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Philippines media tells Arroyo ''Hands off''

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MANILA, March 1: It is no small measure of the media's freedom in the Philippines when, just days after the president has imposed emergency rule, a popular television network airs a debate on whether she is any good.

And yet, journalists are up in arms over President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's response to last week's foiled coup, drawing parallels with the martial law era of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Police launched a night raid on an opposition newspaper and troops were sent to keep an eye on two television stations after Arroyo, accusing the media of ''recklessly magnifying'' her enemies' claims, declared the state of emergency.

''In certain other countries, the raid Saturday on the editorial offices of the Daily Tribune might have a chilling effect,'' the popular Philippine Star said in an editorial.

''In this land, where the press is so free it borders on licentiousness, however, raiding a media office is like waving a red flag at a raging bull.'' Several journalists shaved their heads in protest at a rally in Manila today, waving banners that read ''No To Media Takeover'' and ''Defend Press Freedom''.

Analysts said Arroyo's move against the powerful local media could backfire.

''The decision to harass the Tribune and try to harass media outlets is a very, very dangerous gamble on the part of the president because that could undo her,'' said Prospero de Vera, professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines.

The Philippines might be the most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq, largely because of killings linked to investigations into corruption, but it has perhaps the most vibrant press in Asia.

After Marcos was hounded out of the country in 1986, media censorship ended and a rowdy crowd of newspapers and broadcasters sprang up.

Not shy to play an adversarial role, the media wields a powerful influence on voters, and some of its journalists are household names. Arroyo chose a hugely popular news anchor as her running mate for the 2004 elections, for instance, and -- as vice president -- he sniped quietly this week at her emergency rule.

''FREEDOM IS NEVER ABSOLUTE''

But the media is accused of being sensationalist and sloppy.

Its ranks of ill-trained cub reporters, usually paid a pittance, routinely receive money in an envelope from politicians for slanted stories or from movie stars just for coverage. And newspapers are subject to editorial pressure from advertisers.

''There are certainly ingrained problems that have to do with ... the poverty of the Philippine media,'' said Steven Rood, country representative for the Asia Foundation.

The authorities appear to believe that the media is just too freewheeling for the good of society in times of insecurity.

''Freedom is never absolute. There are limits,'' national police chief Arturo Lomibao said this week. ''We should understand that we are now in the state of national emergency.'' Sheila Coronel, head of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, said Arroyo would face fierce resistance if she tried to gag a profession that cut its teeth more than a century ago resisting Spanish colonial rule.

''I think the government will have a hard time. She is going against a deep tradition in the Philippines,'' Coronel said.

''This is the first time since the restoration of democracy that there have been such strong-handed measures against the media by the state.'' She noted that even during an actual coup attempt against former President Corazon Aquino -- when her palace was bombed -- the government limited its action to halting broadcasts by two radio stations. One of her successors, Joseph Estrada, subtly used advertisers to put pressure on critical newspapers.

Coronel said the standard of journalism is improving in the Philippines and the media has become more aware over the past five years of the need for training and ethical standards.

Those changes are partly driven by intense competition.

Take ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp, the country's largest media group. It is majority-owned by the business empire of the Lopez family, which is seen as no friend of the president, and yet its news coverage -- albeit breathless -- comes across as balanced.

''ABS-CBN has to balance the political and business interests of its owners with the need to maintain an independent image,'' said Coronel. ''It is no longer the number one network, and is competing with a station that has built a reputation for being non-partisan.''

REUTERS

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