State of Press Freedom in the Philippines: To Turn the Page or Stay with the Status Quo

(Presented by Ms Melinda Quintos de Jesus, Executive Director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, at the online forum on ‘The State of Meda Freedom in the Philippines: Breaking Barriers to Bring Information to the Public” on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2021).

Duterte, authoritarianism and decline of democracy

By law, the Duterte presidency ends in 2022. It renders this assessment of press freedom in the Philippines in a new light. The next election confronts the nation with a fork on the road: to turn the page or stay with the status quo. Filipinos must make their choice with a conscious review of the state of the nation, of which the state of press freedom is only a part, albeit a critical one.

We must take note of the larger global context as well, as the election of President Duterte in 2016 counted him among other strong men leaders whose rise in power signified the wave of populism, a trend toward greater authoritarianism and the decline of democracy around the world. The emergence of an undemocratic China as a major global power is also a factor in our national situation.

This annual assessment of press freedom should serve as an examination of how far down the road of authoritarianism the country has come and the consequences of this drift.

It is accurate to say that the Duterte administration has not conducted itself as a democratic government. Duterte himself has behaved as a feudal or political warlord, relying on “shock and awe” tactics to ensure the submission of the population to his will and to his way.

Many Filipinos did not mind the willfulness of the strongman president. With so many struggling just to survive from day to day, submission or resignation is a common response to government. Even before the pandemic, the majority of Filipinos have borne the burden of desperate poverty and hardship. You cannot expect those who suffer daily the urban blight and endless traffic, or the severe lack for basic needs — to be concerned about political questions, to be inclined even to evaluate how well or how poorly they are being served.

While democracy promotes freedom and equality for all, in many countries, it is precisely this inequality, the unfairness in the experience of public goods, that has added to the appeal of the so-called populist message and the pro-poor platform. To strengthen his position, Duterte also expressed his hostility against so called wealthy “oligarchs.”

In power as president, he immediately established the securitization of policy and program implementation, promoting the status of military and police agencies to establish control, the outcome of which has been the massive loss of human rights. As politicians quickly shifted their allegiance to the ruling coalition, the Executive quickly dominated Congress, eliminating an instrument for check and balance. And with his unprecedented attack on the independence of the Supreme Court, Duterte also demolished the power of the judiciary to effectively check presidential will and executive power.

We cannot talk about media without this larger political context.

Our concern today focuses particularly on the impact of the Duterte presidency on the press or media, as an institution, as a community, and the most obvious of all, in the coverage of news.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, we need to engage in a review of the values reflected in the conduct of our work and role in society. How well have we all fulfilled our mandate to build an informed citizenry? What values have we upheld in the coverage of news?

The media operates in society and reflects the nature of that society. Reporting the news, the media holds up a mirror the images, the ideas and insights, and yes, the values expressed in a way of life. The press works according to a set of values. The capacity to reflect, to hold up a mirror may be affected by values that rule society. To ensure the quality of journalism and the freedom of the press, those who work in the media must deepen both their individual well as their institutional values.

Journalistic practice that relies only on recording what “he said-she said” does the job with less questioning, less probing scrutiny of the subject covered. Such coverage echoes the strong authoritarian impulse, should that be the case, which lets the elected powers to do as they please, without question or criticism.

This kind of reporting has allowed this administration to revise our standards for acceptable presidential conduct, for public decency and good taste; as it has allowed the claim that government was doing something to act on the aggressive presence of China in the West Philippine Sea all the while de-bunking the ruling that favored the Philippine’s claim by the arbitral tribunal in the Hague. It has reported without interpretation the primacy of law enforcement agencies in implementing programs, the enhanced militarization and the consequent marginalization of human rights, public interest and common good.

There has been little analysis about the impact of the country’s buy-into the POGO industry, China’s massive Silk Road to support “Build, Build, Build.” – opening the gates to a flood of foreign workers in a country that has for so long sent off Filipinos to work abroad. Surely it is obvious that the president’s favor for China has not recognized our national interest..

This kind of reporting roots out all values in journalism, as though journalism had none.

 

As Filipinos, we need to ask ourselves, how did we let this happen? Our country was an unlikely home for this global shift. Its history has been rooted in the national struggle of independence from colonial power, the first to succeed in Asia, a liberal framework that protected free expression and press freedom from laws, provided for no less than its constitutions of 1935 and 1987.

But scholarly studies have identified the conditions which show how Philippine democracy has been seeded in soil which was perhaps not sufficiently enriched with nutrients required for democracy to thrive.

Societal structures did not open up enough to allow institutional checks and balances. The forces of clan and family were retained and legitimized as a political dynasties which treated all public affairs as part of their family enterprise.

Indeed, news organizations even reflect so much of this political culture. Despite the constitutional protection of media autonomy and the liberal values asserted in the legal framework; the media community in the country had not always been impervious to state pressure, and enough journalists have been willing to follow government’s lead with obsequious coverage.

The most recent and dramatic example has been the wholesale co-optation of the press by Ferdinand Marcos when he ruled through Martial Law from 1972 until 1986; and only then when people themselves gathered on the streets to demand his withdrawal from power, forcing the Marcos family, his cronies and officials to exile.

But lest we forget, even under repressive conditions in the past, there have always been journalists who set themselves apart to sustain the function of the fourth estate to check the abuse of power. The alternative press has taken many forms and is showing itself even now, the courage, the fortitude, the will to speak truth to power.

The Duterte administration has succeeded to control the flow of information and dominate coverage, but there are forces in media who retain their fearless independence.

The question now is whether these forces will gain the people’s support or if it will be reduced only to a voice in the wilderness.

 

These may now be well known facts. But I suggest we force ourselves to recall them.

A brief review indicates that actual interaction of the president with members of the press has been minimal.  And yet it is the impact on the press that demonstrates most dramatically the country’s drift toward  authoritarianism, indeed of the tyranny of his leadership.

Within the first six months, with media restraining its natural impulse to criticize a new government to observe the traditional good will “honeymoon,” Duterte unleashed the savage force of TokHang against the poorest communities; an army of trolls and his genuine supporters waged a massive social media campaign to demonize the mainstream press along with ceaseless attacks on the political opposition. The connection between troll armies and the Palace communications office became visible as social media influencers were given positions in government or were featured in Palace programs.

In 2017, the intimidation of media, particularly of their owners, set in, instilling an almost visceral fear, a deep-seated terror at being made a target of unfounded charges.

In his second year in office, he singled our three media organizations with threats against their owners – which he acted on. All three, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, broadcast network ABS-CBN and online Rappler, had proactively investigated the rising number of deaths from the government “war on drugs.”

Like a contagion, this animosity toward the free press spread among government officials at all levels, who adopted the president’s own bullying stance, initiating an array of actions against the press, the range of which I will present as recorded in CMFR data base.

 

The question then: Is there press freedom still in the Philippines? 

The answer is, yes, in parts; as the press community itself is also divided.

Actually, the answer one gets depends on who you ask. The press like the rest of the population is divided, working as it were in separate cells even in the same news organization or as news organizations form opposing camps. In some newsrooms, efforts were made to discourage stories that would put the president and the administration in a bad light.  Only recently, CMFR has noted take downs or modifications of original reports, self-censorship of the most open kind.

One senses a lack of institutional solidarity, as though organizations were watching out only for own interests alone and not caring about how other organizations fare. As though the institution itself did not exist.

What  is the future for this divided press?

The answer may depend on who the public believes more.  But bear in mind that even public opinion polls are now being questioned because in an atmosphere of limited information and fear, these methods may no longer make sense.

The conditions then are complex. The constitution remains the sanctuary of its protection. Whether this is effective enough requires more extended and nuanced discussion.

 

International media watchdogs noted a pattern of restrictions on the press and free speech during the pandemic. Quarantine conditions inherently restrict all activities. But more in some cases than in others. Filipino journalists were required to submit to accreditation, which added another layer of bureaucratic involvement in the press conduct. Everyone knows that such credentials can be withdrawn for no reason at all.

Pandemic conditions heightened the securitization of all government conduct, which made media workers more vulnerable to close examination at check-points and to heightened surveillance.

Community Press

The economic impact of the lockdowns in different places also caused the demise of numerous daily and weekly news publications based in the communities, small press outlets which served the people with a channel which connected the people to their elected officials.

Lately all the community papers which suspended publications have reportedly returned with both digital and print issues. But we have yet to check if these are doing more or less independently as they did in the past.

There is good news in the resilience shown by community radio. But unfortunately, radio in this country has been dependent on government information, or chat programs that are politically sponsored through the system of block-timing. So whether radio can provide the force among communities to assist them in their political choices remains an open question.

 

The effect on access to information is deeply felt. With poor wi-fi conditions, the digital meetings are difficult to maintain and poor connectivity can easily be used as a cover for officials who do not want to give an answer.

Some officials have resorted to pre-packaged text / online briefings on a take-it or leave-it basis. There are less and less officials who bother to return calls to answer questions or to clarify questions.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported how the low response rate of government worsened during the quarantine periods. A review period from March 13 to May 27 showed that only one out of ten requests filed before the government’s Freedom of Information (FOI) portal was answered.

 

Two laws passed in 2020 included provisions that legalize penalties for passing “fake news” adding to those in the Anti-Cybercrime Law – provisions which have been contested in the courts, the latter lost in the High Court. Among the provisions expanding presidential powers to address the COVID-19 challenge in the Bayanihan to Heal as One Law places in the hands of government the determination of what constitutes fake news and its penalties.

Another legislation “Anti-Terror” Law” is now being challenged in the Supreme Court for its unconstitutional provisions, including those that could be used by police and military to curtail legitimate criticism, with at least two cases already recorded for the arrest of critical media practitioners.

 

The Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments against the Anti-Terror Act.  The decision of the High Court will be a major factor in shaping the future of the press. Its implementation will further tighten government’s hold over the once free press of the country. But the discussion should be re-opened on whether there is need for Cyber-libel law?

 

Even without the pandemic, the deepening culture of fear is itself effectively controlling newsrooms.

The effective closure of the country’s major broadcast network ABS-CBN was an unprecedented act of state power which struck at the core of the media system and the communities, leaving the community still shaken by the experience. If this can happen to ABS-CBN, then it can happen to any of the others.

The counter-insurgency campaign pursued by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has used red-tagging which has included journalists. The unit is chaired by the president himself.

The practice – the quick labeling of individuals or groups as supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA) and National Democratic Front (NDF) – endangers victims, including journalists, of being hauled to court on trumped up charges such as illegal possession of firearms and make them vulnerable to harassment or worse.

We have not counted as a threat or attack but flag the role of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) which in 2019 held forums for community media where media members were asked to  sign on to a “Manifesto of Commitment” a declaration of their “wholehearted support and commitment to the implementation of President Rodrigo R. Duterte‘s  regional task force to end local communist armed conflict. In this kind of situation, asking journalists to sign makes the act “compelling.”

The state of the community press reveals where and how journalists are most vulnerable, as police and military actions can occur with less national attention, delaying all kinds of assistance and protection. Also with the level of familiarity in the community, it is also easier to intimidate without too much force.

For this reason, we are hoping to work with the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) members to invigorate the reporting on these attacks and threats which have evolved all kinds of actions, given the changing environment of PH journalism.

Permanent Damage to Information Access and Free Press Practice

With the two years of lockdown and quarantine, some of the practices adopted because of the pandemic may become ingrained. The Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) Secretary General Christophe de Loire summed up the warning: “What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”

Self-censorship, the wariness of other owners of news organizations holds up the dark clouds over the prospects of press freedom in the Philippines.

Even before the pandemic, CMFR had begun to track numerous issues left un-investigated, stories un-told that the people have a right to know. The effect overall is government’s control of the news agenda. CMFR’s media monitor counts government officials as the predominant sources in the news. They set the news narrative and are generally given more space and time than those opposing them.

As other international media watchdog organizations have pointed out, the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of limited information and government control which had been going on with democratic decline.

ATTACKS AND THREATS

From the CMFR data base, 223 incidents were recorded as reported from June 30 2016 to April 30 2020: these included various levels of harassment, verbal and physical assault, intimidation, libel charges and the  banning of journalists from coverage.

CMFR started its data base on the killings of journalists in 1992, verifying the reported 32 cases which at the time already ranked as high as those killed in countries at actual war and battle zones.  Our killings map has been upgraded to include more information about the cases.

The Freedom for Media Freedom for All (FMFA) exercise on press freedom day has involved both CMFR and the NUJP whose members report from the ground to evaluate cases together for more enhanced verification.

 

Nineteen journalists were killed in the line of work from June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2021. All male victims. Four were killed in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Cornelio Pepino on May 5, two days after the World Press Freedom Day celebration; Jobert Bercasio on September 4; Virgilio Maganes on November 8; and, Ronnie Villamor on November 17.

 

Thirteen worked in radio, five in print and one online. Nine of those killed were from Mindanao, seven from Luzon and three from Visayas. Five from the Bicol region, four from SOCCSKSARGEN, three from Central Visayas, two each from Western Mindanao and from Caraga, and one from Davao region

CMFR notes the increase in the number of intimidation and libel cases in 2020.

Intimidation

Intimidation includes red-tagging, surveillance and other kinds of harassments including threats to file cases against journalists, doxing and extortion.

Of the 51 cases of intimidation from June 30 2016 to April 30 2021, 30 were incidents of red-tagging.

  • Paola Espiritu, Northern Dispatch correspondent, was accused as a communist and otherwise maligned publicly by military officers in a manner that forced her to seek refuge and withdraw from her work.
  • Red-tagging has led to arrests in some cases. Journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio of Eastern Vista was arrested on February 7, 2020 in the Eastern Vista staff house for illegal possession of fire arms. Cumpio remains in prison as of press time.
  • On December 10, members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) arrested Manila Today Editor Lady Ann Salem for alleged illegal possession of fire arms along with six others in separate raids in Metro Manila. Salem was released on March 5, 2021 after the court cleared her and another for the charges.

Five incidents of surveillance were also recorded. Surveillance includes police visits and vehicle “tailing.”

22 or 43 percent of these incidents were recorded during the pandemic.

Libel

There were 37 cases of libel and oral defamation recorded from June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2021. 18 of these were online libel. Eight of 37 cases involved actual arrests.

20 or 54 percent of these libel cases were recorded during the pandemic.

 

CMFR already has already called attention to the increased involvement of state agents as perpetrators with 114 out of 223 cases. LGU (local government unit) 38, police 34, NGov 34, military 8. This is a notable increase that indicates the position that government officials have taken in dealing with the press.

CMFR has also noted the increased reporting of other attacks and threats under the Duterte administration. This may be out of a greater sense of danger for media and journalists that they have begun to report these incidents – some of which they may have tended to ignore in the past.

Conclusion

We should make the effort to find hope and strength in the global solidarity expressed by World Press Freedom Day. It is not an easy thing to do.

The landscape of press freedom has long been darkened by the endemic violence seeded by the “gun culture” evident in so many aspects of public life.  This aspect of our national culture should be a understood as a major deterrent to democratic practice. The latter promotes dialogue and debate, talk and conversation. It prescribes for those involved in disagreements, in fights and feuds to come to the table and settle these differences peaceably.

Since 2016, the Duterte administration has deepened political as well as cultural differences highlighting and encouraging hate speech and all kinds of hostility on all communication platforms.

He has unleashed the forces of hate and violence, first through the indiscriminate killings as part of the drug campaign, through the bombing and destruction of Marawi, through the overzealous punishment of those failing to comply with curfew or other measures.

Take the example of the barangay tanod wanting to punish a youth who may have simply stepped out for a breath of fresh air and found himself having to run for his life.

Once our keepers of the law lose their way, violence, guns and weapons become a way of life.

And so today, we must pledge ourselves to use the news as a way out of this dark place. Let us shine our light on the goodness that Filipinos have shown in the midst of so much suffering, the great capacity of the poor to share what little they have, the custom of our country, damayan, pakikiramay, bayanihan. Let there be no mistake about where the press stands when something like the “community pantry” is made to look bad or dubious in terms of its intent.

Indeed, how else can we counter the forces of anger and hate – but to report the simplicity of doing good. ##

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