Press freedom is no joke in the Philippines

Asia Politics World

Author: Danilo Araña Arao, University of the Philippines Diliman

By awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov on 8 October 2021, the Norwegian Nobel Committee put the spotlight on the state of press freedom in the Philippines and Russia — and rightly so.

Maria Ressa, an executive of online news platform Rappler, speaks to the media after posting bail for tax evasion charges at Regional Trial Court Branch 265 in Pasig City, Metro Manila, in Philippines, 3 December 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez).

Maria Ressa, an executive of online news platform Rappler, speaks to the media after posting bail for tax evasion charges at Regional Trial Court Branch 265 in Pasig City, Metro Manila, in Philippines, 3 December 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez).

The Philippines is ranked 130th and Russia 152nd in the Reporters Without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The Philippines and Russia also ranked 7th and 10th, respectively, in the Committee to Protect Journalists 2021 Global Impunity Index.

While the media situations in both countries deserve scrutiny, the Philippines is a peculiarly interesting case. The Philippine press is commonly perceived to be among the freest in Asia, but it remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism. Press freedom and human rights defenders continue to denounce the prevailing culture of impunity that the government claims ended under the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The cases filed against leading online media organisation Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa made global headlines. Duterte criticised Rappler for being peddler of ‘fake news’ and its license was revoked in 2018 — ironic given Ressa’s investigative work exposing disinformation on social media. In June 2020, Ressa and former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos, Jr. were convicted of cyber libel.

Like the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ordered broadcast network ABS–CBN’s closure in 1972, Duterte said in 2019 that ABS–CBN would be ‘out’ when its franchise expired in 2020. In a House of Representatives vote in July 2020, the broadcast network was shut down.

Under the Duterte administration, news media organisations and journalists have been red-tagged or accused of being communist sympathisers, and at least two journalists have been arrested and detained. There have also been cyberattacks launched at the websites of news media organisations in an attempt to prevent them from doing their work. While the distributed denial-of-service attacks — which overwhelm servers with too many data requests to shut it down — have been happening since 2018, the most recent attack on two news media organisations was carried out by the Philippine Army.

At least 190 journalists have been killed since 1986, 21 of them under the Duterte administration. The prevailing climate of media repression sends a chilling message to journalists and media workers in the country that they should toe the administration line.

National and local elections in the Philippines will be held in May 2022. It is uncertain to what extent the state of press freedom will be raised as an election issue.

Candidates are expected to mouth the usual rhetoric about preserving democracy, including the importance of a vibrant press. As might be expected, Duterte and his supporters have denied media repression. They claimed that ABS–CBN’s shutdown and Rappler’s legal woes are isolated cases that do not affect other news media organisations in the country.

As certain government officials continue to engage in red-tagging journalists and news media organisations, government agencies argue that their officials are merely expressing their personal opinions and not official policy. The Philippine National Police denies the existence of a culture of impunity that violates the rights of journalists and other sectors of society.

Journalists, media workers and other concerned groups need to push for press freedom to be an election issue. Candidates in the 2022 polls should explain clearly where they stand, beyond the usual rhetoric of defending democracy and basic freedoms.

For a president who is known for joking about serious matters, Duterte now finds it awkward to congratulate Ressa. His spokesperson belatedly acknowledged Ressa for being the first Filipino Nobel Peace Prize awardee while trying to downplay notions that the award was a ‘slap’ in the government’s face. It’s not credible for Duterte sincerely to congratulate Ressa, whose journalistic achievement is borne out of fighting the repression he perpetuates.

In the Philippines, threats to press freedom are real. It should not be reduced to a mere joke, especially for those who claim to be defending it while engaging in repression.

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