#TheRealDuterteLegacy | Campus press suffers attacks amid COVID-19 pandemic

Graphics by Aaron Macaraeg / Bulatlat


MANILA – While the media industry in the country faces hundreds of attacks in the past six years under outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, the situation is no different for student publications in their respective campuses nationwide.

In Duterte’s last few weeks as president, state forces arrested over 90 individuals in broad daylight during a cultivation activity held by farmers of Hacienda Tinang in Tarlac province. Among them were two journalists and nine campus journalists who covered the event.

Campus journalist Denisse Macalino never imagined having to lock arms with farmers, activists, and media workers in an initially peaceful gathering to form a blockade against policemen who dragged them to a shuttle one by one.

“Kaming media, kahit nagpalista kami under media, di pa rin nirecognize. … Pero dahil tingin nila (pulis) kaya nila [kami arestuhin], kinuha nila,” Macalino said.

(Even we, part of the media, were not recognized despite our names listed under the media… But because [the police] knew they could [arrest us], they took us.)

It was Macalino’s first on-ground coverage since the pandemic began, and her last day as a campus journalist. Other campus journalists in the country also experienced different forms of harassment.

In the past two years alone, at least 78 cases of attacks have been recorded involving 28 publications and organizations combined. These attacks were perpetrated by state security forces and their perceived minions.

Despite the very few instances of on-ground coverages and fieldwork, attempts to intimidate the campus press and to perpetuate the culture of media repression persisted. This time, however, online attacks intensified by a greater magnitude.

Ramped-up red-tagging

A simple scroll through social media pages of campus publications and organizations will reveal how ubiquitous comments of critical reportage being “biased” have become. This public perception of news, however, has caused “negative” comments to reach the level of online harassment.

In the University of the Philippines (UP), several student publications and media-oriented formations have their Facebook pages targeted by trolls. They are flooded with online attacks which include intimidation, article takedowns, unwarranted messages, and even death threats.

Five out of the 10 active publications in UP Diliman have been largely targeted by private individuals and state forces during the pandemic. These Philippine Collegian and college publications SINAG, Kalasag, Tinig ng Plaridel (TNP), and Scientia.

Among the formations also facing such attacks are the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) and its chapters, UP Solidaridad, the systemwide alliance of campus publications in UP, and the Union of Journalists of the Philippines – UP (UJP-UP).

One of the major red-tagging incidents that involved four of the publications and student organizations happened on March 1, 2021. An unknown private individual on Messenger sent a death threat with an attached photo of a collage filled with pictures of editors and logos of the student publications and organizations.

“Mag-ingat sa mga teroristang reporter ng teroristang grupong CPP-NPA-NDF na nagtatago sa UP Diliman,” the collage read. (Beware of terrorist reporters of the terrorist group CPP-NPA-NDF hiding in UP Diliman.)

Former TNP Editor-in-Chief (EIC) Cristina Chi said that this was the “worst” experience, saying it was “unfathomable to see her own face in an anti-communist propaganda calling her a terrorist.”

Upon reporting this attack, UP Diliman College of Mass Communication College Secretary Ivy Claudio offered support to the affected students, publications, and organizations as their well-being is at stake. Chi ensured that stricter digital security measures be implemented for all staffers and editors of TNP. This includes removing the writer’s full name on the byline of articles and replacing them with initials, instead.

“We were always quick to take a stand when a public official or the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) red-tags a student publication, because we understand that one day that could be us. And it happened,” Chi said.

Meanwhile, Scientia received additional messages telling them to “stop manipulating people” through their articles. This led their newsroom to hold internal online security educational discussions for the safety of their members.

“We collectively decided to report the [Facebook] accounts, but we did not [publicize] the accounts and the messages,” Scientia EIC Jazryl Galarosa said in response to the distressing messages.

But among the UP Diliman student publications who suffered, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy’s SINAG had it worst after experiencing a total of six different forms of media attacks.

Even prior to the pandemic, SINAG has already been facing article takedowns that come along with constant suspensions of their social media pages. This worsened with the transition to digital spaces.

SINAG EIC Angelo Marfil explained that whenever they created new Twitter accounts, they would just be forcefully closed due to numerous reports made against them for “supporting illegal activity.”

“May mga members kami na nireredtag because of disinformation na bunga rin ng mga troll networks,” Marfil said. (We have members who are being red-tagged because of misinformation as a result of troll networks.)

Facebook posts and messages of threats against student publications and organizations in the UP system were made by unknown private individuals.

Student publications in UP Manila, UP Baguio, UP Los Baños, and UP Mindanao also faced the same attacks.

As community lockdowns started to ease in 2021, coverages have been permitted for face-to-face events such as protests and other public assemblies.

In a Labor Day protest last year, a staffer of Manila Collegian was arrested while covering a in Zambales.

Another Manila Collegian staffer was illegally apprehended and brought to a police station after covering a protest held by various progressive groups and organizations in front of the US Embassy on May 22, 2022.

Only a few weeks later, campus journalists were included in the mass arrest in Tarlac province, and Macalino is just one of the many victims of campus press repression in the province.

Macalino has written for The Angelite, the student publication of Holy Angel University, since her freshman year. She served as the paper’s editor-in-chief during her second year.

One time, she was called out by their administrator for writing a “radical” story on tuition and other fees increase. Despite the threat to bring in and inform Macalino’s parents, she stood by her article.

“May perception na dapat lahat ng isulat namin ay matapang. Dapat hindi mabitawan ang mantra ng The Angelite na matagal na nagbibigay ng radikal, militant na balita din, lalo na sa pressing issues sa kapwa studentry,” she said. (There is a perception that what we write should be critical. We shouldn’t neglect The Angelite’s mantra that has long given a radical and militant reportage, especially for pressing issues involving fellow students.)

When she was elected chairperson of CEGP Central Luzon back in 2018, Macalino became more exposed to the state of campus press freedom in the provinces of her region. Even after her term, she continued serving the organization as its coordinator.

She said the most common form of repression was censorship by publication advisers or school administrators, with other publications even facing outright red-tagging of campus journalists from within their school’s premises.

“Parang butas ng karayom ang kailangan pagdaanan,” she said, describing the process of publishing a news report dealing with “negative” public affairs. (It’s like having to go through the hole of a sewing needle.)

In Don Honorio Ventura Technological State University which is also located in Pampanga, The Industrialist writers would report to Macalino how articles mentioning Duterte were always turned down. Their administrator would tell them that the article about the president and its administration’s malpractice was “too much.”

Meanwhile, the EIC of The Bastion of President Ramon Magsaysay State University in Zambales was removed from her post in 2020 by the paper’s adviser. Macalino said that the student editor’s article was deleted as well.

In the case of Central Luzon State University’s Collegian, Macalino said that online trolls would red-tag the editors and staffers in the comment section.

A student publication in Negros Occidental also experienced these online attacks firsthand. The Eagle Publication of Colegio San Agustin – Bacolod only started putting up online platforms for their paper two years ago.

Despite having a relatively small reach, they were not spared from red-tagging incidents. It was during the 2022 national elections when one of their editors received an email accusing them of being affiliated with the government-tagged terrorist groups.

An email red-tagging The Eagle Publication was sent to one of its editors by an unknown individual during the election season.

Ironically, the perpetrator made the allegation on the basis of The Eagle’s inactivity in posting “any political opinions,” but also saying that they are being paid “to write and post fake news about the government.”

“Everyone in the publication got alerted and everyone got scared; it really affected the output of everyone. We released a statement regarding it and reached out to the Office of Student Affairs for any legal support. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to follow through,” EIC Arienne Amodia said.

In Laguna, City Colleges of Calamba’s The Sentinel continues to deal with the lack of manpower on top of the online attacks bombarding them on their social media pages.

May Del Marie Galinato has been serving as its EIC for two years now. Since classes shifted online, Galinato has been at the receiving end of “troll-like” criticism on social media which affected her staffers’ morale.

The same situation befell the staffers of The Pillars of Ateneo De Naga University who also endured intimidation, online platform attacks, and threats via messages. However, a CEGP report documented an incident during a Naga City-based mobilization on the International Working Women’s Day in 2021 where a bucket of urine was poured on protesters as well on Editor and CEGP Bicol Spokesperson Abby Bilan.

Only a few months later, CEGP reported a case of a campus journalist’s home being raided. They said that 40 policemen barged into the house of Justine Mesisa, the senior editor of Cassipi Online of Bicol University.

To this day, whether in the bustling city or in the rural areas, the state of campus press only seems to worsen along with the heightened disinformation and mistreatment of media workers in the industry.

Implications on sustainability

According to the University Student Council’s outgoing Mass Media Committee Head Joshua Maximo, a total of 23 student publications have existed in the campus, where two are inactive and 11 have been dormant for years.

When asked what worries current editors and staffers of student publications, they all said how difficult it will be to encourage students to take part in the paper and keep it from inactivity. SINAG EIC Marfil said that the attacks have significantly disheartened writers to continue their pursuit of critical and fearless journalism, and it is one of the largest threats against a publication’s extinction.

“Sa gitna pa ng pandemic na very alienating, very nakaka-drain, ‘yung admin [ay] meron talaga siyang kakulangan na i-give ‘yong best niya para suportahan ‘yung organizations, hindi lang ‘yung SINAG,” Marfil said.

(In the middle of the pandemic that is very alienating, very draining, the administration truly has a shortcoming when it comes to giving its best to support organizations, not just SINAG.)

This was also the case for UP Parser, one of the inactive student publications in the UP Diliman. Even before the pandemic, sustainability has already been an issue. For the past three years, the editorial board has not changed and so has their inactivity.

It was only when the news about Chad Booc’s death went viral in February 2022 that UP Parser operated again for the meantime. The Lumad volunteer teacher was also a computer science graduate and a former member of UP Parser.

Booc was among the 5 people killed by the military in New Bataan, Davao de Oro last February 24. While state forces claim it was an “encounter” with the NPA, witnesses and investigation would prove the incident to be a massacre. Prior to his death, Booc was a consistent target of state intimidation, including red-tagging ang death threats.

EIC Apolline Estrella said that both the publication and Justice for Chad Booc Network were flocked by trolls and red-taggers during their coverage of Booc’s tribute event and wake. Besides already grieving for Booc, UP Parser’s staffers felt discouraged to write.

She, however, hopes for UP Parser to someday become active and consistent for the benefit of its own readers in the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science.

For UPB Outcrop, sustainability and continuity of the paper and its practices are now their greatest concerns.

“Ang isa pang naging implication ay natatakot din ‘yong mga estudyante na sumali sa publikasyon kasi nga red-tagged,” EIC Joemariequeen Del Rosario said. (Another implication is the students’ fear of joining publications because of the red-tagging.)

Student publications across the regions play a crucial role in shedding light on various issues in their respective provinces that the dominant media cannot immediately pick up or report. By hindering student journalists from fulfilling their role through brazen attacks, not only are the authorities stepping on press freedom, they also hamper the public’s right to know.

In the numbers

Other than CEGP’s report of 1,000 violations against campus press freedom from the years 2010 to 2020, at least 78 more cases have been added to the long list since the pandemic began. No less than 28 college student publications and media-oriented student organizations nationwide received the attacks.

The top student-run media organizations that experienced the most varied attacks are SINAG, Forward PH, CEGP Central Luzon, UPB Outcrop, The Eagle, and PUP Campus Journalists. Out of the eleven listed types of attacks, these publications and formations witnessed at least four of them firsthand.

Data show that among the 28 respondents, most of the attacks are experienced by campus publications and organizations within Metro Manila. However, half of the top six student papers attacked during the pandemic are from various provinces.

This goes to show that with further investigation and documentation of attacks nationwide, it is possible to find that the situation of campus press in the regions can be relatively worse compared to that of the metro which only covers a small portion of the country.

In the last three years, the most common attack experienced by 75 percent of the 28 college student publications and organizations was through online platforms and websites. This is followed by intimidation and threatening messages, wherein nearly 68 percent and 43 percent were directly affected, respectively.

This is not a surprise as student publications and formations were compelled to transition to digital spaces in order to maintain communication and information dissemination with their readers or viewers.

Majority of the attacks were done by online trolls and social media pages exhibiting troll behavior. The next three offenders were classified by the publications and organizations as unidentified, private citizens or entities, and state agents.

Ten of the 28 student-run organizations reported a total of 34 individuals attacked on a personal level. Their female members are more frequently attacked, comprising 68 percent of the total aggrieved individuals cited.

Reasons behind this result still need to be studied as publications and organizations may have a population dominated by female students.

In terms of location, there is a high chance for a college student publication or journalism organization residing in NCR to experience an attack. Nonetheless, data show that attacks against campus press freedom are widespread in other regions as well.

Safeguarding rights

Responding to these attacks, Kabataan Partylist Representative-elect Raoul Manuel reiterated the need to push for House Bill No. 319 or the Campus Press Freedom Bill, which was filed in 2019.

“Kailangan ma-strengthen ‘yong mga mekanismo para tiyakin na kapag ginagawa ng student journalists ‘yong kanilang trabaho, hindi sila masu-subject sa mga attacks,” Manuel said. “Lalo na ngayon [that] the incoming Marcos Jr. rule sa ating bansa eh ‘walang respeto sa midya.”

(We need to strengthen mechanisms to ensure that when student journalists do their job, they won’t be subjected to attacks. Especially now [that] the incoming Marcos Jr. rule in the country has no respect for the media.)

The bill seeks to repeal Republic Act No. 7079 or the Campus Journalism Act of 1991. Manuel cited that the original law has a “repressive nature,” which explains the need to be changed.

The Campus Press Freedom Bill seeks to amend the existing law’s provisions on the non-mandatory publication fee collection, the non-compulsory establishment of campus publications, and the absence of a penalty clause. This leaves press freedom violations by school authorities untouched.

As of writing, the bill is pending at the House committee on higher and technical education. A technical working group has long been formed by the Congress in order to consolidate other House members’ insights on the said bill.

Manuel also urged school administrators to foster an environment where a free and critical press could thrive. He also said that there should be no administration intervention or bureaucratic processes when collecting funds for student publications.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) expressed its support for campus journalists, saying that student publications have always played a crucial role in bringing underreported issues to light.

“Student publications also help bring national and social issues to the campus and help communicate how these issues can affect students and their families,” NUJP Chairperson Jonathan de Santos said.

However, according to de Santos, critical student reportage is impeded by pressure from school officials which often leads to self-censorship by student publications. He highlighted the importance of solidarity amidst intensifying attacks on the campus press.

“One solution may be in solidarity. Solidarity within campus press organizations like the College Editors Guild of the Philippines — this is already being done — by calling out incidents of censorship and harassment,” de Santos added. “This can be further expanded by engaging organizations in mainstream media.”

Tough times ahead

Within two years since the pandemic, campus journalists have consistently borne the brunt of state-sponsored attacks against press freedom.

With the incoming administration of the late dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., several campus journalists weighed in on the possible media situation as “challenging times” for the press.

“‘Yong disinformation talaga, lalala. Misinformation, disinfomration, at siyempre ‘yong violent and repressive na measures, magpapatuloy. … Tiyak naman na titindi iyan kasi historically, ginawa na ‘yan ng mga Marcoses,” SINAG EIC Marfil said.

(Disinformation will truly worsen. Misinformation, disinformation, and of course the violent and repressive measures will continue… Surely, it will only get worse because historically, the Marcoses already did that.)

“Nakakatakot ‘yong magiging itsura ng media sa bansa, lalong-lalo na ng mga campus journalists dahil alam naman natin na for the longest time, talagang ang progressive or ang very critical na media ay laging inaatake ng estado,” UJP – UP Chairperson Pauline Alvarez said.

(It is worrying to imagine the future media situation in the country, especially for campus journalists because as we know, for the longest time, the progressive or very critical media has always been attacked by the state.)

As of May 2022, there have been at least 23 journalists and media workers who were killed under the Duterte administration, according to NUJP. The group also stated that since 1986, at least 190 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines.

“We expect a terrain of menace and threats, however, as we have said, we will never stop delivering the truth to our audiences. Future assaults are probable but never impossible under the Marcos-Duterte regime,” said Allyssa Flores, secretary general of Polytechnic University of the Philippines Campus Journalists.

“‘Yong kailangang gawin talaga dito ng mga journalists [ay] mag-organize. … Tingin ko naman nasimulan na sa kasalukuyan, lalo na sa pagputok ng ABS-CBN shutdown, [pero] kailangan siyang magpakahusay,” Marfil said. “‘Yong role talaga ng mga campus journalists – ng mga estudyante – ay ipagtanggol ‘yong mga katotohanan at i-mobilize ‘yong mamamayan para ilantad at tutulan ‘yong mga distortion, mga [denialism] na ginagawa nitong uupo na Marcos-Duterte tandem.”

(What needs to be done here by journalists is to organize. I think it already started, especially during the ABS-CBN shutdown, but it needs to be sustained. The role of campus journalists – of students – is to protect the truth and mobilize the people to expose and oppose the distortion and [denialism] being done by the Marcos-Duterte tandem.)

Now that the inauguration of a Marcos-Duterte administration is fast approaching following the reinforced chilling effect under the outgoing administration, the crippling state of press freedom leaves student journalists at a crossroads – to be silenced or to endure and struggle.

“Hindi lang dahil mahirap ang sitwasyon ay pupunuin na tayo ng reserbasyon o papairalin tayo ng takot. Parang ito pa ‘yung panahon na kailangan mas magsulat. Nasa panahon tayo ng kinakailangan mas marami pang student journalists [ang] makarealize ng goal nila,” Macalino said.

(It is not because the situation is difficult that we will become filled with fear. This is the time when we need to write more and the time for more student journalists to realize their goal.) (RTS, RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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