MANILA - Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday rejected the findings of a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) mission in the Philippines which expressed alarm over "increasing levels of intimidation and a shrinking free press in the country."
"Contrary to the opinion of the visiting foreign journalists, I believe that the Philippine press is the freest in the region. Anyone can criticize or say anything against the government without fear of retaliation," he said in a message to reporters.
CPJ Board Chair Kathleen Carroll is in the country along with CPJ Asia Program Head Steven Butler and Peter Greste, the former Al Jazeera journalist who was detained in Egypt and now a director for the Australia-based Alliance for Journalists' Freedom (AJF).
The group, in a press conference on Tuesday, said there appears to be "coordinated" and "politically motivated" attacks against the media, citing in particular the case of Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa.
Eleven cases have been filed against Rappler in the past 14 months. These include tax, libel and anti-dummy cases and violations of the Securities Code, including the Securities and Exchange Commission's revocation of Rappler's license.
Ressa herself has posted bail 8 times and has been arrested twice in the last five weeks.
"It's impossible not to look at the number of departments bringing cases against these organizations, Rappler and others, and not be persuaded that there is a coordinated attack against journalists," Carroll said.
"The overall impression that we get is that there is a campaign of harassment, both judicial and official harassment of news organizations," Greste added.
But Guevarra insists Ressa's case is isolated.
"Maria Ressa's case is not reflective of the overall situation. Her cases arose from a violation of our Securities Code, which led to other cases such as tax evasion and anti-dummy charges. Her cyber libel case was initiated by a private individual, not by the government," he said.
Aside from Rappler's case, the CPJ team also expressed concern over cyberattacks against online news organizations, the "frightening cases of red-tagging," and cases of unresolved killings of journalists in the Philippines, such as the 2009 Maguindanao massacre where 32 journalists were killed but no one has been convicted so far.
Even the President's personal attacks against some media organizations did not go unnoticed.
Carroll said that while personal attacks by a president on the coverage of the media is not unique to the Philippines, it has a corrosive effect on the credibility of the media.
"What it does is it erodes the faith of the readers, the citizens in journalists...their faith in us and you," she said.
The CPJ team is in the country for several days to meet with some media groups and several government officials, including the Presidential Task Force on Media Security and the spokesperson of the justice department, Usec. Markk Perete.