[Philippines] Situation remains dangerous for the press; battle for FOI continues

Despite the liberal framework of laws and the assured protection of no less than the Philippine Constitution, press freedom in the Philippines remains under threat from violent attacks, including the killing of journalists. Harassment of journalists has been perpetrated as well by groups or by individuals, particularly local officials, including members of security forces, who afflicted journalists with death threats and filed libel charges in court against members of the press.

There was no progress in the work to decriminalize libel, which is still counted as a criminal offense in the Philippines. The campaign for the legislation of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has also failed as the 16th Congress comes to a close on 11 June 2016.

On the part of the press, the May 2016 elections have highlighted the weaknesses in press practice. CMFR’s monitor of the electoral reportage has shown up the gaps in coverage, with news organizations concentrating on the presidential and vice-presidential elections, and neglecting the need of citizens to know about senatorial candidates, the party-list and local candidates. The separation of powers in government and the devolution of power call for news to focus on these areas of the elections.

Journalists working for candidates and parties also reflect institutional weakness of the free press. CMFR’s programs integrate training in ethics and media accountability as part of promoting genuine press freedom and autonomy.

Attacks and threats against journalists

Motorcycle-riding perpetrators have become commonplace in the landscape of crime and violence in the Philippines. In the capital region alone, the Philippine National Police reported 3,000 cases of crimes committed by motorcycle riders in 2013. Victims of these attacks include journalists and media workers. Most media killings, however, happen in the provinces.

From January 2015 to March 2016, 10 journalists were killed, six of whom worked in radio. Five of these were work-related; all of the victims were broadcasters.

Among the specific cases were:

  • DxOC (RMN Ozamiz) anchor Cosme Maestrado, who was shot at repeatedly by four unidentified men on two motorcycles along a crowded street in Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental province, some 1,146 kilometers south of the National Capital Region, on 27 August 2015. He was rushed to the hospital but was declared dead on arrival. Maestrado had been attacked by unidentified motorcycle riders earlier, in 2011, but survived.
  • DwIZ 882 AM volunteer reporter Jose Bernardo was killed by an unidentified assailant on 31 October 2015 in front of a fast food establishment in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Bernardo was parking his motorcycle when the lone gunman shot him at close range, and then walked to a waiting motorcycle driven by a cohort.
  • The most recent killing of a journalist happened on 16 February 2016. Broadcaster Elvis Ordaniza of the Pagadian City-based dxWO Power 99 FM was shot dead in his house in Pitogo, Zamboanga del Sur province. Ordaniza was a reporter for a blocktime program. In Philippine broadcast practice, a blocktimer is an individual who purchases “blocks” of TV or radio time for sponsorship.

Studies of violence in the Philippines have noted the “gun culture” that thrives from the trade in illegal guns in the country.

The continuing threat of criminal libel

Libel remains a criminal offense in the Philippines despite calls for its decriminalization. Seven cases of libel complaints against journalists and arrests from January 2015 to March 2016 were recorded.

The latest libel case against a journalist was an incredible 225-count criminal libel complaint filed by former Digos City (Davao del Sur province) Mayor Arsenio Latasa against Muews 97.5 FM and K37 TV owner and broadcaster Arvin Malaza, who goes by the name Jun Blanco in his daily radio program Isumbong Mo Kay Blanco (Complain to Blanco) simulcast on K37 TV.

The charges stemmed from a series of commentaries aired criticizing extrajudicial killings and projects during the mayor’s term. (Under Philippine libel law, each count of libel is punishable with a minimum of six months’ and a maximum of six years’ imprisonment.)

Malaza’s radio and TV stations were also ordered to cease operations on 16 September 2015 following a complaint filed before the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

Slow justice

The progress of the cases involving the killing of journalists has been varied.

On 20 September 2015, the two alleged masterminds in the killing of Palawan broadcaster and environmentalist Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega in 2011 were arrested in Thailand for overstaying. Former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother, Coron mayor Mario Reyes were deported, which led to the resumption of the proceedings against them as masterminds in the killing of Ortega.

On 7 March 2016, the Regional Trial Court of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan province found Arturo “Nonoy” Regalado, guilty of Ortega’s murder. Regalado was the aide of Joel Reyes. Regalado was sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or a maximum of 40 years’ imprisonment. Regalado is now serving his sentence at the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan province.

Meanwhile, the trial of the accused in the 2009 Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre moved slowly into its sixth year in 2015. The credible conclusion of the trial of those accused of planning and implementing the murder of 58 people, including 32 journalists and media workers is the primary challenge to end impunity in the killing of journalists in the Philippines. On trial are 197 accused, including the alleged masterminds from the Ampatuan clan, and members of the police and military as well as of the paramilitaries who followed the orders of the masterminds to commit the heinous crime. Only 112 have been arraigned; 85 other accused persons are still at large. Not one of the accused has been convicted.

The trial has yet to decide the question of bail for some of the accused, 70 of whom filed petitions for temporary liberty. In the Philippines, bail petitions may require the presentation of strong evidence of guilt, which usually calls for a lengthy process when the prosecution may have to provide primary evidence and witnesses.

On 17 July 2015, Andal Ampatuan Sr., patriarch of the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao, died of liver failure after a month of hospitalization in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Andal Sr. allegedly led the planning and execution of the massacre. Former Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Leila de Lima announced in the aftermath of his death that “the trial continues with respect to the other accused. Datu Andal Sr.’s death extinguishes his criminal liability, but not his civil liability for the massacre.”

Legislative measures

There were no legislative initiatives that would have adversely affected the exercise of media and press freedom in the Philippines during the period under review. Unfortunately, however, the campaign for an FOI law came to a dead end in 2015.

The FOI bill went into its second reading by the House of Representatives in 2015, during the 16th Congress. The FOI bill will be refiled in the 17th Congress, when new members of the House and a new administration will be in power. This means that the bill will have to go through the entire process again.

The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition (R2KRN), a long-time advocate of the passage of an FOI Act, released a statement in 2015 calling the FOI bill “dead,” blaming the non-passage of the bill on indecisive action and support from President Benigno S. Aquino III and the House. According to R2KRN, President Aquino had promised to make the FOI bill among his priorities before he took his oath as the country’s chief executive in 2010. But more than five years after, in the final months of the current administration, the Philippines remains the only one of the eight founding members of the United States of America-led initiative Open Government Partnership that has not passed an FOI Act.

R2KRN said, “We confront the reality that our institutions, particularly the Presidency and Congress, are not ready to overcome their selfish fears and take the side of public interest on the issue of FOI.

Challenge to the media: elections and the next administration

There are several possibilities for media and press freedom that will ensue because of the results of the 2016 national and local elections.

With barely a month before the actual election day, the possibility remains that attacks and threats to journalists can still happen given the “hot spots” all over the country, or those areas which have been noted for high incidence of election-related violence.

Fortunately, CMFR’s Alert reports have not included a case of election-related violence against journalists or media workers since the election campaign period started on 9 February 2016. However, two months into the campaign period, CMFR has taken note of more than 15 instances of violence against incumbent local government officials running in the 2016 elections. These were reported by print, broadcast, and online news organizations.

Because of the tightness of the race for president, it is impossible to predict who will be the next president of the Philippines—or, for that matter, what that next president’s actual policies once in power will be.

What is certain, however, is that because of the Constitutional guarantee of free expression and press freedom, the next chief executive, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate will not openly adopt policies contrary to either freedom. However, whether the killings will continue, and whether an FOI bill will pass will depend on the next administration’s and its allies in Congress’ initiative and will.

It is important to bear in mind that because the legal framework in the Philippines stands out for its liberal grant of freedom, journalists must bear their collective responsibility for promoting quality in the news service, based on the values of autonomy and public service.