Press freedom as election issue

President Rodrigo Duterte has made it to the gallery of heads of government in 37 countries that the international press freedom watch organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF, Reporters Sans Frontières) regards as enemies of press freedom.

Mr. Duterte’s inclusion puts him in the company of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman, and 32 others. RSF has a far from euphemistic term for them, for which description one qualifies only if he or she harasses, threatens, or otherwise preys on journalists and media organizations.

In Putin’s Russia, at least 25 journalists critical of government have been killed, and only in one case has the killer been tried and convicted. Government buyouts of independent media organizations have also stifled journalistic independence, while a number of oppressive laws have led to journalists’ being arrested and, in some instances, imprisoned for, among other offenses, “justifying terrorism.”

Journalists have died in prison in Xi Jinping’s China for not echoing the regime narrative on issues and events, while others are surveilled for the same alleged offense. Some 115 press freedom advocates and defenders are also in detention in that country’s jails.

A former military man, Brazil’s Bolsonaro has used foul and sexist language in his Facebook and Twitter accounts to silence the press and to threaten the shutdown of a major newspaper. His followers have followed suit by threatening journalists with physical violence, which resulted in at least one instance of a woman broadcaster’s being taken hostage by a man suspected to be a Bolsonaro supporter who resented her reporting.

Salman is alleged to have been at least privy to the 2018 killing in Saudi Arabia’s own embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a known critic of his regime. Other critics including journalists have also been jailed, threatened and harassed into silence in his kingdom.

Not coincidentally was the gallery list that includes Mr. Duterte released on July 5. A year ago, on July 10, 2020, the House of Representatives Committee on Legislative Franchises denied ABS-CBN network’s franchise renewal application. The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) had ordered the network to cease operations earlier, in May.

To explain Mr. Duterte’s inclusion in the gallery, RSF recalled his threats against the media that go back to his eighth month in office, when he said “I’m not threatening them (journalists), but someday their karma will catch up with them.” It did not mention then candidate Duterte’s saying during the 2016 presidential campaign that journalists are being killed in the Philippines “because they’re corrupt.” Outraged at his justifying the killings, RSF proposed at the time a media boycott of Mr. Duterte, which the Philippine press did not seriously consider.

But it mentioned his 2017 verbal attack on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and how Congress denied the franchise renewal application of ABS-CBN network in 2020 some two years after Mr. Duterte began saying he would see to it that it would be “out.” With some exaggeration did RSF describe Rappler news site as the “last bastion of press freedom” in the Philippines. It recalled how its editor and CEO has been besieged by numerous lawsuits filed by Mr. Duterte’s cronies in and out of government, and how she is at serious risk of being imprisoned for the rest of her life.

What is surprising about Putin, Xi, Salman, and Mr. Duterte as well as many others in the RSF gallery is that, according to public opinion polls, they remain popular in their respective countries despite their hostility to journalists and to press freedom.

Bolsonaro is among the few exceptions. Because of a kickback scheme scandal on the purchase of anti-COVID vaccines in his government, his approval rating as of early July this year was at a low 35%.

In contrast, as of February this year, Putin’s approval rating was at 65%, while Xi’s, despite a decline in 2020 because of his government’s handling of the pandemic, has since recovered. Over 90% of young Saudis meanwhile approve of Salman, and the latest poll on Mr. Duterte’s approval rating found that it is, like Putin’s, also at 65%.

As in the Philippine case, it is uncertain if the above numbers truly reflect citizen sentiments in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, or if fear of retaliation accounts for the seeming mass support for authoritarian rule. But if we assume those figures to be more or less accurate indicators of the popularity of Putin and company despite their grossly anti-press freedom policies, it could be due to much of their constituents’ limited understanding and appreciation of press freedom and free expression, which is also evident among large segments of the populations of the so-called developed countries.

It is certainly true of the Philippines, where it is commonly believed that press freedom benefits only the media and is a self-serving concept that has nothing to do with the lives of the rest of the citizenry.

Equally indicative of the state of the public’s understanding of the media is the demand for journalists to stop reporting “bad news” and to instead concentrate on reporting the good, which, even among the students of some colleges and universities, encourages approval of government licensing of the press and the advocacy and defense of censorship to compel journalists to be “positive” in their reporting.

Seldom appreciated as well is the crucial role that the reliable and accurate information that is the media’s stock-in-trade plays in the citizenry’s capacity to prepare for and to survive, in disaster-plagued Philippines, the onslaught of volcanic eruptions, typhoons, earthquakes, pandemics, and other natural calamities. Neither is it commonly understood that information on the political, economic, and social aspects of life in these islands enables people to make informed decisions on such public issues as governance and who to vote for.

Among the consequences of this regrettable state of affairs is mass indifference to, and even approval of, the current regime’s hostility to the independent press and to press freedom.

How a candidate, once in power, will treat the media has never been at issue in Philippine elections. And yet it should be, if only because one of the consequences of the Duterte regime’s intimidation and harassment of the independent press is the growing dearth of information and analysis on the human rights crisis, the corruption and incompetence in high places, and the failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy on the media and on press freedom of the candidates in the 2022 elections should be part of their platforms of government, assuming that they have such plans in the making. If not, it should be grounds enough for the electorate to deny them their votes.

On civil society, academia, and the independent press falls the task of making sure that the public will be informed enough to demand both of the political formations and their standard bearers.

The media should make it a priority effort between now and election day in 2022, not solely out of self-interest. Even more urgently should it be out of the realization that neither they nor the rest of the country can survive the same perils they have had to bear during the rule of the anti-press freedom and anti-human rights oligarchs that ensued in the wake of the 2016 election that they failed to report enough on to have made a difference in the outcome.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)

Published in Business World
July 15, 2021

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