[Philippines] Independent journalism persists in a growing hostile environment

The press in the Philippines faced threats, harassments, and attacks from 2017 to the present in the context of the culture of impunity that since 1986 has exempted from punishment most of the killers of journalists and all the brains behind them. Despite constitutional protection, the freedom of journalists and media organizations to report the truth and serve the public has been even more endangered in the current political environment.

The press freedom situation in the country has not changed since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016. Despite a three-decade campaign to decriminalize libel and the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s 2012 declaration that the Philippine libel law is excessive, libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines.

Despite Duterte’s Executive Order No. 2 mandating access to information held by executive department agencies, access to information is still problematic for both journalists and ordinary citizens. A freedom of information (FOI) act is still to be considered, much less passed, by the Philippine Congress.

The proliferation of “fake news” over social media and even in print and broadcasting has muddled discourse on such issues of public concern as the proposal to amend the 1987 Constitution, the shift to a federal form of government, and the threat of authoritarian rule.

Three journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2017. Duterte’s creation of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) in 2016 suggested that the government would address and track attacks and threats against journalists in order to prevent them. But the Task Force has so far not made public any of its findings. Neither has it revealed if it has developed the measures needed to reduce the number of attacks against journalists if not stop them altogether.

At the center of this landscape is a president whose hostility and animosity against the press have sharpened the level of threat and attacks against individual journalists, making the practice of independent journalism more difficult and more problematic than these have been since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

During the period under review, Duterte intensified his campaign to discredit journalists and media organizations critical of his policies, plans, and actions. He accused these of inaccuracy and bias, of deliberately spreading “fake news” to discredit his administration, particularly its brutal “war on drugs” – a government policy that has caused the deaths of some 14,000 men, women, and children, some of which have been described by sources as extrajudicial killings. These accusations are echoed mostly online by Duterte supporters, most of whom have even incited others to violence against journalists.

Over social media, journalists and media organizations continued to be attacked by regime-sponsored trolls. Hate speech and threats are perennial and rampant occurrences in the comment sections of reports critical of the administration.

The phenomenon can be traced to 2016 when in an obviously orchestrated campaign, some bloggers and social media pages trumpeted Mr. Duterte’s candidacy for his promise of change. When he won the presidency, these same blogs and pages continued to function as disseminators of his every word and even of false information while demonizing his critics, dissenters, and those responsible journalists who were doing their mandated duty of reporting the truth.

 

State versus media

In 2017, the television network ABS-CBN and the broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer, two of the media organizations that were keeping count of the cost in lives of the “war on drugs,” were the subjects of Duterte’s profanity-laced tirades in a number of his speeches. He accused these organizations’ owners of being “oligarchs,” as well as of fraud and tax evasion. No charges were ever filed against them, but these claims have not been without consequences.

TV network ABS-CBN’s franchise will expire in 2020. The corporation filed for franchise renewal in 2016. But the application is still pending in the House of Representatives, which has the power to grant franchises and is dominated by Duterte’s allies.

In apparent reaction to Duterte’s criticisms, the owners of the Inquirer announced in 2017 the sale of the newspaper to another owner. Businessman Ramon Ang expressed interest, and is currently talking with Inquirer to buy of one of the biggest and arguably most influential newspapers in the country. Ang was one of the biggest donors to Mr. Duterte’s campaign for the presidency in 2016.

 

From threats to charges

The online news network Rappler was also at the receiving end of Duterte’s antipathy to the independent press.

During his 24 July 2017 State of the Nation Address, Duterte claimed that Rappler’s owners included an American. The 1987 Constitution limits the ownership and management of mass media to Filipino citizens, and to corporations wholly-owned and managed by Filipino citizens.

Article XVI, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution states that: “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens.”

Taking their cue from his frequent reference to Rappler’s alleged inaccuracies and bias, and particularly his 2017 claim that it is foreign-owned, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) decided to rescind its registrations for supposedly violating the constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media organizations.

While the organization’s board members were Filipinos, Rappler did have a foreign holder of its Philippine Depository Receipt (PDR) — a legal mechanism which allows Philippine corporations to receive foreign investments. When the foreign entity involved in Rappler’s PDR removed the Constitutional issue by announcing it was donating its fund to Rappler other agencies of government besieged it with various charges including cyber libel and tax evasion.

Rappler is pursuing its defense on the charges and is continuing to operate. But its problems with government are continuing.

As of March 2018, Rappler is facing an online libel suit against its chief executive officer and one of its former reporters, and a tax evasion case against its mother company Rappler Holdings. A Rappler reporter, who was covering Duterte’s Office, and some of its correspondents have also been banned from the presidential palace as well as from any other place where Duterte may be present.

Clearly a press freedom issue, the attacks on Rappler have had a chilling effect on some media organizations and journalists. But they have also served as a wake-up call for others to resist attempts to silence them and to abridge their constitutionally-protected freedom.

 

Attacks and threats against journalists

From 1 January to 31 December 2017, CMFR received a total of 21 reports of physical attacks including murder attempts and assaults. There were also non-physical threats such as libel charges, death threats through text (SMS), website hacking, and trolling/cyberbullying.

Five journalists were killed from 1 January 2017 to 31 March 2018. Only three of the cases were considered by CMFR as work-related, bringing the number of media workers killed to 156 since 1986, and to four so far during the Duterte regime. All three journalists killed in 2017 were from print. The pattern of killings has remained the same since 1986, usually carried out by hired gunmen riding in tandem on motorcycles.

Those killed for their work from 2017 to March 2018 were:

  1. Remate columnist Joaquin Briones, who was shot by two unidentified men along Sitio Feeder road in Barangay Bacolod, Masbate province on 13 March 2017. He was writing commentaries in his column “Burdado” (marked) in a national tabloid. Masbate is 586 kilometers south of Manila.
  2. Columnist Leo Diaz was killed by two motorcycle-riding men in the municipality of President Quirino in Sultan Kudarat province on 7 August 2017. The victim had a column for Sapol News Bulletin, a weekly tabloid published in General Santos City. Diaz also worked as a volunteer reporter for dxMY RMN-Cotabato. Sultan Kudarat is 1704 kilometers south of Manila.
  3. Columnist Christopher Lozada was shot by a lone gunman in Batangas City on 9 August 2017 two days after motorcycle riding men killed columnist Leo Diaz in Sultan Kudarat, Mindanao. Batangas is 83 kilometers south of Manila.

Three shooting attempts also occurred in 2017. All three cases involved radio blocktimers. Blocktiming is a common broadcast practice in the Philippines in which a broadcaster buys blocks of television or radio airtime for his or her program. The practice is more common in the provinces. Blocktimers usually have sponsors who are politicians or businessmen.

 

Libel still a criminal offense

The libel law is still one of the most frequently used means to silence the press. It is still a criminal offense in the Philippines despite calls for decriminalization. Seven libel-related cases had been reported to CMFR as of December 2017. Four journalists were charged with libel. Libel cases filed in the previous years have led to one arrest and two acquittals/dismissals.  

On many occasions libel has been used by politicians to stop criticisms and reports about them on matters of public interest. Three of the libel cases reported to CMFR, for example, were filed by a governor in Quezon province. Quezon Province is 150 kilometers south of Manila.

 

Surveillance

Attacks on media organizations now include surveillance of journalists by state security forces. CMFR also received a report from a journalist that his news organization had been subjected to an unwanted police visit. At least two other news organizations have noted plainclothes men around the location of their offices but these organizations decided not to make any attempt to identify who the policemen were and did not report the incident to authorities.

Also reminiscent of martial law, background checks have become a part of Philippine National Police (PNP) protocol for journalists covering the police beat. Members of the PNP Press Corps reported police visits and interrogations. Some of the questions were personal. In January this year, the PNP Chief denied that the checks were going on. But in February, media reported the PNP’s admission that it was indeed doing background checks on reporters newly assigned to cover the PNP.

 

Case updates and impunity

While a number of cases of journalists’ killings have reached the courts, most have barely passed police investigations. In most of those cases filed before the courts, only the gunmen have been arrested and tried, with the masterminds usually escaping arrest and prosecution.

Of the 156 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986, only 17 have been partly resolved, with the conviction only of the gunmen while the masterminds remain free. In the case of Bombo Radyo-Kalibo broadcaster Herson Hinolan who was killed 13 November 2004, the murder case filed against convicted mastermind former Lezo, Aklan Mayor Alfredo Arsenio, has been downgraded to homicide.

The trial of the 188 men charged in the 2009 Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre entered its eighth year in 2018. The alleged masterminds in the killing of 58 people including 32 journalists are among those charged, together with policemen and paramilitaries in the pay of the Ampatuan clan. So far, only 112 have been arraigned. Not one of the accused has been convicted.

The prosecution panel concluded its presentation of witnesses and evidence in 2016. The Quezon City trial court is now hearing evidence from the defense.

Nena Santos, a private prosecutor in the Ampatuan Massacre case, told CMFR that seven of the accused will begin presenting their evidence in the first quarter of 2018. Santos hopes that all the defense lawyers can finish their presentation and that a court ruling finding the guilt of all the accused will be issued this 2018.

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