the public will react to a threat of media repression. And give a teaser of sort: “You’re next. so better have some idea as to what we can do there when martial law gets to you.”

Those safeguards

How about the safeguards in the 1987 Constitution, not found in the 1936 and 1973 Constitutions and adopted after the nation’s experience with the Marcos dictatorship? Most relevantly, the provision that civil liberties, which include free speech and free press, are not suspended during martial law. Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said they remain in force.

Guevarra talked about “personal judgment” and “prerogative” exclusive to the president when it comes to martial law. Yes sir, on declaring martial law but not on deciding its nature and continuance. Administering it is limited by the Constitution. Ending or extending it is reviewed by Congress and the Supreme Court. “Flexible,” did Guevarra say? Flexible maybe but it must be within the parameters of the power the Constitution has defined.

National, social media

Media watchers must wonder how martial law administrators will deal with national newspapers and broadcast networks. Those media outfits operate in Mindanao: they circulate newspapers, field correspondents, or run radio-TV stations and news bureaus in the area.

Are the local operations of those media outfits also subject to the control of the military? Do we see circulation of a broadsheet or broadcast coverage being suspended, reduced or otherwise restricted?

Handling social media is even more tricky. An offensive content may be ordered taken down but will control go as far as outright ban?

Restraint on coverage

Even without martial law, media has been employing restraint on coverage of military or police operations. No AFP or PNP commander has been turned down on any request for media embargo or blackout when an operation is endangered by publicity.

Using that as argument for media takeover or control may just be fear-stoking. But a more serious concern must haunt us. Control or influence over media under martial law might be tapped to conceal abuses by police, military and even civilian government leaders.


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