Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today at the warning not to carry interviews with "terrorists groups" which President Gloria Arroyo issued to the news media on 5 March, a few days after the army called for a law that would sanction media that do this. A ban on interviewing rebel groups is also included in an anti-terrorism bill currently before congress.
These measures will have the effect of imposing "censorship" and "self-censorship" on the Philippine media, the press freedom organization said. "We are aware of the need to combat terrorist organizations, but we condemn the fact that the media could be exposed to sanctions for just doing their job of disseminating the news," the organization said in a letter to President Arroyo.
Agence France-Presse quoted presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye as saying the measure would be applied "on a case by case basis, depending on the interview’s content." He did not specify what sanctions would be used, but the media could risk having their licences withdrawn.
Bunye also pointed out that a law banning the dissemination of calls for the "government’s overthrow" is already in force in the Philippines.
The warning has come at a time when the army is stepping up its offensive against armed bands and terrorists groups, especially Abu Sayyaf - which is accused by the Philippine and US authorities of links with the nebulous Al-Qaeda - and the communist New People’s Army. There are also separatist movements - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front - on the southern island of Mindanao.
The term "terrorist group" is very vague. Reporters Without Borders believes that it should be up to the news media themselves, and not any other body, to decide who they interview.
Abu Solaiman, the spokesman of the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, last month claimed responsibility on the air for bombings on 14 February that killed 12 people and wounded about 100 others in Manila and two southern towns. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said in a release: "Giving access to Abu Solaiman’s claim of responsibility for the Valentine’s Day blasts was not a crime. Exploding bombs is a crime. Airing a claim of responsibility, on the other hand, served the public’s interest to know of details behind the event."
The NUJP has condemned the new measure, describing it as a "restriction on press freedom" that will result in practice in journalists being kept out of the conflict zones.