Anti-Marcos journalist's verified account disabled by Facebook

Aaron Lozada, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 29 2016 12:17 AM | Updated as of Nov 29 2016 01:36 AM

MANILA (UPDATED) - The verified personal Facebook account of veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona was disabled by Facebook on Monday, without any explanation for hours.

"Today, I find myself blocked with this notice," Espina-Varona told another journalist, referring to a Facebook notice stating her profile is under review.

Espina-Varona spent decades as a journalist in various leadership roles for the country's leading news outlets. She is known for hard-hitting commentaries - most recently on the divisive interment of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani - causing the ire of Marcos supporters in various social networking platforms.

Espina-Varona's blocking on the world's biggest social media platform came a day after she wrote to Facebook executives about the status of complaints against online harassment on Facebook.

"Only last night, I wrote Facebook executives and their marketing arm in the country to ask why so many complaints about online abuse, including outright threats -- had that experience two weeks ago -- were being dismissed by Facebook, while the victims themselves find themselves penalized by blocks," Espina-Varona said.

Despite her strong commentaries, both sides of the political spectrum have acknowledged Espina-Varona's patience for online political discourses.

"It's the height of irony when, even those of opposite political persuasion, acknowledge my patience on line and liberal treatment of all comers, save for genuine trolls and people who attack others personally on my wall," Espina-Varona said.

The prize-winning journalist said she does not want to speculate as to what got her blocked on Facebook - insisting that she did not violate any community standard - but pointed out the irony that she was recently tapped to be a resource person by Facebook on the issue of netizen protection.

"I was part of a cozy round-table two weeks ago... Invited by their [Facebook's] marketing team on the issue of netizen protection," Espina-Varona said on Twitter.

ACCOUNT RESTORED

Her account was restored, as of 11:30 p.m. Monday night.

Elizabeth Hernandez, Facebook's head of public policy in the Asia Pacific, told Espina-Varona in an email that her verified account "was incorrectly enrolled in a fake name checkpoint."

"Your account has been cleared from this checkpoint," Hernandez said. "Perhaps we can set up a call to discuss the other issues you raise in your email."

Espina-Varona was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in the United States. She was also formerly editor-in-chief of Philippine Graphic, investigative news chief of Manila Times, and head of ABS-CBN News' Bayan Mo, Ipatrol Mo citizen journalism arm. She currently writes a regular opinion column for news.abs-cbn.com.

In 2007, Espina-Varona won the top prize for the investigative category (non-daily publication) in the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

FACEBOOK UNDER FIRE

Before Facebook resolved the issue, several journalist groups in the Philippines denounced the sudden blocking of Espina-Varona's account.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the blocking of Espina-Varona was made "at the behest of what are clearly enemies of the right to free expression and of a free press."

The group urged Facebook to be more circumspect in determining whether an account is violating its policies.

"To allow the silencing of reasonable voices again and again does not reflect well on their company’s avowed aims," NUJP said in a statement.

Alternative journalism group Altermidya also denounced what it believes as an attempt to silence Espina-Varona.

"We find it ironic that as we journalists voice our concern about the return of Marcosian rule, one of our colleagues, in her practice of responsible journalism, is facing the kind of censorship characteristic of the martial law regime that Ferdinand Marcos mounted," Altermidya said in a statement.

"Everyone including journalists must be free to report and express their opinions, without interference. We encourage other colleagues in the media community, as well as concerned citizens, to join us in defending our civil right to free expression. We will not be silenced, in Facebook or elsewhere," it added.

ONLINE SUPPORT

Espina-Varona gained support in social media from colleagues in the media and ordinary netizens alike.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) spokesperson James Jimenez called for the restoration of Espina-Varona's Facebook account.

Internet activist and newspaper journalist Tonyo Cruz joined colleagues in denouncing Espina-Varona's suspension on Facebook.

Cruz, a social media strategist, believes the suspension of accounts of journalists in the Philippines is part of an orchestrated action to silence them.

'ORGANIZED MASS REPORTING'

According to Altermidya, this was not the first time Espina-Varona's account has been disabled by Facebook.

"This is not the first time that Varona’s account was reported to Facebook. Only last June, the social media site also blocked several accounts and posts of journalists, including Varona’s, after they shared posts criticizing the Marcos family. Facebook later admitted that it committed a mistake in censoring these posts," the group said.

Digital media analyst Tony Ahn, meanwhile, believes that Espina Varona "was the victim of her opposition's exploitation of Facebook's automated reporting systems."

"Organized 'mass reporting' as a means to silence dissent on Facebook has been documented globally for the past couple years now. Facebook does not employ humans to review all reported pages and comments; to do so would be costly. While it does employ human review for certain types of violations, for others (including harassment) it uses an algorithm to automatically block a page or account when it reaches a particular number of reports. At that point the blocked party must petition Facebook for their account to be reinstated, a process that is not easy or convenient when one cannot access one's account. Only then, when the complaint is filed by the blocked party, does human review occur. Facebook's blocking of Inday Espina Varona is not Facebook taking a position on the journalist nor her writing, but an exploit that her detractors are using to game Facebook's system in an attempt to subvert free speech and silence her." 

Over the past week, reports of Filipino Facebook users getting locked out of their accounts surfaced, alarming some that it may be the work of a secret group of hackers.

Although no one has claimed credit for the attacks, some netizens think that a pro-Duterte group had something to do with it.