PH journalists face old, new forms of threat including lawfare: NUJP study

Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 14 2023 05:47 PM | Updated as of Apr 14 2023 10:36 PM

MANILA -- Filipino journalists remain under varying forms of threat while performing their role as watchdogs of the society, a study of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) has found.

NUJP's study entitled "State of Legal Safety of Filipino Journalists," or Project Lawfare was presented Friday by lawyer John Michael Mugas, the project's writer-researcher.

"This is all the more true in the Philippines where journalists who serve as the people's proxy in the exercise of their freedom of speech, in their exercise in their rights to free speech and expression, have long confronted threats to their physical safety and security," Mugas said.

From June 2016 to March 2023, at least 66 criminal cases have been filed against journalists.

These cases vary from alleged violation of the Cybercrime Law, illegal possession of firearms, Anti-Terrorism Act, and simple libel.

"We have long confronted threats of physical safety and security, especially when their work puts them at odds with the political, social and economic establishment, especially within their localities in the pursuit of their work as journalists as truth finders. Those who are regularly engaged in the production of news.. with respect to government dealings, with respect to the political and social environment where they are based," he said.

During the pandemic, journalists criticizing the government's implementation of the "Bayanihan to Heal as One Act" were also slapped with cyberlibel cases.

The NUJP's data also recorded at least 48 journalists being red-tagged.

Thirty-two of them are based in Metro Manila, 8 in Luzon, 1 in Visayas and 7 in Mindanao, the report stated.

Journalists today also had to endure their accusers' use of "SLAPP" or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

"SLAPP is a poisonous type of lawfare whereby individuals are prosecuted by states or litigated against by third parties with the specific intention of discouraging, intimidating, challenging, disrupting, or financially draining a defendant and ultimately silencing opposition, criticism or dissent," Mugas said.

"It is the misuse of the legal system to thwart opponents of government authorities have aggressively applied against government critics," he added.

All these, he said, not only result to the physical and financial stress that journalists experience, but even their mental health condition.

There are journalists who are being denied of legal assistance, others were not informed of either a filed case, or an upcoming arrest or court hearing.

During the Marcos Jr administration's first eight months, the NUJP monitored 43 violations against free press, "with two killed, six cyberlibel and one libel cases have been filed, two arrested over cyber libel, 13 experienced surveillance and harassment, ten red-tagging, and one denial of access to cover Malacañang, and two other cases of denial of coverage by state forces and state officers."

"While the laws which are being weaponized to stifle dissent and silence critics... The country's libel laws remain to be the most commonly used against journalists," lawyer Frank Lloyd Tiongson, one of the editors of the NUJP report, pointed out.

As of March 2023, 50 journalists are facing cyberlibel and libel cases, Tiongson said.

"Of the 50, the most vulnerable against these libel laws being weaponized are community-based journalists who often tangle with local politicians," according to Tiongson.

NUJP President Jonathan De Santos said the only difference of the current from the previous administration is that the press is "more smiling now."

"It's helpful to look at press freedom as a continuous thing. It's a continuous struggle. So it doesn't really change right in the changes of space," De Santos said.

"The threats are still there. We still don't have Freedom of Information for example. It's the same situation, it's just that more smiling now, I suppose," he claimed.

NUJP proposed the following reforms: 

  • The documentation of state abuses or cases of state-sponsored harassment suits
  • Lawyers groups encouraging journalists to push back by filing counter charges
  • Strengthen legal aid and support for journalists
  • Strategic plan to decriminalize libel
  • For journalists to file a "protective writ and welfare services to address continuing anxiety and threat to security"
  • Repeal of the Anti-Terror Law
  • Push for "intermediary dispute resolution" with the help of lawyer organizations
  • Push for meaningful bail reform
  • Enhance the mandate of the CHR not just as an investigative body, as a prosecutorial commission as well
  • Push for the adoption of a state policy to protect journalists

The NUJP study was done in partnership of Internews, an international non-profit organization with 30 offices around the world, and USAID.

In his speech, Greg Kehailia, country director of Internews in the Philippines, also stressed the importance of protecting journalists, who are in a much more difficult situation today.

"As all participants today know too well, journalists’ safety is at risk in the Philippines in more than one way... Digital safety too, in various forms, from infringement to Internet freedom to cyber-libel, cyber-attacks, online harassment etc., Be it online or offline, there is also a discernible pattern of reputational attacks, including of course the infamous red-tagging, which also can have immediate physical and legal consequences for targeted journalists," Kehailia pointed put.

"Lawfare against media is a particularly insidious way to attack press freedom, as it is especially complex to define and because it takes the appearance of legality," he added.

Kehailia said continuing the lawfare conversation is very essential because press freedom and the rule of law are connected to a nation's democratic principles.


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