[Philippines] Well-known journalist forays into politics, denies the press is under attack

Journalists leaving media work to seek public office is not uncommon in the Philippines. The likes of Noli de Castro and Loren Legarda, former vice president and an incumbent senator, respectively, were well-known media personalities before they successfully joined politics. (De Castro, went back to his old network, ABS-CBN, after completing his political term in 2010.)

It is a feat broadcast journalist Rodrigo Defeo (otherwise known as Jiggy) Manicad, Jr. is trying to achieve by leaving his job as one of the popular faces of broadcast giant GMA Network to run for senator in the May 2019 midterm elections.

His decision surprised many but even more uncanny to others was his inclusion in the list of candidates endorsed by a political party allied with President Duterte’s administration. There was no mistaking his acquiescence to the political policies of his main principal.

In a deeply polarized society like the Philippines, choosing which side to anchor one’s political aspirations on is very telling, often raising questions on one’s core values and principles.

Talk about the political divide, and two groups easily come to mind: the “DDS (Die-hard Duterte Supporters,” a tag closely associated with the current administration, or the “Dilawan” (meaning yellow – the color associated with the opposition, in particular the Liberal Party under whose banner former president Benigno Aquino III ran and won).

Alas, Manicad himself confirmed this when in an interview, without batting an eyelash, he denied that press freedom was under attack under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte.

This was received with incredulity by not a few viewers, some of whom had known and admired his work as a journalist. Manicad, after all, was highly respected for his work, and was a recipient of numerous journalism awards. Besides, he was in the media for more than two decades before he made the big leap. Not only was he was well aware of the hazards of his profession, he also had a front-row view of the challenges confronting him and his colleagues under the current political climes, or so people thought.

In an interview with ONE News’ “The Chiefs”, a public affairs program composed of a panel of veteran Filipino journalists, Manicad was asked whether or not he thought the legal cases filed by government agencies against online news site Rappler represented “an attack on press freedom.”

His answer was, essentially, no, intimating that what happened to Rappler was its own doing.

Rappler’s registration with the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission was revoked in 2018 over charges of violating foreign equity restrictions. It has since been slapped with tax evasion cases while its CEO Maria Ressa has been served with arrest warrants over some of the slew of charges hounding her and Rappler. On top of these its reporters have been banned from covering the President and other government-sponsored events

Manicad said Rappler violated the Constitution when it allowed foreign funds to come in. Even trying to justify this thought, he asked: “Now, if it’s an attack against press freedom, ang tanong ko is sino ba yung unang nang-attack?” (Now if it’s an attack against press freedom, my question is, who attacked first?)

To drive home his point, skewed to many, he even brought up the case of the Ampatuan Massacre, where 58 people were killed, including 32 journalists and media workers on 23 November 2009.

“Was it an attack on press freedom? he asked in Filipino. “I don’t think so,” he said.

“These journalists were killed, but it was more of a political attack to silence political (opponents) … so it’s a different dimension.”

A convoy of lawyers, aids, and relatives of a then-incumbent local official was on their way to file his certificate of candidacy for the upcoming elections. Journalists joined the convoy to cover the event. The official was a scion of a political clan challenging the ruling political family in Maguindanao, south of the Philippines. It was a historic day for the local media.

A decade on, the Philippines remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists. To date there is no dearth of reports on the state of press freedom in the Philippines, and Manicad should be well aware of this.

The Freedom for Media, Freedom for All network, composed of Philippine media organization working on press freedom issues in the country,  monitored 128 cases of attacks and threats against the press from 30 June 2016, when Duterte took office, until 30 April 2019. They broke down these cases as follows:

  • Killing, 12 cases;
  • Online harassment, 18;
  • Intimidation, 16;
  • Threat by SMS, 12;
  • Libel, 12;
  • Website attack, 10;
  • Barred from coverage, 8;
  • Slay attempt, 8;
  • Verbal threat/assault, 5;
  • Physical assault, 5;
  • Arrest, 5;
  • Cyber libel, 5;
  • Physical harassment, 3;
  • Corporate related issues, 3;
  • Bomb threat, 2;
  • Straffing/shooting, 2;
  • Article takedown, 2;

As though attacks against journalists are not enough, the websites of several alternative media organizations, particularly those critical of the present dispensation, have been targeted as well.

It is therefore not surprising why the Philippines performs poorly in press freedom indices. It ranked fifth on the 2018 Global Impunity Index of New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and 134rd in the 2019 Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. This year it slid a notch in the same index.

The perils suffered by journalists are now a pressing reality in the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia. Denying them the way Manicad does is tantamount to an attack on press freedom.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy, reality-denying world of politics, Manicad!

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