Better or worse? The state of Philippine media according to watchdogs

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 02 2019 04:10 PM

MANILA - In 2018, Filipino journalists continued to face online harassment, violence and various threats, according to local media monitoring groups.

At the top of the list are 12 cases of media killings under the Duterte administration, four of which happened this year.

For four consecutive months, unidentified assassins killed radio broadcasters Edmund Sestoso, Carlos Matas and Joey Llana, and publisher Dennis Denora.

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) Executive Director Melinda Quintos de Jesus said that while the figures are not substantially higher than numbers during previous administrations, they have monitored more attacks and threats in other forms.

“Hindi puwedeng mag-cover (You are not allowed to cover),” she said, referring to journalists who have been barred from covering news events. “Marami ring (There's a lot of) physical assault. Digital threats.”

CMFR received 28 reports of various attacks against media workers, including killings, online harassment, arrests and the removal of articles deemed critical of influential people from news sites.

The group believes the number could have been much higher but that not a lot of journalists report their experience of harassment.

“Ito nanggaling (Most of these came) mostly from law enforcement agents or government officials,” De Jesus added.

“Ang aming pagtingin kumalat 'yung nakita nila na ginagawa ng presidente. 'Yung pagmumura sa Philippine Daily Inquirer. Pagtawag ng pansin dito sa corporate issues ng Rappler. 'Yung pagsabi na ang prangkisa ng ABS-CBN puwede niyang i-cancel.”

(We think that what the president has been doing has an effect. How he cursed at the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Calling attention to corporate issues of Rappler. Saying he could cancel ABS-CBN's franchise.)

Last year, online news website Rappler faced the cancellation of its registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission over alleged violation of foreign equity regulations, a libel suit and, most recently, a tax evasion case.

Duterte, meanwhile, repeatedly blasted the Inquirer and ABS-CBN Corp in his speeches.

The President's supporters, meanwhile, attacked journalists online, including Pulitzer Prize winner Manny Mogato.

Mogato, who had just retired from news wire service Reuters, said his photo and that of a colleague started circulating on Facebook like they were wanted criminals.

“Ang kasalanan namin sabi doon mali daw interpretasyon namin sa sinabi ni Pangulong Duterte nang ihambing nya ang sarili niya kay Adolf Hitler,” Mogato said, referring to remarks Duterte made in September 2016.

(It said there that our sin was our wrong interpretation of what President Duterte said when he compared himself to Adolf Hitler.)

While he wasn’t fazed by the attack, he finds it worrisome that disinformation continues to be rampant on social media.

“Ako’y lubos na nababahala na ang disinformation na ito ay sumisira sa ating demokrasya (I am very worried that this disinformation is destroying our democracy),” he said, adding that it also erodes public trust for the press.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) is just as concerned.

“In terms of news disinformation, ito ang pinakasagad (this is the worst). Organized trolls, fake news,” said NUJP national media safety officer Sonny Fernandez.

Fernandez said “fake news” affects the credibility of the press and results in a “chilling effect.”

CMFR’s De Jesus also claimed that the Philippine media have not performed as well as they expected because of such chilling effect. She said self-censorship could also be a factor that’s why a lot of important stories on corruption and illegal drugs have not been properly pursued.

She said the fear and the caution is not only caused by online attacks but also the President's criticism of the press.

The President has, for example, called Rappler a “fake news outlet.”

But the Presidential Task Force on Media Security denied that the President’s comments have a negative effect on media.

“May napakalaking improvement talaga (There's really a huge improvement),” Usec. Joel Egco, head of the task force, said.

Egco cited the improved rankings of the Philippines in some international media watchdog reports.

“What we do here in the task force, we were able to identify problem areas and formulate guidelines para maging [to become] proactive,” he said.

Egco said they even sent confidential letters to warn people tagged by journalists as harassment suspects.

He said the body investigates each case of media killing and harassment while protecting and helping victims file cases.

The Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists states that the media situation in the Philippines has improved, but the country is among top 5 nations with unsolved murders.

The Philippines also ranked better in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, but the group expressed alarm over the President's comments against the media.

In its report, the group said: “The line separating verbal violence from physical violence is dissolving. In the Philippines (down six at 133rd), President Rodrigo Duterte not only constantly insults reporters but has also warned them that they “are not exempted from assassination.”

Besides online attacks and criticisms from the President, the Philippine media are also becoming more vulnerable to harassment because of the practice of making journalists sign as witnesses during drug raids.

“Meron diyan nag-witness nakatanggap ng death threat. Nag-witness, sinama sa [drug] watchlist (There was one who served as a witness and then received a death threat. There was another witness who was included in the [drug] watchlist),” Fernandez said.

Some press clubs in the provinces have already refused to participate in the practice, but Egco said it would require an amendment of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

The NUJP has started a petition calling to halt the practice and seeking a dialogue with the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

If there is one thing that the Task Force and the media monitoring groups agree on, it is that there is a need for journalists to unite and work together.