[Philippines] Yet Another Year of Living Dangerously

Although press freedom is constitutionally protected in the Philippines, journalists are nevertheless still among the victims of targeted killings. The number of attacks and threats against media workers and news organizations is in fact even rising — and the efforts to silence and intimidate are also being directed against those voices protective of the press.

Since the start of his administration in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has been unrelentingly hostile against regime critics. Many of his speeches and other public utterances are profanity-laced tirades against different institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, human-rights and media organizations, and individual journalists. His hostility to criticism has not been limited to verbal assaults. It has included the imprisonment of regime critic Senator Leila De Lima (2017); and the arrest of oppositionist Senator Antonio Trillanes (2018).

The President has mocked and insulted in public journalists and media organizations he deems critical of him and his administration.

His rocky relationship with the media was established early on in his presidency, and continues to be such. He has lashed out at TV and radio network ABS-CBN for not airing his campaign advertisements. He has accused its owners of fraud and has threatened to block the renewal of their franchise to broadcast that will expire in 2020. The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper also became a subject of his speeches for several months, in which he accused its owners of various crimes, including tax evasion. And in 2017, he accused online news site Rappler of being foreign owned, and thus in violation of the constitutional ban on foreign ownership of Philippine media entities.

Rappler has become the face of press suppression in the Philippines after the organization was bombarded with different charges filed in several courts, starting in the last quarter of 2017 (See: “Rappler: A Test Case for Press Freedom”).

Duterte’s animosity towards the press has become central to his politics. His speeches often include various accusations of wrongdoing against media that are critical of his administration and its policies. He would call out media organizations and tell them they are biased and are paid by the opposition. His responses to media’s critical questions during press conferences have been sarcasm and curses.

The President is disturbingly lauded by his supporters, who mimic his animosity and hate speech in social media. When the President hits the press, a swarm of organized trolls would attack and send threats to media organizations and their reporters.

An antagonistic administration

The context of how this administration deals with critics in the media has remained the same since Duterte assumed the presidency. It is always defensive and combative, and has made the media community more careful in covering the lapses of the government.

Duterte’s antagonism towards the media sends signals that enable other enemies of press freedom to silence journalists with threats against them and their families, as well as with physical attacks, including murder.

From 1 January 2018 to 30 March 2019, the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) recorded 48 cases of threats and attacks; 23 were directed at news organizations, 16 at male reporters, and nine against women journalists.

Twenty five of these incidents occurred in the National Capital Region (NCR). The press in the Philippine capital has been receiving the highest number of attacks and threats in the last five years.

During the period, there was a notable increase in the number of cases involving state agents in the perpetration of attacks. These were exclusive of the state-mobilized army of social-media trolls. Twenty four of the 48 cases of threats and attacks were perpetrated by state agents. Eight of these were by members of the Philippine National Police (PNP). The cases include three arrests, one ban on coverage, one physical assault, and one verbal assault, all of which happened in Bulacan during the violent dispersal of the picket of workers of the condiments corporation Nutri Asia on 30 July 2018. The journalists were there to cover the employees’ call for regularization.

Nine of the 17 attacks by state agents were carried out by national government agencies and officers: the barring of Rappler reporters and correspondents from covering any event in which Duterte was present, the revocation of Rappler’s incorporation papers, and the filing of tax evasion cases against the same news organization including arrests in relation to these cases. Maria Ressa was arrested twice during the period. The first one in February 2019 for cyber libel; second was in March 2019 for Rappler’s violation of the Anti-Dummy Law.

News organizations were also subject to police visits and intimidation. Police visited different news outlets in April to check on the backgrounds of the members of the PNP press corps. Some of their questions were sensitive and personal. The PNP said that the check was a part of their new policy for media accreditation. The police also visited a news organization in the Visayas, in central Philippines, in October to demand favorable coverage of the PNP’s anti-illegal drugs campaign.

Media killings continue

Since 1986, 164 media workers have been killed in the line of duty in the Philippines, 12 of whom were murdered during the Duterte administration. From 1 January 2018 to 31 March 2019, four journalists were killed because of their work in media; three were from print while the fourth was from radio.

Killed for their work were:

    1. DyGB FM Power 91 anchor Edmund Sestoso, who was getting off a “motorcycle for hire” along barangay Daro in Dumaguete City at around 10 a.m. on 30 April 2018, when a gunman shot him several times. The unidentified suspect fled to west of Daro with his companion aboard a black motorcycle. Sestoso was rushed to the hospital but died a day after. Ironically, 2018’ first media murder happened few days before the 3 May World Press Freedom Day. Dumaguete City is 934 kilometres south of Manila.
    2. Carlos Matas, anchor of Zambo News Patrol in dxCA Bell FM and dxBZ Radyo Bagting, was killed in a shooting incident in Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur on 12 May 2018. Zamboanga del Sur is 1,167 kms south of Manila. Matas was shot after meeting with a colleague in relation to his work as “provincial coordinator” for the Cassava Farmers Association in Zamboanga del Sur.
    3. Dennis Denora, publisher of Trends and Time, was ambushed along the Panabo National Highway in Davao del Norte at around 1 pm on 7 June 2018. Davao del Norte is 1,470 kms south of Manila.
    4. DwZR828 Zoom Radio blocktimer Joey Llana was driving to work when he was ambushed along Barangay Peñafrancia in Daraga at around 5:00 a.m on 20 July 2018. Albay is 479 kms south of Manila. The broadcaster sustained several wounds in the head and body and was declared dead by medical responders at around 6:00 a.m.

Of the 12 journalists killed since Duterte became president, eight were radio commentators, and four newspaper columnists. Eight were killed in Mindanao. Bicol (Region V) had the highest number of journalists killed with three.

Apart from the killings, two cases of slay attempts have been reported: those of Marchoflix Lucabon of dyRF Bombo Radyo in Cebu on 27 July 2018, and Joel Pimentel of Radyo Bandera 100.7 News FM in Surigao del Sur on 29 December 2018. Both had received death threats days before each was shot at by two men on a motorcycle shot.

Unidentified men also fired at the house of news radio anchor Rey Siason on 19 September 2018. Siason was not home at the time, but he believes that he was the target of the attack. No one was hurt in the incident.

Website attacks

Five cases of website attacks were also recorded during the period. Those of Vera Files on 29 January 2018 and Kodao Productions on 2 February 2018 were temporarily down after these media outfits published reports critical of the administration.

The alternative news websites Kodao, Bulatlat, and Pinoy Weekly were inaccessible on 26 December 2018 due to a cyber-attack. The web takedown happened during the 50th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). These news organizations have been tagged as CPP legal “fronts” by the police and military. Prior to the incident, Duterte had been very vocal about his intent to “crush” the CPP and its military arm, the New People’s Army (NPA), as well as the legal party list and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) he has claimed to be part of the CPP “political infrastructure.”

Kodao and other alternative-media websites were still being subjected to Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in the first quarter of 2019. The media group was able to identify the source of the attack and on 29 March 2019, filed a civil case at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court against IP Converge Data Services Inc. and the Suniway Group of Companies.

Press freedom not a priority

The administration’s press-freedom policy is as dysfunctional as its relationship with the media.

Duterte has been in office for almost three years. He has used almost half of his term boasting of his achievements for his flagship policies including the “war” against illegal drugs. This “war” has claimed the lives of at least 5,000 drug suspects who were killed during police operations and at least 12,000 more killed by unknown suspects including vigilante groups. Nothing has been done in the realm of policies promoting press freedom and free expression despite such showcase attempts as:

  1. In 2016, Duterte signed Administrative Order No. 1, which created the Philippine Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS), a body mandated to protect the “life, liberty and security of media workers and their family.” The same body is designated to investigate and prosecute new cases of media killings. PTFoMS in 2017 helped the widow of murdered Catanduanes News Now publisher Larry Que file a case against Catanduanes Governor Joseph Cua and four others before the Department of Justice (DOJ). Larry Que was the first journalist killed under the Duterte administration. He was killed a week after he publishing a piece he wrote about the drug situation in the province. The case against Cua and company was junked by the DOJ in March 2018 for lack of evidence. No updates have been reported about the case since then. The PTFoMS also claims to have investigated several cases of threats and attacks against journalists. But the organization has never shared the results of its investigations. Instead, the same government body in early 2019 led a media caravan in Europe with the announced purpose of countering the “bad publicity” Duterte has supposedly been getting from the Philippine media. In the same caravan, PTFoMS Chair Joel Egco claimed that he was merely quoting the Danish Ambassador to the Philippines in tagging several advocates of press freedom, including Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) members CMFR and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), as practitioners of “irresponsible journalism” against the administration. CMFR and other media groups took exception to that claim. Too, while the Danish ambassador did say that the Philippine media are “too negative” in their reporting, he did not mention any specific media organization by name.
  2. Also in 2016, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 2 “Operationalizing in the Executive branch the people’s constitutional right to information and the state policies or full disclosure and transparency in the public service and providing guidelines therefore.” The order was in response to advocates’ call for Freedom of Information or FOI. Along with that order, the government created an online portal where people can request data from any agency under the executive branch. The process of obtaining data through the FOI online portal, however, has been slow and tedious. Several requests have also been denied including those regarding information and data on the “war” on drugs.
  3. Libel is still a criminal offence despite decades-long calls for its decriminalization. Worse, the Cybercrime Prevention Law of 2012 makes the penalty for online libel  a degree higher than in the existing libel law in the 1932 Revised Penal Code. Online libel has been used to crack down on online media organizations and to suppress free expression in social media sites.

Prevailing impunity

Justice has been really slow for almost all of the cases of threats, attacks, and killings. In most of the cases, investigations end at the police level. Most of the suspects have remained unidentified. Some suspects who have been identified, as in the case of those in the killing of Aksyon Ngayon Executive Editor Richard Kho and the tabloid’s publisher Bonifacio Loreto in 2013, are still at large.

Of the 165 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 the convicted mastermind, former Lezo, Aklan Mayor Alfredo Arsenio, was downgraded to homicide.

One of the cases reached resolution in 2018. A court in Kabacan, North Cotabato found guilty Army Corporal Alvaro Obregon Jr. for the frustrated murder of blocktime broadcaster Alberto Martinez in April 2005. The court, however, acquitted the other accused for insufficiency of evidence.

Obregon was sentenced to imprisonment of a minimum period of six years and one day to a maximum of eight years, eight months, and one day.

A suspect in the killing of broadcaster Christopher Lozada was also identified in March 2018. Lozada was gunned down in Bislig City, Surigao del Sur on 24 October 2017. A witness identified gunman Rolly Mahilum from photos in the laptop of Lozada’s staff. Mahilum was the driver and close aide of the family of Bislig Mayor Librado Navarro, who had filed a libel case against Lozada in 2012. The suspect was still at large as of press time.

Meanwhile, in 2018 the trial of the suspects in the massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists in Ampatuan, Maguindanao reached its ninth year with no resolution. (See: Ampatuan Primer)

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