Media group describes as government harassment wiretapping charges against TV journalist

[The following is a statement of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a SEAPA founding member based in Manila]

Absurd and Dangerous

The suit against Cecilia “Cheche” Lazaro alleging that she wire-tapped her own phone conversation with the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) Vice President for Public Relations and Communications is as dangerous as it is absurd.

The suit is based on the airing of several minutes of the Probe episode of November 12, 2008 during which GSIS Vice President Ella E. Valencerina reiterated her refusal to be interviewed by Lazaro. In the course of that phone conversation, Lazaro clearly informed Ms. Valencerina that the conversation was being recorded.

The absurdity is not limited to the basis of the suit. As a government agency charged with custody of a mass of information on such government employee concerns as salary loans and retirement benefits, the GSIS should be the last to display the secretiveness and oversensitivity to the media that make public information so problematic in this country.

But Ms. Valencerina’s own statements during her conversation with Lazaro, as well as those in a letter she sent earlier in response to the Probe request for an interview, provide a clue as to why she filed the suit.

In both instances Ms. Valencerina referred to the alleged bias of “Lopez-owned media entities” as the reason for her and her superiors’ refusal to present their side of the issue. This suggests that Ms. Valencerina and/or her superiors see the incident as an opportunity to get back at those “entities.” Lest the public has forgotten, the GSIS is the lead government agency that has been trying to gain control of the Manila Electric Company, or Meralco, which, like ABS-CBN, is among the “Lopez- owned entities” for which the present government has a demonstrated antipathy.

It doesn’t matter that Probe productions is not part of ABS-CBN, and is an independent entity. The point of Ms. Valencerina and her superiors is to somehow get back at ABS-CBN through Lazaro and Probe.

Unfortunately the suit has implications beyond its serving the ends of the GSIS leadership. It joins other attempts by government agencies to silence the media through harassment and intimidation, which over the last several years has characterized government policy towards the independent press.

As whimsical as the suit may be, it sends a warning to journalists that government agencies will find an excuse no matter how absurd to prevent the press from looking into such public issues as the GSIS premium-based policy, the subject of the Probe report. CMFR is certain, however, that in this as well as in the other instances of harassment it has resisted, the press will not be intimidated– and that, as Che Che Lazaro said in a statement, the press will continue to do its work of bringing to the attention of the public information on the issues that concern it, and will not bend to the wishes of the powerful.