By ALYSSA MAE CLARIN
with reports from Tisa Nacional
MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte opened his six-year presidency with a threat – that journalists are not exempted from assassination “if you’re a son of bitch” – about a month before he was inaugurated into power. This cemented his hostility towards the media. And it did not end here.
For the past six years, Filipino journalists have been threatened, charged with libel and cyber-libel cases, cyber-attacked, and worse, killed.
“A regime, especially those leaning against an authoritarian regime, will always target the media. Particularly, the free and independent press,” veteran journalist Vergel Santos told Bulatlat in an interview.
The Freedom for Media Freedom for All (FMFA) coalition had recorded at least 281 incidents of threats and attacks against media workers in the country since June 2016, with half of the recorded incidents perpetrated by state agents. Meanwhile, independent new outfits have been subjected to relentless cyber-attacks – among the most recent was the order of the National Telecommunications Commission to block the websites of Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly, and 25 others.
Read via our mirror site: Bulatlat raises alarm against gov’t order to block sites of independent media, progressives
Freedom of expression and of the press are fundamental human rights that are enshrined in local and international instruments. Governments, according to the United Nations, have the duty to protect media workers, including investigating and prosecuting crimes committed against journalists. But with a government leaning towards an authoritarian rule, the press is always the first to be stifled.
“Duterte managed to hijack not only the media but also democracy as a whole,” Vergel, who is also a trustee of the media watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, added.
Crippling the free, independent press
Santos said that the Duterte administration focused on silencing dissent and criticism from major news outfits.
President Duterte openly intimidated big news outfits like the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s leading national daily, television giant ABS-CBN, and online news Rappler during his early press conferences and discouraged them from writing anything against him and his war against drugs.
“He threatened the Inquirer with business sanctions. He said that he will file a case against Rappler, and he did. He was angry at ABS-CBN and threatened to shut it down, and he did shut it down,” Santos shared.
This resulted in a chilling effect in the Philippine media, with some choosing to remain quiet as others were targeted for doing their job.
“During the Erap administration, the media community was in solidarity. Together, we marched against Erap and we managed to push him back. During Gloria’s administration, we were relentless,” said Santos.
“That is what we failed to do under Duterte,” he added. “We became afraid. We shouldn’t have let that happen. Duterte saw that, and he used that to attack us even more.”
University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao saw these attacks as “systematic and brazen,” from the establishment of the national Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict to the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
Under Duterte, journalists and media organizations who dared to air or publish reports that were critical of government policies and the pandemic response were routinely red-tagged.
“(These) further emboldened the powers that can be used to harass and intimidate critical voices, including the members of the press,” said Arao.
Escalation of attacks against critical media
As a journalist covering the Malacañang, Rappler journalist Pia Ranada was among those who received the backlash of Duterte’s ire against critical journalists, saying that he felt “betrayed” when she began to write reports that were critical of him after he took office.
Two years later, Ranada was banned from the Malacañang, with an order coming from then Special Assistant to the President (now senator) Bong Go stating that Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported “fake news” on the Navy project, during a Senate hearing on the Philippine Navy frigates deal.
Read via our mirror site: Groups condemn Duterte’s barring of Rappler from covering Malacañang
“Once he got into power, the critical articles I was writing perhaps appeared more threatening,” said Ranada.
Ranada also frequently experienced death and rape threats online. These were carried out by social media users who appear to be supportive of the president.
Campus journalists were not exempted from attacks.
Sinag, the official student publication of the University of the Philippines’ College of Social Sciences and Philosophy shared how they had experienced at least six major attacks during the latter half of Duterte’s administration.
After the publication reported about the military’s bombing of Lumad communities in Bukidnon, the NTF-ELCAC branded them as “communist terrorists,” and a “front organization” along with Save Our Schools (SOS).
“The publication’s logo, as well as three of our editors, were named ‘terorista reporter ng CPP-NPA-NDF,’” said Angelo Marfil, Sinag’s editor-in-chief.
Their staff experienced harassment and death threats in 2021 while their official Facebook page with 12,000 followers was also taken down.
Read from our mirror site: UP campus journalists get threats from suspected paid trolls
“They said that I, and by extension Sinag, was promoting terrorism. This was during the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Law,” he added.
This outright hostility from public officials and their avid supporters created a chilling effect on press freedom, as well as independent journalism.
Ranada, for her part, said media owners saw the need to intervene with editorial decisions, with reports that they deem as “too critical and hard-hitting” being taken down.
“The attacks have somehow changed the media landscape as selected journalists, media workers and news media organizations have become part of the news,” Arao told Bulatlat.
The repeated red-tagging of journalists also translated to physical harm.
In 2020, Tacloban-based community journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, along with four other activists, was arrested over illegal possession of firearms and explosives following weeks of relentless red-tagging.
Earlier this year, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) filed another trumped-up charge against her, accusing the journalist of terror financing.
“The attacks show that the culture of impunity is real despite the denials of government apologists,” said Arao.
Libel and cyber-libel charges continued to be a weapon against journalists. The FMFA’s recent World Press Freedom report said that most cases of libel and cyber-libel filed against journalists under the Duterte’s administration were filed by government officials as in the case of Baguio-based media outfit Northern Dispatch.
The now-dismissed charges were based on a complaint from Police Regional Office Cordillera Regional Director Brigadier General R’Win Pagkalinawan for an article published on Northern Dispatch’s website in April 2020.
Libel cases were filed against then volunteer reporter Khim Abalos, and Northern Dispatch editor-in-chief Kimberlie Quitasol.
Two courts initially dismissed the libel charges filed, but it was then elevated to cyber-libel and refiled in another court. Fortunately, the local court also junked the cyber-libel raps against both Quitasol and Abalos due to insufficient evidence.
Quitasol said the Duterte administration was the most blatant in disregarding the rule of the law.
“Cyberlibel is just among the laws that this administration has maximized to silence dissent,” shared Quitasol.
Cyber-attacks, DNS blocking
Cyber-attacks, particularly in the form of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, were launched against independent media under the Duterte administration.
Websites of alternative news media outfits like Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, Pinoy Weekly, and AlterMidya – People’s Alternative Media Network were targeted by DDoS attacks since December 2018. These heightened during the last election season, with perpetrators launching cyber-attacks against Rappler and ABS-CBN’s online news.
Bulatlat also noted how the government is using its administrative and regulatory powers to further censor the media, particularly those they consider as critical in their reporting.
Among the most recent is the Security and Exchange Commission’s move to uphold its earlier decision to shut down Rappler, according to its CEO and veteran journalist Maria Ressa.
Read Bulatlat’s statement on the SEC order here.
Earlier this month, the NTC ordered internet service providers to block alternative news Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, along with 25 others for their supposed terror links, following a “request” letter signed by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. The same agency issued a shutdown order against television giant ABS-CBN.
Read via our mirror site: Denial of ABS-CBN franchise ‘tantamount to censorship’ – group
Bulatlat, as well as other press freedom advocates, said this is a “dangerous precedent for independent journalism in the Philippines” and a “new type of censorship only serves the interest of liars, including those in the higher echelons of power.”
A ray of hope
For Arao, there is no silver lining to the media attacks as these have serious consequences for the media community.
“While it is true that solidarity at the national and international levels is most welcome, such solidarity is a given in keeping with the collective resolve of all journalists to hold the line and to sharpen the line,” said Arao.
Quitasol said the support of her family and the media community helped in strengthening her resolve in her two-year court battle.
Disclaimer: Danilo Arao is the associate editor of Bulatlat.