MANILA— Press freedom "is vital in a nation’s vibrant democracy," President Rodrigo Duterte has said, despite accusations it has been under fire during his administration.
Duterte made the comment to mark the fifth anniversary on Wednesday of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, a body he created to end violence against journalists.
"The task force plays a crucial role in safeguarding press freedom that is vital in a nation’s vibrant democracy," Duterte said in a taped message.
"It also helps ensure that the rights and welfare of the press are well protected and upheld," he added.
The President said he hoped the task force would "continue to fulfill your mandate with utmost excellence and commitment."
Video courtesy of RTVM
DUTERTE AND THE MEDIA
Under the Duterte administration, the media have come under threat, with organizations shut down and some journalists barred from coverage.
Veteran journalist Maria Ressa faced a libel conviction in 2020. Her news site Rappler had its license suspended and she has faced legal action for various reasons, motivated by her scrutiny of Duterte, activists say.
Ressa last week shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, for what the committee called braving the wrath of leaders to expose corruption and misrule, in an endorsement of free speech.
"This gives all of us a shot in the arm so we can become more vigorous in this fight to preserve our independence," said Ging Reyes, head of news at ABS-CBN broadcast network. "The existential challenge is still there."
A House of Representatives committee dominated by Duterte's allies shut down broadcast operations of ABS-CBN Corp. last year.
Since its closure, the 66-year old broadcaster, which Duterte had publicly berated for its failure to air some of his paid election campaign commercials in 2016, has let go thousands of employees, including about 400 from the news division.
"To me, any closure of a media organization, of a broadcasting station, is really an affront to press freedom," Reyes said.
The government denies hounding media and says any problems organizations face are legal, not political. It says it believes in free speech.
Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque welcomed Ressa's Nobel prize, saying on Monday "press freedom is alive" in the Philippines.
The Philippines saw its ranking in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index drop two notches to 138 out of 180 countries.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in the world in its impunity index, which tracks deaths of media members whose killers go free.
While the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) says it does not expect the government's combative attitude towards the adversarial press to change, it is hopeful that Ressa's Nobel victory "will spur us to work past fear."
The NUJP's national chairperson, Jonathan de Santos, said that work becomes more crucial as the country heads towards elections in 2022 to choose a successor to Duterte, who is barred by the Constitution from seeking re-election.
The stakes are high for Duterte. Analysts have said he would want to make sure an ally wins so he could shield himself from any legal action at home or abroad.
Duterte is facing an investigation by the International Criminal Court into thousands of drug-war killings. The government denies wrongdoing and says it will not cooperate with the ICC.
"We don't expect threats to go away, but the Nobel serves as an inspiration for us to keep going," de Santos told Reuters.
Joel Sy Egco, who heads the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, touted government effort to uphold the right to information by backing a freedom of information bill and creating the panel he heads to "protect the life, liberty and security of media workers."
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, a broadsheet known for scrutinizing Duterte's government, said Ressa's win had a "halo effect" for journalists.
"We believe it will inspire Filipino journalists to stay courageous, knowing that the world will be watching because of the Nobel effect," the newspaper said in response to questions from Reuters.
"It's hard to say that it will make the administration any less combative, especially those who have a stake in staying in power because of an international criminal investigation and who see the independent media as an enemy."
— With reports from Reuters