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Lessons learned on press restrictions from my home country

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I come from a country with a history of violently repressing journalism. When the dictator Ferdinand Marcos put the Philippines under Martial Law in 1972, among the first casualties were reporters, many of whom were imprisoned. Filipino writer Luis Teodoro said that’s not surprising.

“Any dictatorship worth its salt assumes that journalists will be among the first to protest any diminution of liberties, or at least to be critical of what the new order is doing. They’re also too unpredictable to be allowed to run around loose when ‘the man on horseback’ is consolidating his power,” he said.

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Luige del Puerto

Even today, the Philippines is among the most dangerous countries for journalists.

I couldn’t help but think about my former country’s experience when House Speaker David Gowan revoked reporters’ access to the chamber’s floor, a privilege journalists have enjoyed for at least four decades.

As has been widely reported, the House’s decision came after journalists who regularly cover the Capitol refused to submit to an extensive background check, part of a new policy that the House is initiating.

Gowan said it’s meant to assure the safety of legislators following protest actions in recent weeks.

But I suspect, as do others, that the real reason has to do with the fact that Arizona Capitol Times and other media outlets have run critical stories about Gowan’s conduct in office. More specifically, reporter Hank Stephenson broke the story about how travel-related spending by the House unusually increased last year under Gowan’s leadership. Stephenson’s reporting ultimately compelled the speaker, who is running for Congress in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, to pay back the House more than $12,000 for travel reimbursements he received while driving a state-owned car, which meant he didn’t spend a dime on it, and per diem for days he wasn’t actually working.

Before I moved to the United States, I wrote about national security and covered the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces. I was often holed up in the national police headquarters’ press office. Interestingly, I could not remember being asked to sign a waiver allowing the police and the military to pry into my past and conduct an intensive background check. If they did so anyway, they never told me.

And as far as I can remember, nobody complained when I showed up at offices and talked to police officials, and nobody tried to revoke any access I had, even when I routinely wrote articles that are highly critical of the police and military institutions.

During my time as a reporter there, only once did the police chief ask the media to leave the press office inside the sprawling national police headquarters. Something bad was about to happen, and he couldn’t guarantee our safety, he told the press one night. Many of us refused to heed his call and stayed anyway. He later said anti-government forces had planned an attack that night.

So, imagine my shock to learn that, in my new country, which values free speech and cherishes the public’s right to information, a politician would deliberately limit reporters’ access to the floor of the House because some activists had disturbed the peace.

You may ask why I’m equating Gowan to a dictator, and protest that what Marcos did to journalists is vastly different than what the House speaker is attempting to do here.

You may even agree that the new restrictions are truly about beefing up security at the Capitol.

But if you cherish democracy, you should be alarmed.

If you scrutinize what Gowan and the House are doing, the bottom line is they want to control who can cover the chamber. What they’re seeking is the ability to sift through reporters’ past and records, and decide, by some arbitrary criteria, who to let in.

In other words, if you don’t cause trouble, you’re part of the club. If you’re a troublemaker, you can wait outside.

And who gets to decide whether to let you in or have you sit in the gallery? Gowan.

If one government official has the power to deny access to somebody who might have committed an offense (however minor) in the past, the logical extension is that official can deny access to people he has deemed “undesirable” – dissidents, opponents of the ruling party, protesters, and yes, pesky reporters.

The danger in that is obvious: The government can always use its resources to target members of the media, harass them, accuse them of wrongdoing and then use that as a reason to limit their ability to shed a light on how government works.

What stops Gowan from adding another category of crime to his policy in order to block another reporter who has written a critical story about him or his chamber from having access to the floor?

When reporters start worrying about how government officials might retaliate if they do their job well, we’ve already ceded the ideals of transparency and freedom of speech to the whims and wishes of those who are in power.

But perhaps I shouldn’t really be surprised at Gowan’s restrictions. After all, people in power have the same tendencies, whether they rule in America or in the Philippines.

Luige del Puerto is the Assistant Editor of Arizona Capitol Reports and covered the Arizona Senate from 2006 until 2012.

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