In the Philippines, women journalists face sexual harassment, politically-motivated attacks


MANILA – A group of Filipino women journalists launched their “butterfly campaign” to help spread awareness of the continuing gender-based and politically-motivated attacks against their ranks.

The International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) – Philippines said the “butterfly effect” appropriately describes their campaign as they take inspiration from many women movements that waged for their emancipation in many parts of the world.

The ongoing study of IAWRT Philippines unearths the irony of the plight of women journalists as they find themselves on the frontlines of speaking truth to power but silenced in the face of gender-based attacks.

The study, headed by Therese San Diego Torres, IAWRT Philippines secretary, is part of its ongoing project with the International Media Support titled, Digital Safe House and Collaboration Platform for Filipino Women Journalists.

The launch of the Butterfly campaign coincided with the official country visit of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and of Expression Irene Khan.

IAWRT Philippines also submitted their paper on women journalists and was among those invited to seek an audience with Khan last Jan. 23.

“Majority of our participants said that they don’t have gender desks [in the office] to report gender-based attacks. They don’t have standard operating procedures to address the attacks. The women journalists are forced to adjust – avoiding the offenders at all cost,” said Janess Ann Ellao, country representative of the DSH Philippines.

Fighting stigma in reporting gender-based attacks

Ellao said that IAWRT Philippines has been working on encouraging women journalists to document the attacks against them. However, several cases that were reported to them were never properly documented due to their hesitation.

“Sometimes, they would like to downplay it, keep the incidents to themselves, and present positive images of their offenders. The avoiding and denying are part of the stigma,” Ellao added.

IAWRT Philippines challenged newsrooms to institutionalize safety policies for women journalists – for newsroom managers and owners to address the attacks. Their study covered 28 women journalists and 23 newsroom managers in eight cities in the country.

Lynda Catindig-Garcia, chapter head of IAWRT Philippines, also said that there is a common denominator to the findings in the focused group discussions.

“There are narratives saying that these attacks are “normal” and the situation can no longer be changed. So, disclosing that you were attacked is not easy to do,” she said.

“We also invited the families of the victims because we want to find out the further impact of these harassment cases on women journalists. Some people were severely traumatized,” Garcia added.

IAWRT Philippines released a publication titled “What To Do: A Guide to Understanding Attacks Against Women Journalists in the Philippines,” which honors the contribution of women journalists and guides them in instances of arrest, search and seizure, and sexual harassment, among others.

PH ‘unsafe place’ for women journalists

IAWRT Philippines also underscored how women journalists are particularly more vulnerable to politically motivated attacks.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders also noted a 15 percent increase in the number of detained women journalists in 2022, compared to just 7 percent a few years earlier.

Manila Today Editor Lady Ann Salem said that she is still experiencing harassment more than two years after her release from prison.

“We still experience physical surveillance. I hope that the government makes better use of the country’s resources. I am luckier. If I experience the case of Frenchie (Mae Cumpio), the state forces would most likely think of ways to keep me there (jail),” said Salem during the media conference.

Salem was arrested on Dec. 10, 2020, shortly after her news outfit was named and red-tagged in a senate briefing. She said that the police raided her Mandaluyong home and planted evidence against her before conducting the “raid.”

Cumpio, on the other hand, was arrested in Tacloban City months before Salem’s arrest. She is the youngest journalist in detention in the world and was recently visited by Khan.

“Frenchie used to lead the Eastern Vista, where is it now? They used to report the prices of basic commodities of Samar and how it affects the people. No one does that now. It is a big disservice to the poor in the region,” said Salem.

Apart from this, women journalists are also experiencing red-tagging and online attacks. Bulatlat’s editor-in-chief Ronalyn Olea became a victim of this after she was labeled as the ‘internet operator’ of the country’s communist party by SMNI host Lorraine Badoy.

These attacks came as Olea, who sits as the secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), continuously led campaigns on press freedom and freedom of expression.

“Butterfly effect creates tiny changes, it can set off, accelerate, or prevent the occurrence of a tornado. In our small and continuous efforts, we hope to produce genuine changes and bring more attention to the suffering of Filipino women journalists,” said Ellao, deputy head of IAWRT Philippines, in a press briefing last Thursday, Jan. 26

The fight for genuine press freedom

IAWRT Philippines, for its part, expressed hopes that Khan’s visit to Cumpio can strengthen their campaign for her just release.

“I would say UNSR Irene Khan is so receptive to the plight of women journalists. She explained the process in our mandate. I felt, personally, that she is taking this personally,” Garcia said.

“We believe that truth is all that she is here for. Ms Khan’s mandate is created for the respect of free expression and opinion, to serve the higher aspiration of the people’s right to information,” said Altermidya chairperson Raymund Villanueva.

In a meeting with government officials, Khan also raised the issue of red-tagging. It can be noted that Presidential Task Force on Media Security executive director Paul Gutierrez blatantly red-tagged Cumpio, accusing her of being part of the communist armed struggle.

The NUJP said Gutierrez’s statement “highlights precisely how red-tagging has become institutionalized in the Philippines and has become undeclared policy.”

It adds his statement “shows the absurdity of having a body created for media security in a government task force that actively puts journalists’ security at risk by accusing them of being enemies of the state.”

For Ellao, these attacks are a reminder that the fight for press freedom and women’s rights has yet to end: “After reporting and sharing of experiences, we can prove that the fight of journalists will continue since attacks are still happening.”

At the end of the campaign launching, the women journalists hoped to reach out to more people inside the industry and the new generation of women truth-tellers. “The safety of journalists will always be a community effort.” (RTS) (

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