On first National Press Freedom Day, journos reiterate call to defend free press

Filipino journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on an urban poor community in Quezon City. (Contributed photo)


MANILA – In celebration of the first National Press Freedom Day, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) held an online forum to highlight the increasing attacks against the Filipino media community and how laws were being used to silence the independent press.

NUJP national vice-chair and Mindanao media safety officer Kath Cortez described the current media landscape in the Philippines as “generally hostile” as seen in the increasing number of attacks such as trolling and red-tagging, as well as through the growing number of legal cases filed against journalists.

Under the Duterte administration NUJP was able to record twenty-three cases of media killings, with most cases recorded in the regions.

She highlighted how cyberattacks escalated and intensified during the 2022 election and campaign period, with the bulk of the attacks centered around alternative news media outfits like Kodao, Bulatlat, and Pinoy Weekly — the latest being the National Telecommunication Commission’s (NTC) order to block Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, along with several websites, through the order of National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. for their supposed terror links.

The dominant media was not spared from these attacks. The website of CNN Philippines was hit with cyberattacks, making it inaccessible to its users while the network was hosting a presidential debate ahead of the country’s May 2022 election.

The NUJP noted that the attacks against the media became more brazen during the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020.

The Bayanihan to Heal As One Act of 2020 (RA 11469), which was initially passed to mitigate the flow of fake news surrounding the virus, was used and weaponized to harass and silence journalists’ critical reports on the failed government response.

On top of this, government officials also filed separate cases of libel and cyber-libel against members of the media, the group said.

Such was the case of Camarines Norte journalists Virgilio Avila Jr. and Mia Concordia, who were both arrested for reporting on the local government’s alleged corruption and negligence in their COVID-19 response.

At present, NUJP’s Safety Office has recorded fifty-six cases of libel and cyberlibel since 2017. 27 cases are still pending in court, and only 10 were dismissed.

Cortez also noted how journalists subjected to red-tagging continue to experience such attacks.

“An example would be the recurring red-tagging against Cagayan de Oro-based journalist, Cong Corrales,” said Cortez.

In August 2019, an anonymous person sent Corrales a package through a carrier service containing red-tagging materials linking him to the New People’s Army, and the Communist Party of the Philippines. Until today, Corrales is continuously subjected to online red-tagging.

Women journalists like Margarita Valle, Anne Krueger, Frenchie Mae Cumpio, and Lady Ann Salem were also subjected to both red-tagging and legal attacks.Though both Krueger and Salem were released, Cumpio remains under detention since her arrest in February 2020.

“The rising number of attacks against the media created a chilling effect in the community,” Cortez said, adding how this had forced some journalists to self-censorship in order to avoid being subjected to attacks.

Assertion of press freedom and human rights

When asked how the legal and media community can collaborate in asserting civil liberties, including press freedom, lawyer Floyd Tiongson of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) said that the commitment on the promotion and protection of human rights in democracy should be the first step.

“We have to propagate the narrative of the place that the free media occupies, and the importance of maintaining that freedom in order to maintain democracy,” added Tiongson.

Maintaining the conversation of the importance of our right to free press is also important especially in a time where it is being “shrunk” deliberately.

Tiongson said that NUJP’s documentation and research work of the attacks against media should be continued in order to see how big of an impact it has on media practitioners, as well as see how human rights is being implicated through these attacks.

He mentioned how there should be an intensified campaign for the decriminalization of libel and cyber-libel, and that both the journalist and legal committee should continue to question its constitutionality especially after the passing of the twelve-year prescription period.

He also noted the irony of using the law to stifle dissenters, when the rule of law should serve as a refuge from such attacks.

“As long as a journalist faces a prospect of a day in jail for writing a piece or a news item that he or she has written, I believe that transgresses our democratic principles as a country,” said Tiongson.

Ways forward

NUJP chairperson Jonathan de Santos said that despite the attacks, the Filipino media community did not remain idle.

He said that members of the community have been working on the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists which was initially released in 2019. There have been multiple learning exchanges between the community and security forces on the importance of the role of the media, as well as human rights defenders, in Philippine society.

De Santos also noted the emerging engagements between journalist groups, as well as organizations of the legal sector in defense to these attacks.

The support from the community had also helped the case of Bulatlat, including the raising of funds for the bond required by the injunction granted against NTC’s memorandum.

“There is a greater sense of community, and that sense has gone beyond the journalism community, and the best thing we can do moving forward is to keep the conversation going,” De Santos said.

That is why the NUJP released a declaration, aiming to assert the commitment to press freedom and defend democracy, as well as serve as an avenue for collaboration with the legal community, and other civic groups.

The online declaration reiterated the calls for the defense of human rights, the continuous campaign against the culture of impunity, upholding ethical journalism, solidarity in the face of attacks, the decriminalization of libel and the constitutionality of the anti-terrorism act, and the assertion of press freedom by practicing journalism.

“We are facing a lot of challenges,” said De Santos, “But the defense of discourse and journalism should first come from us.” (RTS, JJE) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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