Media repression and authoritarianism a new normal in the Philippines

Asia World

Author: Danilo Araña Arao, UP Diliman

On 6 July the House of Representatives of the Philippines (HOR) ended its 12th and final public hearing on the renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN, a leading broadcast network in the Philippines which was ordered closed by the government. The HOR’s decision of non-renewal reflects growing media repression in the Philippines.

Journalists cover as ABS-CBN news chief Ging Reyes speaks to fellow employees and supporters of the broadcast network, following the Philippine congress' vote against its franchise renewal, outside the ABS-CBN headquarters, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 10 July 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez).

Journalists cover as ABS-CBN news chief Ging Reyes speaks to fellow employees and supporters of the broadcast network, following the Philippine congress' vote against its franchise renewal, outside the ABS-CBN headquarters, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 10 July 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez).

In a late night televised address the day after, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte revealed that the government is compiling information against Maria Ressa, the executive editor of news website Rappler who was recently convicted of cyber libel. Consistent with his past accusation of Rappler being a peddler of ‘fake news’, Duterte called Ressa a fraud.

On 3 July, the government signed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act into law.

Globally, various groups call such developments ‘dark days’ for press freedom. Locally, they’re called Monday and Tuesday.

Welcome to the new normal in the Philippines, where late night presidential addresses hint at declines in the President’s health amid his incoherent ramblings. As the country deals with an increasing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the government focuses on unrelated matters. These include enacting the Anti-Terrorism Act, banning locally-manufactured jeepneys, prohibiting protest actions while tolerating mass gatherings organised by government officials and supporters and suspending the termination of the US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement.

These are just a few of the controversial decisions made by the Philippine government despite widespread opposition. Metro Manila has been on lockdown since 15 March, yet there are still incidents of red-tagging, arresting and killing activists accused of being communists. Work-related killings of journalists and media personnel also continue, including the killing of a radio broadcaster in Dumaguete City on May 5 (the same day that ABS-CBN was shut down).

Ordinary people have not been spared from various forms of harassment and intimidation over the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Bureau of Investigation has invited people for questioning over their social media posts. A government official requested the Taiwanese government deport an overseas Filipino worker due to her critical commentary online. A provincial governor summoned a resident to her office, demanding a public apology for what he posted on social media. Even a university student journalist was forced to publicly apologise for criticising the government.

Even worse, the police fatally shot a ‘mentally challenged’ former soldier who allegedly violated lockdown protocol. Weeks before this fatal shooting, Duterte warned citizens that they could be shot if they caused trouble during the lockdown.

If ordinary people have it bad, activists have it worse. The police have made it clear they will disperse creative protest actions during the pandemic even if participants observe physical distancing and other health protocols. Authorities will even prevent relief goods from reaching their intended beneficiaries if they find out that organisers are affiliated with progressive groups. They arrest with impunity to send a message during the lockdown. For them, armed and unarmed groups are all perceived enemies that should be stopped no matter what.

There is a pattern to this line of thinking. A high-ranking government official has said that those who remain quiet have nothing to fear from the new anti-terrorism law. Another high-ranking official recently branded a progressive nun, who is publicly known for championing the impoverished, as a communist sympathiser. Even a school had to release a strongly-worded statement when a government task force accused a student organisation of being a communist front.

In the same way that they dismiss critical journalists and news media organisations as ‘fake news’-peddlers, the powers that be label the opposition as terrorists or communists. They engage in red-baiting even though the Anti-Subversion Act was repealed in 1992, making membership of the Communist Party of the Philippines legal. Unsurprisingly, a high-ranking government official insists that the CPP should be illegal. As such the government uses the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘communism’ as blanket terms to discourage the public from joining organisations that are perceived to be enemies of the state.

When Martial Law was declared in 1972, then-Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos raised the communist bogeyman. Duterte has raised it once more by claiming that terrorism is the top threat to the Philippines despite the ongoing pandemic. In the past, Marcos stressed the need for discipline and obedience to the law. Duterte echoes him and even blames, through his spokesperson, ‘undisciplined Filipinos’ for the continued spread of the virus — even though the Philippines is currently under the longest lockdown in the world.

As the government opts for a military solution to the health crisis, it uses the lockdown to legalise authoritarian rule and suppress basic rights. There is no need to formally declare Martial Law — it is already here. A tyrant occupies the highest office of the land and his signature fist bump is actually an iron fist.

Welcome to the new normal.

Danilo Araña Arao is Associate Professor at the Department of Journalism, the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, Special Lecturer at the Department of Journalism, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) Santa Mesa, Associate Editor of Bulatlat Multimedia and Editor of Media Asia.

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