Journalists cannot sit idly by while the highest official of the land leads the attacks on press freedom and wields the machinery of government to peddle lies and deception.
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — For reporting the truth behind a gruesome killing in Mindanao, veteran journalist Julie Alipala was branded a terrorist in a Facebook page believed to be managed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s supporters.
Alipala wrote a story for the Philippine Daily Inquirer titled “7 young Tausug men killed by military not Abu Sayyaf bandits – relative.” Two days later, in a Facebook page “Huwag Tularan” screen grabbed the headline of Alipala’s story and included her photo with the words, “Magkano kaya ang binayad kay Julie Alipala? Pati teroristang Abu Sayyaf pinagtatanggol niya! Certified bayarang kulumnista” (How much was Julie Alipala paid? She is defending the terrorist Abu Sayyaf! Certified paid columnist)
Abu Sayyaf is a bandit group in the southern Philippines notorious for kidnapping for ransom. Being labeled as an Abu Sayyaf supporter not only maligns Alipala’s reputation but also undermines her safety and security.
The online harassment against Alipala is just the latest in a string of attacks against Filipino women journalists. Under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, women journalists and the Philippine media in general face more threats to press freedom.
In fact, since Duterte came to power in June 2016 until May this year, media watchdogs have documented 85 cases of attacks and threats against journalists ranging from killings, death threats, surveillance, website attacks, verbal abuse and strafing, among others. Twelve journalists have been gunned down under the Duterte administration and no one has been punished for the killings.
Duterte himself has proven to be an enemy of press freedom. On the first week of his assumption in office, Duterte justified the killing of journalists. From 1986, the year where democratic institutions have been restored until that time, at least 149 journalists, of whom 12 were women, have been killed.
Duterte himself called out media outfits such as Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN for their supposed “slanted reporting.” A government agency revoked the registration of Rappler and two other agencies filed tax evasion and cyberlibel charges against the media outfit.
The websites of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), Kodao Productions and Vera Files were attacked after posting statements and reports critical of the president.
Even social media network site Facebook has not been considered a neutral ground for free press and expression. In June last year, seasoned journalists such as Inday Espina-Varona were prevented from commenting in their own Facebook accounts after posting statements critical of Duterte’s decision allowing the hero’s burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
More women journalists under attack
The gender-based online attacks are perceived to be the handiwork of Duterte supporters as their messages mirror those peddled by communications officials. For instance, Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan-Caudron and freelance reporter Gretchen Malalad found themselves at the receiving end of hate speech for reporting Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and clashes between the military and the Abu Sayyaf Group. Like Alipala, they were called names such as “traitor,” “bayaran” (paid journalist) and “presstitute.” Some even said that the two journalists should be raped or killed.
Pia Ranada of Rappler and Jam Sisante of GMA 7 also became targets of online harassment by pro-Duterte bloggers.
Such distressing remarks being hurled against women journalists are no different from Duterte’s misogynistic statements against women. He has repeatedly uttered “jokes” about rape and went as far as calling on his soldiers to shoot women guerrillas in their genitals.
Physical attacks were also notable. In April this year, a young woman journalist based in Mindanao was barred from covering a protest of internal refugees in Marawi City. Upon seeing her press ID, a military officer ordered the confiscation of documents and equipment of Davao Today reporter Kath Cortez.
The entire island of Mindanao has been placed under Martial Law by Duterte since May 2017 after fighting between government troops and a small armed group linked to ISIS erupted in Marawi City.
Meanwhile, Tudla Productions’ Erika Rae Cruz found out that she has been included in the military’s order of battle (OB). In the Philippines, an OB is a virtual hit list as many of those killed during the previous Arroyo administration were listed in military’s OB. Cruz and her team had to take security precautions when they went to Mindanao in June this year to do a documentary film about militarization of Lumad communities.
Other areas are far from being safe for journalists, too.
On July 31, five journalists, including two women, were arrested while covering the violent dispersal of workers’ strike in Bulacan. Policemen deliberately arrested five journalists, including Altermidya staff Avon Ang and Hiyas Saturay, while filming the incident. Another woman journalist, Rosemarie Alcaraz, was also hurt as she ran away from a policeman attempting to grab her camera.
Ang and Saturay were detained, along with three other journalists and striking workers and supporters, for two days. Fellow journalists from International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) Philippines who went to check them out and report the incident were denied access and threatened by the police. The five were eventually released after a local court dismissed the charges against them but authorities never returned their cellphones, camera, laptops and other equipment.
Amid the continuous attacks on the Philippine media, the Philippines slid six spots down in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. The year before, the Reporters Sans Frontiers declared the Philippines as the Asia’s deadliest country for media.
The situation prompted the media and arts alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI) to urge David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to investigate the attacks.
Amid the online and offline attacks, Filipino women journalists and the Philippine press in general strive to perform the duty of reporting the truth.
Journalists cannot sit idly by while the highest official of the land leads the attacks on press freedom and wields the machinery of government to peddle lies and deception. With a president admitting to the whole world that he is to blame for the extrajudicial killings of thousands of drug suspects, journalists are duty bound to fight alongside the Filipino people in upholding democracy and in demanding an end to the bloodthirsty madness. After all, responsible journalism entails the defense of truth, democracy and accountability.
The history of the Philippine press is a history of asserting press freedom, especially during times of tyrannical rule. We shall carry on.
* The article is written in time for the International Association of Women in Radio and Television’s 9th Regional Conference being held in Uganda. The author is the treasure of IAWRT-Philippines chapter and former director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.