[Philippines] The Plot Thickens Over Heightened Attacks Against Media

With the mid-term election campaign heating up, the ongoing state-sanctioned repression of target media groups in the Philippines is intensifying, as though approximating the scorching summer gripping the country today.

The provenance of such suppression is the revocation of the corporate registration of Rappler, which was to be the first in a series of legal cases that would soon be levelled against the online news media whose critical reports against President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called anti-drug campaign and his other policies, it seemed to many, incurred the chief executive’s ire, while earning it more stripes in the eyes of a global community that still values no-nonsense journalism.

Now Rappler is clearly in good company, albeit regrettably, with more media organizations similarly under attack by the government, if not by its paid trolls, enablers, and rabid supporters and allies.

Alternative media websites hacked, repeatedly. More established, and well-respected, media groups maligned (and cussed at in typical Duterte fashion) publicly with nary any proof of his allegation of them being on the take, or being witting or unwitting tools of their foreign sources of funding. These are emergent situations that have compounded the already dangerous environment in which many journalists in the Philippines had been languishing even before Duterte came to office.

The latest in this continuing saga of independent media’s travails under the current administration is the release of a so-called “Oust-Duterte Plot” that tags certain journalists and news organizations like Rappler, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and VERA Files – all highly respected media institutions – in an alleged conspiracy to discredit Duterte and overthrow his government, while ostensibly in cahoots with the Left that includes a group of human rights lawyers. It shows a matrix of these media groups and several individuals that are said to be behind the plot.

The purported sinister plan was “exposed” by Manila Times, the oldest existing newspaper in the Philippines – and now a mere shadow of its once glorious self.

Written by Dante Ang, owner and current chairman emeritus of the 120-year-old newspaper, the article that exposed the so-called conspiracy and aptly titled “Oust-Duterte Plot bared,” was released on 22 April 2019, citing a “highly placed source in the Office of the President.”

Any journalist worth his salt knows better than to anchor his story on the say-so of a single, anonymous, source. Ang’s piece does, and that alone speaks volumes about its veracity, or lack of it. It’s a sloppy piece of journalistic work all right.

Media groups were quick to denounce the story. Rappler called it “an example of how to not write an investigative report — even everyday straight news.” The story was “wrong on many points,” said PCIJ, citing, for example, that the individuals in the matrix linked to it were  in fact “no longer in its employ.”

“Ang’s piece of claptrap wouldn’t even pass muster at any self-respecting high school publication,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

Ang is publicly known as Duterte’s PR guy, a fact he does not dispute. He was appointed “special envoy for international public relations” by President Duterte in May 2017.

Ang’s report fails – and fails miserably – as a journalistic piece. What it succeeds at is inviting more attacks to journalists and civil society workers doggedly at work to champion basic human rights in the country. It reeks of bias for the very institution that has hired him to do public relations work.

“It lays the ground for more attacks against independent media,” says the NUJP.

Just like other Southeast Asian countries

The Philippines is not unlike other countries in the region that had their national polls recently, such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand, where governments had kept a close watch on the media – a tacit acknowledgment of the power of what is often dubbed the Fourth Estate to keep public officials in check, not to mention ensure a well-informed and engaged citizenry whose votes and collective opinions could upend authoritarian rulers’ determined effort to keep their grip on power – at all costs.  

The Philippines, notwithstanding the unfortunate political climes that are ramping up the heat on the media (already laboring under other structural and systemic challenges such as dwindling revenue, low compensation, and poor working conditions), may not be seeing more repressive laws being enacted, particularly around the elections.

Yet this does not necessarily mean Philippine journalists are better off compared to their colleagues elsewhere in the region, or that press freedom is not in dire straits.

Just late last year, the Philippines was described as the “deadliest peacetime country for journalists in Southeast Asia,” according to the Southeast Asia Media Report, released by the International Federation of Journalists in December 2018.

Journalism, just like in much of Southeast Asia today, is being criminalized and stopped dead in its tracks (sometimes literally) through various ploys, the concoction of a fictitious plot being one of them. (Malacañan Palace, the official residence of Philippine presidents, has confirmed the matrix and the plotters, reported Manila Times.)

It has “vowed to prosecute those who would commit ‘overt acts to bring down the government,’” it said. Alas, Malacañang needed only yet another ally – this time from the ranks of the media – to scale up its attack on the press.

In the Philippines and in much of the region, the media continue to be prime targets of authoritarian rulers, using overt and covert strategies, including fictional tales, in a desperate bid to silence them. The plot thickens.

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