Global poster child for impunity

[Philippines country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]

The 2011 annual review of press freedom challenges noted the surge of hope in the Philippines as the newly elected President Benigno Aquino III pledged, among others, to support and protect press freedom, and to start prosecuting violators. These hopes were, however, deflated by the end of 2011 with the President taking no meaningful steps to put his pledges into action. The year also highlighted once again the issue of ethics in the Philippines media, and in two prominent cases, the role of social media in pushing the issue on to the public consciousness.

No movement forward on legal protection

Two months into office, the President’s Communication Groups and Justice Secretary met with media and journalist groups in August 2010 and agreed to initiate policy measures to curb the problem of impunity. However, by the end of 2011, the measures – strengthening the witness protection program, capacity building for forensics experts in the police and military, and the creation of a multi-sector quick response team – have yet to be out in place. Two bills on the protection of witnesses and whistleblowers were still languishing in  the Congress.

The bigger disappointment perhaps is the continued lack of progress on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, a reminder of the sense of stagnation on media freedom issues witnessed during the tenure of Aquino predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Having expressed reservations about the bill, President Aquino has been reluctant to declare enactment of the bill a priority for his administration.

The government even introduced restrictions in its draft legislation by expanding the scope of information exempted from disclosure to include defense matters and policy information until officially adopted, and removing the public interest override on Presidential privilege. It also does not require potential members of the Information Commission to have a background in human and civil rights.

Ironically, on the international stage, President Aquino has maintained a positive rhetoric about transparency and good governance. In September, addressing the multilateral initiative Open Government Partnership in New York, the President spoke of the advantages of the Philippines being a “member of the global community of transparency advocates”, and said his administration was committed to the ideals of open government.

The Aquino administration has also seemed unable to speed up the trial of the Ampatuan massacre, which continued to be disrupted as defense lawyers create legal hurdles such as certiorari petitions and a need for interpreters. The President repeatedly said publicly that he has only limited power in judicial matters because of the principle of separation of powers in the Philippines Constitution.

Using advertisers to influence media

As noted in SEAPA’s last annual report, President Aquino continued to seem ill-informed about the role of a free press. In the Philippines, the media is often described by its practitioners and observers not only as free, but also “rambunctious” as Aquino’s public and private life often comes under the media spotlight. In February, the President caused uproar among the media with his call to advertisers to shun media that relied on sensationalism. On 18 February, the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Aquino:

“Unfortunately in our country, sometimes sensationalism is a lot better than spreading the truth. Sometimes, the truth seems to have been a forgotten concept by some of our media practitioners. I understand that advertising is commerce, but the decisions of where to advertise can also be used to encourage responsible corporate behavior and improve the level of discourse in our country.”

In a scathing response, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said Aquino’s call put him on par with former deposed President Joseph Estrada, who had initiated an advertisement boycott against the Inquirer. While agreeing initially with Aquino, the Chairman of the Advertising Board, Andre Kahn later changed his mind and rejected the call, saying that advertisements were not tools to pressure the media.

Fewer journalists killed but media intimidation on the rise

Five journalists were killed in 2011 in the Philippines, another five were assaulted and 13 journalists were threatened either verbally or through text messages. The daughter of one of the threatened journalists was abducted by unidentified men but released after a few hours. Two media outlets were attacked – both were radio stations run by the state and the Church. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) observed that fewer journalists were killed in the first year of the Aquino administration between July 2010 and July 2011 compared to the preceding year, but incidents of harassment and threats increased, mostly in the provinces and involved local politicians or powerful individuals.

The slow prosecution process of the November 2009 Ampatuan massacre, in which 58 persons including 32 journalists and media workers were killed in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, sparked a global campaign to end the culture of impunity for media killings. On the second anniversary of the massacre on 23 November 2011, press freedom advocates worldwide launched the ‘International Day to End Impunity’ to demand justice for those who have been killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression and highlight the issue of impunity of perpetrators. On that day, SEAPA submitted a petition to the Embassy of the Philippines in Bangkok requesting President Benigno Aquino III to expedite the trial of the Ampatuan Massacre suspects and take a more forceful stance against impunity in the Philippines.

Judicial processes painfully slow

Bogged down by clogged dockets, lack of manpower and funds, the judicial process continued to move slowly and meant that  the alleged killers of journalists escaped punishment.  For most of the year, the Ampatuan massacre trial meandered around principal accused Andal Sr and his son, Andal “Unsay” Jr despite the fact that a total of 196 suspects were charged. Nevertheless, the court often decided in favour of the prosecution and family members of the victims, such as freezing assets and bank accounts of the Ampatuan family members and followers, and affirming the indictment of the suspended Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan. The court also accepted the petition filed by the National Press Club of the Philippines and the Alliance of Filipino Journalists to create a special court for the case and allowed live coverage in June.

However, earlier in April, the court passed a resolution requiring the General Secretary of the NUJP, Rowena Paraan, and Monette Salaysay, the widow of one of the slain journalists, to explain why they should not be held for contempt of court for their published interview in the Inquirer, questioning the decision of Associate Justices Banton Bueser and Marlene Gonzales-Sison.

In another trial, the alleged masterminds behind the murder of broadcaster Marlene Esperat in 2005 were able to stall court proceedings through petitions. Hopes were raised in August when Court of Appeals in Cagayan dismissed their petitions which had delayed the issuance of an arrest warrant for two years. The 19 August ruling cleared the way for the Court in Makati to grant the prosecution’s motion to issue an arrest warrant against the two accused. But the alleged masterminds, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay appealed for reconsideration of their petition, resulting in the Makati Judge’s decision in November, denying the prosecution’s motion until after the hearing of the accused in the Cagayan Court of Appeals.

In April, the alleged mastermind of the 2006 killing of broadcaster Fernando Batul was acquitted by the court in Palawan citing doubtful testimonies by witnesses.

Targeting journalists with libel

In September, Editor-in-chief of Newsbreak, Marites Danguilan-Vitug and four other colleagues – Lala Rimando, Aries Rufo, Gemma Bagayaua and Board member Maan Hontiveros – were arraigned in a libel case filed by Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson in 2006.

Earlier in August, Vitug had posted a PHP10,000 (USD230) bail for criminal libel case filed by Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco in 2010. In her book, Vitug had quoted Marinduque constituency residents as saying the Supreme Court justice was active in the 2010 congressional election campaign of his son, Lord Allan Velasco. The judge had allegedly invited two local officials to run with his son as councilor, promised to underwrite campaign expenses, and was also present in Allan’s meetings with local leaders in his beachfront residence in Torrijos, Marinduque.

In the same month, the libel case against editor Cecile Afable and publisher Charles Hamada of Baguio Midland Courier was dismissed. They had been sued by Baguio City’s budget official, Leticia Clemente in 2006.

The husband of former President Arroyo often used the libel law against journalists. Although conviction is rare, the law is a chilling reality of the limits of media freedom in the Philippines as it presumes upfront that every defamatory statement, even if it is true, is malicious, and the defendant has to prove otherwise.

Social media keeping tabs on mainstream media

In 2011, social media played a key role in propelling to mainstream consciousness, ethical lapses on the part of the media. In April, TV5 game show Wiling Willie announced a two-week voluntary suspension following angry online comments over its 12 March episode which featured a 12 year-old boy, Jan Jan, repeating a sexy dance routine at show host Willie Revillame’s request, to cheers from the audience. Revillame commented that the boy was like a “macho dancer”, which, in local parlance meant male prostitute. The boy, however, was crying as he repeated the routine.

As noted in the last SEAPA report, Wiling Willie, aired at the same time as primetime news, had seriously affected news viewership on ABS-CBN 2 and GMA-7 channels, leading to turnover of chiefs of the former. But the 12 March episode featuring Jan Jan, posted on YouTube and watched hundreds of thousand times, infuriated viewers who slammed it online as a form of child abuse, not the least because it used money to entice game contestant such as Jan Jan to perform disgraceful acts.

In a bid to stem the ferocious public criticism, TV5 president and chief executive officer Ray Espinosa threatened libel suits against those criticizing the network and Revillame, who insisted that Jan Jan was not abused. His parents, also insisting the same, sued a psychologist who reportedly concurred with the critics.

In another incident, during the flooding in Metro Manila in August, television network GMA-7 showed law student Christopher Lao driving his car into a flooded street and subsequently finding his car floating on the water. The footage, showing the driver complaining to the camera “Why me?” and “Nobody informed me!”, became a YouTube hit. Lao became a top ten trending topic on Twitter and was widely ridiculed in Facebook updates and comments for appearing to be arrogant. The segment raised the question of whether GMA-7 had portrayed him unfairly. The network had to issue an apology for having made the footage of Lao central to its flood coverage, and subsequently produced a report  on expert guidance on safe driving during floods, including a follow-up reaction from Lao. Lao himself issued a statement apologizing for his behaviour and asking for kinder consideration from commentators.

If anything, the two incidents were striking reminders of social media’s increasing clout as it grows in size. Of these, AC Nielsen data showed, 12 million were Facebook users. In 2011, social media analyst SocialBakers estimated the country’s online population at 27 million, the world’s 8th largest.

The two cases also showed that the issue of media ethics and professionalism is no longer the domain of media professionals only. The increased social media role threatens the status quo of profit-above-standards in Philippines traditional media. Asian Correspondent journalist Carlos H. Conde wrote on 8 August:

“This whole Lao controversy offers invaluable lessons to the mainstream press. It underscores the fact that, as journalists, our way of doing things is no longer the same. For one, obviously, we cannot just file a report without considering its impact on other media. (T)he social media has not only broken down barriers in communications — it has demolished certain assumptions in newsrooms, among them the idea that the public will silently consume what we feed them. As this controversy has shown, they also bite back.”

Of course, not all online commentators abide by ethical standards. But in a sign of growing awareness of the need for ethical standards among netizens, a section of them have proposed to form a national association. The initiative came in the wake of an exposè of a public relations firm hiring bloggers to write smear reviews of restaurants which refused to use its services. The draft manifesto of the association, prepared by blogger and former journalist Tonyo Cruz and others, includes promoting and defending freedom of expression, sharing best practices and adopting a code of ethics.

On the other hard, the question of self regulation among journalists in the traditional media can be rightly raised because of its failure to instill ethical practice in the face of a highly competitive environment.

Doubt over self-regulation body

The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines, or KBP), the self-regulatory body for broadcast media, decided in December 2010 to impose a fine of PHP30,000 on Radio Mindanao Network, ABS-CBN and TV5. The stations were found to have breached the Broadcast Code while covering the 23 August 2010 hostage crisis in which media was partly blamed for the tragic outcome. It did not decide on GMA-7, another culpable network, because it withdrew from theKBP.

However, KBP’s decision not to take action against GMA-7 was criticized. TV5 complained about non-KBP members such as GMA-7 “get(ting) away unscathed”. Meanwhile CMFR and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) pointed out the irony of KBP asking the President’s Office to make the code binding for all media in support of “self-regulation”.

“Although it does not have authority over non-members, there is nothing to stop KBP from reviewing and evaluating the performance of all broadcast media organizations,” CMFR and PCIJ wrote in a joint-analysis in the PJR Report May-June 2011 issue. “If non-members can get away unscathed, as TV5 complains, what is to stop KBP members from taking the same path of resigning their membership as GMA-7, and eventually scuttling the entire self-regulatory imperative in Philippine broadcast media?”

Outlook

At the time of this writing, President Aquino had instructed his presidential committee to expedite a final FOI draft legislation. The growing reach of the Internet may well spread the “rambunctious” culture of traditional media to social media. Tonyo Cruz noted that this potentially means that social media commentators and bloggers expressing political opinion too will be exposed to violence and harassment by interest groups who felt threatened.