11 questions on press freedom under Duterte

Artwork by Renan Ortiz

Ending impunity entails collective action and the resolve to change the oppressive social system that engenders culture of impunity. We’re definitely not there yet but there are efforts to do so. There is no clear timeline as to when this can be achieved as it depends largely on the victory of the people’s movement, not just the journalists and news media organizations acting as a small sector.

By DANILO ARAO
Bulatlat.com

A graduate student from a university in Canada interviewed me via email on the state of the press in the Philippines in general and the media situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic in particular. Bulatlat deems it appropriate to share my answers to a bigger audience.

1. When I learned about the threat of ABS-CBN being shutdown, it sadly reminded me of the similar situation faced by newspapers during the night martial was declared. What is different now?

As regards the problem being faced by ABS-CBN, the comparison to what happened in the Philippines from 1972 to 1986 is understandable. There is, after all, historical evidence of media repression during the time of Martial Law. It was also during that time that Marcos took from the Lopezes ABS-CBN and gave it to Benedicto, a known Marcos crony. It must be emphasized, however, that media repression continued in various forms even after the ouster of Marcos in 1986. What makes things different under the Duterte administration is the brazen manner in which some news media organizations and journalists are being harassed and intimidated (or even killed). There is no formal declaration of Martial Law but the manifestations of authoritarian rule are already there. In other words, the only thing different now is de facto Martial Law.

2. What does it say of the health of civil liberties in the Philippines?

Political and civil rights are definitely in dire straits in the Philippines. While there are constitutional guarantees and legal bases for the protection of human rights, these are largely ignored by the police and military and their agents (e.g., para-military groups, armed vigilantes). In fact, laws are being weaponized to harass and intimidate not just journalists and activists but even ordinary citizens who dare voice out their opposition.

3. Your paper titled “Press Freedom, Governance, and Culture of Impunity: The Alarming Case of the Philippines” (2016) explains that “While the culture of impunity promotes a sense of deceptive normalcy […], the culture of resistance seeks to expose the oppressive reality in society (mainly characterized by highlighting the cases of harassment and intimidation experienced by members of the mass media and the mass movement.” You also stated that journalists and activists stand in the middle of the two cultures and that it is imperative that the culture of resistance win over the culture of impunity: Are we there yet?

Ending impunity entails collective action and the resolve to change the oppressive social system that engenders culture of impunity. We’re definitely not there yet but there are efforts to do so. There is no clear timeline as to when this can be achieved as it depends largely on the victory of the people’s movement, not just the journalists and news media organizations acting as a small sector.

4. Is the whole concept of freedom of the press still relevant in the Philippines today?

It remains relevant as long as people fight for genuine democracy. The latter cannot function effectively without press freedom as a cornerstone. This explains why the fight to defend press freedom rests on the citizens in general, not just the journalists and media workers in particular.

5. What types of pressure could force the government to back-down?

Based on experience, public pressure forces government officials to either put on hold or stand down on whatever anti-people or anti-press freedom policies they may have. Public pressure is a combination of sustained mass action and continuous media coverage. It also helps that there are public figures or celebrities supporting such causes, as in the case of the campaign for the renewal of franchise of ABS-CBN. We started with just a few people when we initiated the Black Friday protest, but it swelled to the thousands a few weeks after.

6. What does the situation of ABS-CBN mean for journalists and their practices?

If its franchise is not renewed, it sends a chilling effect on journalists and news media organizations. They might be next, especially considering that ABS-CBN is a leading news media organization. Having this in the minds of owners, gatekeepers and journalists/media workers could affect media content, resulting in a more docile and servile press.

7. Has the mission of journalist’s as watchdogs of democracy changed since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016?

There is no qualitative change in the journalists’ role as watchdogs of society, especially if we refer to the normative standards of the profession. While we accept that there are media groups like the National Press Club (NPC) and news media organizations like The Manila Times that largely support the Duterte administration, there are responsible journalists who remain critical and adversarial, albeit in varying degrees and consistency.

8. Would you say that journalists have become enemies of the Duterte administration?

In a sense, the Duterte administration perceives journalists as enemies because, as in past administrations, the powers-that-be only equate “objectivity” with favorable or positive coverage. They refuse to understand the adversarial role of the press and what it means for media to be the so-called fourth estate.

9. Is the Duterte administration trying to take control of the medias’ narrative?

It tries to control the narrative by suppressing media and churning out pro-government propaganda in various government-owned and controlled media (e.g., PNA, PTV) and through the army of trolls (both DDS and BBM).

10. Would you say that good quality investigative journalism is losing ground over fake news and death threats?

Even before “fake news” has become a buzz word (e.g., US elections in 2016 and Colllins Dictionary making it word of the year in 2017), investigative journalism has been on the decline in the dominant media mainly because of owners preferring a more commercialized form that focuses on sensationalism, trivia and gossip. The political economy of dominant media ownership makes it hard for the more responsible journalists to venture into investigative journalism that could rock the boat, so to speak. Despite having limited resources, however, alternative news media organizations strive to provide in-depth and investigative stories on relevant issues often ignored by the dominant media. From what I know, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and Vera Files continue to do an excellent job releasing investigative reports every now and then but these are seldom picked up by the dominant media.

11. How can journalists fulfill their duty, their mission of being the watchdogs of the government while being threatened, targeted by the power in place?

Journalists need to be reminded that it is their ethical obligation to fight for press freedom during times that it is being compromised by the powers-that-be. Those who survived Martial remember well how journalists fought to ensure the ouster of the dictator when he threatened the very existence of Philippine journalism. The tradition of adversity and criticality in the Philippines is at a different level compared to other industrialized countries because of state machinations that pretend to uphold press freedom on one hand but actually end up repressing it on the other. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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