Senator Leila M. de Lima has filed a resolution calling for a Senate investigation into the news blackout in war-stricken Marawi that has kept media from covering and reporting the real crisis in the province.
In a Senate Resolution No. 509, De Lima urged the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media to look into the news blackout to ensure that public remains informed on the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the progress made by the government to resolve the conflict in Marawi that has been placed under martial rule.
“There is an urgent need to look into the state of press freedom in the context of extended declaration of martial law in Mindanao and the ongoing armed conflict in Marawi City in order to ensure that Filipino people and legislators continue to have ‘eyes and ears’ that serve as conduits between them and those trapped in the conflict zone, other than through the lens of the AFP’s perspective,” she said.
“While the government, especially the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), should be able to conduct military action as may be allowed under the Constitution freely, such is not necessarily incompatible with according respect for press freedom under certain appropriate conditions and parameters, considering that the latter also serves the ends of successful conflict management and resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction,” she added.
Last May 23, President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao after a violent clash erupted between government forces and members of the Maute terror group in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur. The declaration was extended until Dec. 31 this year with concurrence of the two houses of Congress.
Based on news reports, a total of 614 terrorists, 45 civilians and 133 government troopers have been killed since the fighting broke. Records from the Integrated Provincial Health Office (IPHO), however, claimed that at least 30,732 evacuees have manifested mental disorders due to the prolonged war.
There are 359,680 IDPs or 78,466 families housed in the evacuation centers in 16 municipalities across Lanao Del Norte and Lanao Del Sur, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Minda News earlier reported that several members of the press have written a letter to the AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año about the military’s act of “banning media presence even in cleared areas that they wanted to cover and had previously covered,” removing them of their right press freedom.
In the letter, the members of the press reportedly requested that they be allowed to sit down with Año to discuss how they can carry out their duty with the military while preserving the secrecy of vital tactical movements. The military, however, has reportedly refused to heed the journalists’ demand for greater leeway in covering the conflict.
De Lima, a former justice secretary, said the government should uphold the freedom of the so-called Fourth Estate to ensure that concerned government agencies do their part in alleviating civilian sufferings.
“Free and independent media coverage is not only a desirable but, in fact, a necessary component in ensuring that the constitutionally-enshrined democratic values upon which our nation is built are respected, protected and upheld, especially those that protect the welfare and rights of affected civilians,” she said.
“In ensuring that appropriate, adequate and effective measures, and concerted efforts, are being taken by all concerned government agencies to alleviate the sufferings of those affected, minimize the damage to both private and public property, and to quickly and effectively rebuild and reconstruct lives and properties that have been damage,” she added.
UN Committee on Information Chairman Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury earlier stated that “[i]t was only through a free press that it was possible to hear the voice of the weak and the small,” further noting that media is important especially during armed conflict.
“Journalists served as ‘our eyes and ears’…. Through them, the world learned not only how a war was conducted, but also how it affected peoples. Journalists could give voice to those who would otherwise remain unheard, tell stories that otherwise would remain untold,” Chowdhury said.
De Lima cited Article II, Section 24 of the Constitution which states that, as a policy, “[t]he State recognizes the vital role of communication and information in nation-building.”
As such, the Senator from Bicol pointed out that Congress should closely monitor the state of press freedom and the freedom of expression to ensure that media are not stripped off their rights to independent reporting.