A long, dark shadow over free speech in the Philippines

In the spring of 2020, three things happened in the Philippines that cast a long, dark shadow over its democratic foundations.    

First, on May 5, the country’s top broadcaster ABS-CBN was forced off air after lawmakers allied to President Rodrigo Duterte let its franchise expire. In the past, other companies whose legislative franchises ran out before Congress got around to renewing them were allowed to continue operating.  

Then a month later, on June 3, Congress overwhelmingly passed an anti-terror bill that Duterte had certified urgent and which gave the administration sweeping powers, including the ability to carry out warrantless arrests. 

Finally, on June 15, a local court found Maria Ressa, CEO and founder of news site Rappler, along with a former reporter, guilty of cyberlibel under debatable circumstances. Ressa is facing seven other criminal charges ranging from securities fraud to tax evasion. 

All these happened while the country was in the grips of the worst global health crisis of our generation. 

To this day, the government insists Duterte had nothing to do with the two media companies’ troubles—even though he had publicly threatened both on numerous occasions, beginning from when he was still on the campaign trail.  

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque’s usual refrain is that the president “supports freedom of expression,” while allies and supporters argue there are many other local media outlets to choose from.  

But advocates worry about the broad consequences.   

“The chilling [effect] has never been a question of outrightly banning all speech. It’s about subtle messaging. Behave, or you’re next. Once you’re scared enough into submission, you almost never need to declare an outright ban,” says John Molo, a founder at prominent law firm Mosveldtt and a constitutional law professor at the state university.

On July 10, despite a dozen marathon hearings that had failed to prove the company broke regulations, a Congressional committee voted overwhelmingly to deny ABS-CBN of a new franchise. Some 11,000 jobs are now in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, international human rights watchdogs slammed the “overbroad definition” of the anti-terror bill, warning it could be used to target critics of the government, particularly journalists and civil society groups. 

“The Philippine people are about to face an Anti-Terrorism Council that will be prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. 

This erosion in checks and balances has been particularly worrisome throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, when billions of dollars have poured in from international aid agencies. By the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s tally, only about 1 in 10 of the freedom of information (FOI) requests filed online between March 13 and May 27 has been granted. Most of these asked for data on covid-19 spending and financial assistance.     

Duterte himself has refused to release his own statement of assets from previous years.            

Meanwhile, the government’s heavy handed, militaristic approach to the coronavirus pandemic has seen the country overtake Indonesia in early August to become ASEAN’s covid-19 hotspot—announced the same day data was released showing the economy had slid into recession off the back of the worst GDP reading in recorded history.

In a recent interview on the BBC program Hard Talk, host Stephen Sackur pressed Maria Ressa about the idea that freedom of expression has been curtailed in the Philippines, arguing that the country “is nothing like North Korea”. 

Ressa replied: “In the end, [what it means is] the Philippines is living under a climate of fear and violence…so while you see what looks like a multitude of voices, imagine that those voices also have a Damocles sword hanging over their heads.”  

“In 2016, when all of this was just beginning, people kept saying, ‘oh, they would never cross that line. Four years after, we’ve redrawn so many lines and [yet] they just keep crossing them,” Molo said.