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MEDIA USE LAWSUITS TO FIGHT GOVERNMENT HARASSMENT

In an extraordinary show of unity, more than 100 journalists in the Philippines have filed two lawsuits to halt government threats against the media and prevent future arrests of journalists covering emergency situations, report the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

In Makati, Manila, a regional court issued a 72-hour temporary restraining order barring government officials and security forces from threatening or arresting journalists, after 36 journalists and four media organisations, including CMFR, filed a class action suit seeking damages for threats to press freedom.

On the same day, 81 journalists filed a case before the Supreme Court asking for a writ of prohibition and injunction to stop the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from threatening to file criminal complaints against journalists.

Both cases are part of a coordinated response to the arrest of more than 30 journalists who were reporting on an attempted coup last November, and subsequent threats to carry out similar arrests if the media refused to obey government orders. A number of journalists arrested during the November incident joined either of the two cases as plaintiffs.

The class suit in Makati seeks 10 million Pesos ($245,600) in damages that, if awarded, would be put into a trust fund for the defence and protection of press freedom.

The judge issued the restraining order "considering the extreme urgency, and that great and irreparable injury would result to the plaintiffs" if the government's threats of arrests are carried out before the case can be heard in court.

According to local news reports, the plaintiffs said they filed the cases as part of the journalism community's continuing response to official intimidation and harassment, and as a "warning" to the authorities that the Philippine press will begin to use legal means to draw attention to their plight.

"Unless we do something about it, the next crisis situation will see journalists again arrested or, worse, charged with abetting rebellion or some other such offence reminiscent of the martial law catch-all of subversion," says CMFR.

Visit these links:
- CMFR: http://www.cmfr.com.ph/_alerts/2008/jan_05.html
- SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/
- Inquirer.net, "Media file suit against government": http://tinyurl.com/2287vp
(5 February 2008)

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