Palace: Tag 'absolutely bereft of merit'
MANILA - For waging a "total war" against independent media, President Rodrigo Duterte has been included in a global watchdog's 2021 list of "press freedom predators."
The President is among 37 heads of government in the world "who crack down massively on press freedom," according to a gallery published by Reporters Without Borders Monday.
Due to "collusion at all levels," Duterte has an "arsenal that he can use to wage 'total war' against journalists," the Paris-based media watchdog said.
"Judges who don’t toe the line are pushed aside. Congress tamely endorses all the president’s decisions. Backed by most of the private sector, Duterte easily imposes his line on media outlets owned by businessmen that support him," the group added.
The RSF said Duterte's "arsenal" includes:
- Spurious charges of defamation, tax evasion or violation of capital legislation
- Rescinding broadcast licenses
- Getting accomplices to buy up media outlets and bring their journalists into line
- Using an army of trolls to subject journalists to online harassment
The media watchdog cited that Duterte's "favorite targets" were the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN and Rappler, which it described as "last sources of resistance" to Duterte's "authoritarian excesses."
In 2017, the country's biggest newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was "bought up" and "its journalists were brought to heel" following Duterte's criticism, the RSF said.
ABS-CBN, the country's leading radio and TV network, was denied its application for a fresh broadcast franchise in July 2020.
Duterte had warned the network he would shut it down for its critical reporting of the government's war on drugs— one of his administration's centerpiece policies when he took office in 2016.
Government figures show more than 7,000 people have been killed in the anti-illegal drugs campaign but rights group claim a higher count.
The RSF said Duterte was also targeting news website Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa with lawsuits brought by his allies.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, meanwhile, said the watchdog's classification of Duterte as press freedom predator is "absolutely bereft of merit."
He noted an International Criminal Court prosecutor who recently sought a probe into Duterte's drug war had quoted media reports.
“That proves po that freedom of the press is alive and well in the Philippines. Wala po ni isang kasong libelo na isinampa ang Presidente, wala pong kahit sinong mamamahayag na napakulong ang Presidente,” Roque said in a press briefing.
(The President has not filed any level case or jailed any journalist.)
The broadcast shutdown of ABS-CBN Corp was a decision of Congress, he argued.
Allies of the President had dominated a House of Representatives panel that voted to reject a fresh franchise for ABS-CBN almost a year ago.
As for Rappler, Roque pointed out that appointees of the previous Aquino administration in the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) were responsible for revoking the news website's certificate of incorporation.
Rappler is known for investigative reports and fact-checking the government. Duterte has called it a “fake news outlet.”
Referring to the Reporters Without Borders reports, Roque said: “That’s part and parcel, of course, of the media group’s advocacy to promote freer press.”
“Pero wala po talagang basehan na media predator ang ating Presidente,” he continued.
(But there really is no basis for saying that our President is a media predator.)
In the group's "predators gallery," Duterte is joined by China's Xi Jinping, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Saudi Arabia's Mohamed Bin Salman, among others.
The new entrants include the first 2 women "predators" who are both from Asia. They are Hong Kong's Carrie Lam, who "has proved to be the puppet of Chinese President Xi Jinping," and Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina, whose "predatory exploits include the adoption of a digital security law" that prosecuted dozens of journalists and bloggers, the RSF said.
"There are now 37 leaders from around the world in RSF’s predators of press freedom gallery and no one could say this list is exhaustive,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
“Each of these predators has their own style. Some impose a reign of terror by issuing irrational and paranoid orders. Others adopt a carefully constructed strategy based on draconian laws. A major challenge now is for these predators to pay the highest possible price for their oppressive behavior. We must not let their methods become the new normal," he added.