Press freedom is widely recognized in the Philippines within the liberal framework of laws and the assured protection of the Philippine Constitution. Ironically, the same freedom is besieged by the continuing impunity in the killing of journalists, and by other threats and attacks, such as legal limits, which include a criminal libel law.
Journalists are continuously harassed by groups or by individuals, particularly local officials and members of the security forces. These elements, fearing the media’s capacity to expose their illegal practices, often subject media workers to physical assaults and other threats. The legal cases filed in recent decades have ended in conviction of journalists and their imprisonment. The threat of criminal libel is sometimes enough to restrain or silence members of the press.
The year 2016 remained problematic for press freedom in the Philippines. There was no progress in the work to decriminalize libel, which is still listed as an offense in the country’s criminal code. The freedom of information (FOI) act, which has failed passage in previous administrations, has been refiled and is already on its second reading in the Congress. There were four journalists killed in the line of duty in the same year, while the number of other attacks and threats was higher than previous years. The election of 2016 changed national leadership as President Benigno Aquino III ended his six year term, turning over the presidency to former mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
The change in the presidency also changed the country’s press freedom landscape. President Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the 16th president of the republic on 30 June 2016. Shortly after, he signed an executive order mandating public access to information from all executive offices, and an administrative order creating a presidential task force for media security. These moves were hailed by some media organizations and media groups. Ironically, the president, in countless instances, has been critical of, if not outrightly hostile towards the media.
Duterte’s hostility towards the media
The president has had a rocky relationship with the press since he was elected to office. As early as May 31 last year, when asked about his intended policy on the killing of journalists, then president elect Duterte said that journalists who get killed are corrupt, and cited the case of Juan “Jun” Pala, a controversial broadcaster in Davao City, who was killed in 2003. CMFR reviewed its database of journalist killings from 2000 to July 2016 and found that only 8 or 10 percent of slain journalists were involved in corrupt practices such as bribe-taking. Excluded in the count were the 32 journalists killed in the Ampatuan, Maguindanao Massacre. Most of the journalists were killed because they reported on the corrupt practices of government officials and security officers.1
The new administration barred media organizations from covering President’s inauguration. The turnover is traditionally held as huge public ceremony with the public invited to watch from open space in front of the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park. Duterte took his oath in the Rizal Hall of Malacañang Palace with a select guest list. As early as June 20, event organizers for the June 30 event confirmed that media would not be allowed inside the hall. Only PTV-4, the government television station, was allowed to record the ceremony and to air it live. All other broadcast companies were relegated to external grounds with no access to the event itself.
This was not the only time media has had limited access for coverage of government events. On September 12,c were prohibited from airing Duterte’s activities on that day which included the oath-taking of his appointees to his Cabinet. Media were not even allowed to tweet the event live.
The president’s latest rant about the media was during an expletive-laden speech on March 31 at the oath-taking of newly-appointed government officials and members of the Philippine Councilors’ League. Duterte cursed two media organizations for their “unfair” and “twisted” coverage of his administration. In his speech, he called a television network and a newspaper organization “vicious and virulent” after he was irked by reports about his health, his bank accounts, and his war on drugs.
Duterte has accused the Philippine media of biased and corrupt, tainting the openly adversarial practice with these charges. Thankfully, the media seem aware of their duty to inform the public despite Mr. Duterte’s tirades.2
CMFR assessment of the quick action on FOI and the creation of the task force on media security evaluate what has actually been accomplished.
President Duterte signed Executive Order (EO) No. 2 (Operationalizing in the Executive Branch the People’s Constitutional Right to Information and the State Policies to Full Public Disclosure and Transparency in the Public Service and Providing Guidelines Therefor) on 23 July 2016. It was promptly hailed by government officials and transparency advocates as a historic achievement. Though limited only to the executive branch of government, the current administration took pride in having implemented such an initiative on Duterte’s 24th day in office.
But the EO ordered an inventory of all existing limits. Initially having 166 exceptions, the list was narrowed down to nine on November 24, including, among others, privileged information related to national security, information covered by executive privilege, and information deemed confidential for the protection of privacy. Unfortunately, the ninth exemption also includes all other exceptions to information access, such as existing laws, jurisprudence, as well as rules and regulations adopted by government agencies. This item serves as catch-all and may include numerous limitations which could have been counted in the first inventory of 166.
The government also launched on November 25 an electronic FOI portal where citizens can file information requests. As of March 2017, 64 executive agencies have enrolled in the website.
All executive offices were also directed to provide their own People’s FOI manual providing the step-by-step process of requesting information, the name of officials involved in this process and the specific exceptions that apply to each office.
Nine months after the implementation of the EO, the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition (R2KRN) finds the Duterte administration’s FOI work “far from done.” In a statement released last March 17, the coalition said that of 22 executive departments and offices, less than half responded positively to requests for copies of the FOI manuals. Others did not have manuals yet. R2KRN said, “The “exceptions” enrolled in some of these manuals have raised concern among us that some agencies would want to remain opaque than open.”
The coalition also said that some of their requests through email, fax or phone calls went unacknowledged. R2KRN added that it took some agencies weeks and even months to answer requests, a timespan that is well beyond the 15-day response period mandated by existing law (Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials) and EO 2. The statement adds, “A central common task that must be achieved promptly is the passage of the FOI Law.”
Meanwhile, the Duterte administration has created a Presidential Task Force on Media Safety (PTFoMS) which reviews past cases of journalist killings and monitors attacks and threats against the media. However, the Office of the President has said that the Task Force will not be focused on the Ampatuan Massacre case. The Palace pointed out that a special panel from the ranks of the Department of Justice (DOJ) is already working on the massacre trial.
Duterte supporters and online threats
Social media played a significant role in installing Duterte to the presidency. The free space became the venue for his campaign to carry their propaganda for his political platform. Supporters rallied to his message of change, including the criticism of any media critical of the candidate. The same platform has been used by his supporters to attack and threaten media, the level of which has been unprecedented by anything seen in the country’s history of electoral campaigns.
The media were called names, among them “presstitute”, “bias (sic)” and “bayaran” (bribed). Duterte’s defenders rained threats of violence, of rape, murder and libel suits, including harm to members of family members on specifically targeted media members.
Earlier in September, two women journalists received online threats of rape and harm to their families. Freelance journalist Gretchen Malalad, who was accused of sharing information with TIME magazine about the administration’s war on drugs, and Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan-Caudron, who had been reporting on President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), were attacked by online Duterte partisans. Some comments even suggested that the two journalists should be raped or killed by the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group for their reports. The ASG has been notorious for the violent treatment of their victims.
Here are some screengrabbed images of attacks directed to journalists in social media:
Comments directed to Malalad:
Translation: (Harley) Granted that she will be killed by a drug addict. (Rhoma) I wish the same thing.
Comment directed to Alindogan:
Translation: Jamela Alindog, all you do is report. Improve it. You protect the drug addicts. You immediately report tips you get. God will deal with you and all your lies. All I can say is that I hope you or your families don’t experience being victimized by drug addicts. God bless you. It’s so nice to live with a clean conscience.
Comment directed to Pia Ranada of Rappler who has been covering Malacañang and the president:
Translation: Fuck you, bitch! We will hold a wake for you when Duterte is elected!
Comment directed to Maria Ressa, the founder and executive editor of “social news network” Rappler:
Duterte appealed to his supporters on September 22 not to threaten media people because they won’t be able to write about the truth. His appeal seems to have been unheeded, as threats directed to journalists in social media continued and can be provoked up to the present.
The kind of verbal abuse unleashed during the campaign has had a toxic impact on the use of social media and other digital instruments, turning away journalists and social media from these venues. Rhetoric of violence has perverted the purposes of the exchange that these digital instruments were designed to enhance. The negative use of the new media was noted by various content providers and analyzed in digital sites.3
Attacks and threats against journalists
The enemies of press freedom continue to silence media with harassments and physical assaults. Impunity remains as reality as most cases are hardly ever taken to court and hired assassins and masterminds have easily escaped arrest and prosecution. Attacks include killings perpetrated by hired gunmen, usually while riding in tandem aboard motorcycles. From January 2016 to March 2017, seven journalists were killed. Four of these cases were work-related; three journalists were from print while one was from radio.
Those killed in line of their work were:
- Broadcaster Elvis Ordaniza of the Pagadian City-based dxWO Power 99 FM was shot dead in his house in Pitogo, Zamboanga del Sur province on 16 February 2016. Ordaniza was a reporter for a blocktime program aired over dxWO. (In Philippine broadcast practice, a blocktimer is an individual who purchases “blocks” of TV or radio time for sponsorship.)
- Alex Balcoba, a reporter and columnist of the tabloid People’s Brigada and an official of the Manila Police District Press Corps, was shot in the head in front of his family-owned watch repair shop in Quezon Boulevard, Quiapo district on 27 May 2016.
- Larry Que, a local businessman, was publishing the newspaper Catanduanes News Now two weeks before he was shot by an unidentified gunman in front of a building in which an insurance company he owned has an office on 19 December 2016.Que wrote a column in the December 13 to 19 issue of Catanduanes News Now criticizing the alleged indifference of local officials to the manufacturing of illegal drugs in the island. His column also claimed that foreigners who had set up drug facilities in Catanduanes had been helped by local residents.
- Remate columnist Joaquin Briones was shot by two unidentified men on a motorcycle along Sitio Feeder road in Barangay Bacolod, Masbate province on 13 March 2017. He wrote commentaries under his column “Burdado” (marked) in the national tabloid.
Apart from the killings, CMFR recorded 28 incidents of attacks and threats against journalists and news organizations in 2016 while there were only 18 reported incidents in 2015. Of these incidents, 15 were against radio broadcasters and reporters. Included are the three slay attempts and two strafing incidents against radio blocktimers.
Radio is next to television as a source of political information according to Vera File’s “Media Ownership Monitor.” 65.6 percent of Filipinos listen to the radio, a large percentage of which are from the provinces.41.4 percent listen to the radio at least once a week. The ability of radio broadcasters to influence listeners makes them prone to attacks and intimidation.
The continuing threat of criminal libel
Criminal libel remains one of the most frequently used ways to suppress the free press in the country. Five libel related cases had been reported to CMFR as of December 2016. A libel charge filed in 2015 led to a journalist’s arrest in 2016. Four libel suits against journalists were filed in 2016; only two, so far, have led to arrests.4
Libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines despite calls for its decriminalization. The fear of possible detention and the imposition of hefty fines have on many occasions silenced press criticism of government officials and reporting on matters of public interest. There have been occasions when police officers served warrants of arrest late on Fridays so journalists will have less time to arrange for bail and as a result end up being detained for the weekend.
Radyo Bombo 99.5 station manager Bong Encarnacion was arrested for libel on September 9, a Friday. The arrest was based on a libel complaint filed by Makilala Mayor Rudy Caoagdan. Caoagdan filed the charges after Encarnacion criticized his administration for several anomalies in the municipality. Encarnacion was able to post bail immediately.
Three days after his arrest, he was once again arrested for a separate libel case filed by Caoagdan. The radio manager was held in the NBI office but was released on September 14 after he posted bail.5
The resolution of the cases of journalists killed for their work remains slow. Of the 154 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986, there have only been 20 convictions, while no mastermind had been convicted.
The year 2016 brought convictions in the cases of broadcasters Desiderio Camangyan from Davao and Herson Hinolan from Aklan. The suspect in the killing of Crispin Perez in Batangas was acquitted:
- On June 10, 2016, the Regional Trial Court of Davao City found Dennis Lumikid guilty of broadcaster Desiderio Camangyan’s murder in 2010. Lumikid was sentenced to a maximum of 40 years’ imprisonment. The court also ordered Lumikid to pay Php 75,000 for the death of the broadcaster, Php 50,000 in moral damages and Php 30,000 in exemplary damages.
- On August 10, 2016, the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City found Alfredo Arcenio guilty in the killing of Aklan broadcaster Herson Hinolan in 2004. The murder charge against Arcenio was downgraded to homicide due to insufficient evidence in proving the two key elements of murder which are treachery and premeditation. The former mayor was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.
- A court in Batangas acquitted a police officer accused of killing a lawyer-broadcaster in 2009. The decision was promulgated 14 April 2016. Lipa City Regional Trial Court Branch 85 Judge Wilfredo Castillo acquitted and ordered the release of police officer Darwin Quimoyog who was accused of the 2009 murder of radio station dwDO broadcaster Crispin Perez.
Meanwhile, developments in the trial of the 197 accused in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre moved slowly as the trial entered its seventh year in 2016. The killing of 58 people, including 32 journalists and media workers, remains one of the biggest tests in the work of ending 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. Only 112 have been arraigned; 85 other accused persons are still at large. Not one of the accused has been convicted.
The latest development in the trial happened on 15 February 2017 when the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of bail to Sajid Islam Ampatuan, one of the primary suspects. Sajid Islam was released on bail in January 2015. As of March 2017, Forty two petitions for bail have already been granted.
1 See accompanying story: http://cmfr-phil.org/press-freedom-protection/censorship-by-the-gun/
3 See: http://www.rappler.com/nation/148007-propaganda-war-weaponizing-internet