Saturday, July 31, 1999

Estrada’s battle with
his newspaper critics

Bullet The issue: President Joseph Estrada is being accused of retaliating against newspapers that criticized him.

Bullet Our view: Estrada should live up to his professions of respect for freedom of the press.

PHILIPPINE President Joseph Estrada has vowed to respect freedom of the press, but recent developments have Filipinos wondering whether he means it.

In the annual "State of the Nation" speech before Congress, the president declared, "Freedom may have been lost before. It will never be lost again." The "before" referred to the dictatorship imposed by one of Estrada's predecessors, Ferdinand Marcos, with the declaration of martial law in 1972. Marcos was overthrown in 1986 and fled to Hawaii. He died here in 1989.

The specter of a return to dictatorship has been raised in the wake of the government's treatment of newspapers that criticized Estrada.

That seems highly unlikely, but two of the key figures in Marcos' overthrow, former President Corazon Aquino and the Catholic archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin, have announced plans for a rally to protest administration policies they consider anti-democratic, including measures against the press, cronyism and a proposal to amend the constitution.

The president has felt compelled to assert his support for democratic freedoms. But the verdict will depend on his subsequent actions.

Estrada came under attack on the issue of press freedom after the Manila Times, a newspaper he had sued for libel, closed last week. The president had sued over a report questioning a government contract for a hydroelectric project with a company with alleged ties to Estrada. He withdrew the charges after the owners apologized.

Last week the Times was sold, and the new owners immediately shut it down, raising suspicion that they were doing Estrada's bidding. There was also suspicion that a controversial friend of the president was the true buyer.

Earlier, several government-owned corporations and film producers canceled advertisements in the Daily Inquirer, another newspaper that has been critical of the Estrada administration. Estrada, a former movie star, has many friends in the local film industry.

In a televised statement, Estrada denied he was cracking down on the media but he again criticized the Inquirer, which frequently publishes stories about alleged official misdeeds.

The Philippine press had a tradition of independence from government control that was smashed under martial law but revived when Marcos was ousted.

Since 1986 newspapers have proliferated in Manila, operating without government restraint. As in the United States, they sometimes incur the wrath of presidents.

Estrada was a supporter of Marcos but has striven to overcome suspicion of his allegiance to democratic values. If he is sincere in his professions of support for freedom of the press, he will refrain from further attempts to retaliate against his newspaper critics.

Massacre in Atlanta

Bullet The issue: A stock trader went on a bloody rampage, killing nine people at two brokerage firms after murdering his wife and two children.

Bullet Our view: Stronger gun controls are needed to keep firearms out of the hands of such people.

IS there no end? No sooner had the nation recovered emotionally from the schoolhouse massacres than a stock day trader went berserk in Atlanta. Earlier there was a rash of shootings by postal workers. Of course there are also the smaller tragedies:

Last month a psychiatrist in Michigan was shot by a former patient, who then gunned down a 45-year-old woman and wounded others. In April, a 71-year-old man raked the first floor of a Mormon library in Salt Lake City with gunfire from a .22-caliber handgun, killing two people and wounding four others. In March, a Johnson City, Tenn., man shot his lawyer and another client in an apparent dispute over his former wife's will.

In the latest massacre, the killer was suspected of but never charged with the murder of his first wife and her mother in 1993. This probably does more to explain his bloody rampage Thursday than the fact that he was a stock trader. This man was clearly dangerous.

Indeed, there is nothing special about schools, post offices or brokerages to explain these outbursts of violence. These can be stressful environments, but there are many other environments in which people may suffer from stress. It is sometimes possible to reduce stress, but stress is a fact of life.

What all of the killers have in common is the obvious fact that all had access to firearms -- and used them to exorcise their frustration and anger.

Some killings might be averted if the persons responsible had been seen as dangerous and given counseling for anger management. But it would be naive to think that such people can always be detected in time to prevent them from erupting.

It seems unlikely that there are significantly more people in this country who are prone to violence than in past generations. But there are 200 million guns in circulation, and obtaining one usually isn't difficult. It should be.

The Atlanta massacre is further evidence of the need for stringent gun-control laws. How many senseless deaths are needed to spur Congress to act?

Gun-control opponents who claim a constitutional right to bear arms are misinterpreting the Second Amendment. That phony claim should not be used as a pretext for denying Americans a safer environment.

Purchasers of handguns should be forced to undergo thorough screening. Madmen like the Atlanta killer, Mark Barton, should not have access to firearms. Is that too much to ask?

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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