Country Focus: Philippines and the State of Press Freedom

Republic of the Philippines, a country in Southeast Asia guarantees press freedom under the constitution. Government censorship is not a serious problem, but the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, says US-based Freedom House.

Several recent developments by the Philippines authorities have shown an unusual shift from an open media environment which has moved the country to 136th rank in 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

The major challenge to the media in the country is the same today as it was under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos: defending free expression despite an ownership system that creates a conflict between the private interests of the media and the public interest of providing citizens with the information they need.

The Great Decline
Certain major constituents of a predominantly authoritarian regime were highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has over the course proven himself to be a man who is averse to providing journalists with any special freedoms. Having branded them “sons of bitches”, he has issued a threat to journalists, saying that failing to follow the line of truth will only result in their death.

 

“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitches. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”

A 2017 report by ‘Reporters Without Borders’ revealed that 4 journalists had been killed, resulting in the Philippines is among the most deadly for journalists. The report further revealed that it is more often at the hands of private militias funded by local politicians that these atrocities take place.

Major Violations
Maria Ressa, the award-winning Philippines journalist and one of Time magazine’s 2018 “Persons of the Year”, who founded the news website Rappler was found guilty of ‘cyber libel’ for a 2012 story on wealthy businessman Wilfredo Keng. Some experts say that the conviction was politically motivated, and a huge setback to press freedom in a country where journalists are increasingly under threat.

“Ressa steers Rappler, an online news site she helped found, through a superstorm of the two most formidable forces in the information universe: social media and a populist President with authoritarian inclinations,” Time wrote.

“Rappler has chronicled the violent drug war and extrajudicial killings of President Rodrigo Duterte that have left some 12,000 people dead, according to a January estimate from Human Rights Watch.”

According to the BBC, the report based on the businessman’s links to a former Philippine Supreme Court judge Renato Corona, for which Ressa and a former writer for her website, Reynaldo Santos, were released on bail pending an appeal, but could face between six months and six years in prison.

The news report alleged that Keng was involved in human trafficking and drug trafficking, among other illegal activities.

However, the cyber libel law came into force four months after the article on Wilfredo Keng was published in September 2012. President Rodrigo Duterte had accused Ressa and other journalists who have documented his abuses of power of touting fake news, and his administration has been accused of harassing members of the press several times.

The plight faced by journalists in the Philippines is real and a minimum of two journalists are facing time in prison for allegedly circulating ‘fake news’. The ‘Bayanihan to Heal As One Act’ or the act passed by the Congress to help combat Covid-19 proved instrumental in their indictment. More importantly, the existence of such legislation effectively enables the government to prosecute any organisation involved in publishing a report against the Duterte administration.

President Duterte signed this law and declared a state of national emergency, two days after the Congress had passed the bill. This law acts in continuation with earlier executive actions that the Duterte administration had taken on the 17th March 2020 due to the outbreak of the virus. This was implemented on the island of Luzon as a public health emergency.

The Section 6(6) in the new law aims to castigate “individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid of beneficial effect on the population, and are geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make us or take advantage of the current crisis to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts”.

The popular sentiment regarding this regime is that it is a ‘democratorship’, a mixture of democracy and dictatorship and has been like the since President Duterte assumed office in 2016. Bulatlat and other similar news organisations have lost their permits to enter quarantine zones and only the media outlets, friendly to the current regime, are allowed admission. This regulation of independent journalistic freedom reached a new level when a journalist was asked to publicly apologise for criticising the government’s inability to act. Acts like these are but a byproduct of absolutist-totalitarian regimes.

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Press Freedom and Independent Media Remain Under Threat in Philippines