An uncertain future for Philippine press

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Since the shocking shutdown of the ABS-CBN franchise a year ago, the dark shadow cast over media freedom in the Philippines has not abated, as President Rodrigo Duterte’s animosity toward the press continues to haunt the practice of journalism. The move cut off access to news information in far flung regions and also put more than 11,000 media employees out of work, leaving an obvious gap on information in the midst of a pandemic, seasonal typhoons, an upcoming presidential election, and other news updates. 

This, along with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, an ambiguous law , encouraged a slew of online and public attacks, effectively shaking the tenets of democracy and freel speech.

Because of this hostile environment, journalists express hesitance in their reportage and are self-censoring out of fear of being unjustly persecuted. Even media networks, who are constantly being subjected to intimidation, are taking an “accommodating” stance to the administration’s whims for fear of being unjustly persecuted.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Manny Mogata shares in an interview with ABS-CBN, “The owners of these media are thinking about their own survival. They would not dare challenge the government because they fear that if they can close down ABS-CBN, it can also happen to them.”

As the “main vaccine” against disinformation, the practice of journalism in the Philippines plays a huge role in bringing truth to power and correcting misinformation campaigns, sometimes launched by the government against its critics. 

In a report by Reporters Without Borders, the Philippine’s World Press Freedom index dropped to 138th out of 180 countries, its fourth annual consecutive decline. This, according to the report, was mainly driven by online attacks by troll armies, judicial harassment of journalists, and cyberattacks on alternative news websites. Furthermore, the report also cited the Philippines as one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists and bloggers, along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

From June 2016 to April this year, 19 journalists were killed on the job. 204 threats and attacks, mostly in the form of intimidation, libel, and online harassment have also been reported, with red-tagging (red-baiting government critics) being the most common form of intimidation.

In his second year in power alone, Duterte already launched verbal tirades against CNN, the Philippine Inquirer, and Rappler for their coverage of his war on drugs. To this day, animosity toward these media giants, especially to Rappler, an exclusively online platform helmed by Maria Ressa, is still prevalent.

Lorraine Ecarma, a Rappler correspondent from Cebu, was recently barred by local police to cover the story of Chad Booc, a detained Lumad activist. In a similar fashion, Pia Ranada, Malacanang beat reporter, has been barred from Malacanang since 2018.

Young campus journalists are also not privy to the relentless attacks on the press. In May, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines stormed the country’s Commision of Human Rights to protest the red-tagging of two college level publications. One,Tinig ng Plaridel, received death threats from online trolls in their Facebook page, while the University of the East Dawn publication faced red-tagging scares for one of their members.

Being a journalist in the Philippines has always been a dangerous career choice. There are certain points in the country’s history where censorship and impunity were markedly pronounced such as the Marcos era when martial law was in place, but even in the lean years where the country experienced a more “democratic” press, there were still reports of disappeared individualsadvocates of free speech who never again saw the light of day.

Last June 24, former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino passed away. While not without shortcomings, journalists and other government workers commended his administration as one that exercised democracy and encouraged participatory democracy, a far cry from the experience of individuals today.

The dangerous precedents the administration has made ordinarythe shutdown of one of the country’s biggest media franchises, the outright verbal attacks against the press, and the culture of distrust they have bred among the Filipino peoplesets a stage for another fascist era. And with Aquino’s passing, it remains to be seen whether this event will impact Filipino sentiments on a free and independent press.

As the dusk sets over the Duterte presidency, a decisive May 2022 national election will determine the existence of a truly free and independent press. But the country is still not completely out of the woods, Duterte’s daughter, Sara, is currently the top presidential candidate in survey polls, while Duterte himself recently expressed ambiguous intent to run for the vice-presidency. But the final results remain to be seen as a coalition opposition, 1Sambayan, is rounding up its list of presidential nominations, with Vice President Leni Robredo, a staunch critic of Duterte’s, leading the roster.
With this, it is a tipping point for voters to decide the kind of future they want for the country. As Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe de Loire once said, “What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”