Are PH journalists facing increasing level of intimidation, disinformation?

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 23 2019 02:15 AM

MANILA—Journalists and civil society groups weighed in on Monday on the country’s state of media and disinformation.

At the second Conference on Democracy and Disinformation held at the BGC campus of the University of the Philippines, Committee to Protect Journalists Asia Program coordinator Steven Butler said he has seen how the local press “is under a lot of pressure.”


“It stems ultimately from the political situation in this country that all of your know,” he said. “There is also a sense . . . that things could get worse before they get better. Typically as the elections are approaching, which is always a time that creates tremendous danger anywhere else in the world.”

This is in line with an earlier report released by CPJ based on the international group’s recent mission to the Philippines, resulting in the group saying that there is increasing intimidation and shrinking space for press freedom in the country.

During the same conference panel, Sherwin de Vera, reporter of the regional paper Northern Dispatch, talked about his own experience of red-tagging, which is another form of disinformation. 

“The problem now is they not have only made our lives miserable with disinformation, they have weaponized it to put our lives in danger,” he said as he talked about being under surveillance. 

Vera Files’ Ellen Tordesillas, who was recently tagged in an unverified matrix accusing media practitioners and groups of being behind a supposed “Oust Duterte” movement, also showed how she has become a target just because she does fact checking with her organization.

She showed a text message of a person saying foul words against her and accusing her for being the reason why pro-Duterte pages were suspended by Facebook.


In a study released by Vera Files a few months ago, the analysis of 193 online posts showed that 8 out of 10 deceptive posts are political. Tordesillas said most Facebook pages promoting disinformation bear the names of Duterte and Marcos or pretend to be news organizations. Opposition figures are also usual targets of their fake news posts. 

In his keynote speech, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David talked about Filipinos’ current understanding of “truth.”

He said that we are now in the “age of disinformation” and that people have come to see truth as “relative.”

However, he said “truth is not just a political issue” but “above all, a moral, spiritual issue.”

During the afternoon, speakers talked about the role of technology to disinformation. 

Computer programmer Carlos Nazareno said he believes technology is “neutral is neutral in its own.” However, it is also “a force multiplier. Whatever is happening, good or bad, technology is being used to amplify it.”

He said technology has been used for both good and evil intents — such as in the case of the Rwandan genocide and the EDSA People Power Revolt. 

Fake news declining?

On the other hand, Manila Bulletin’s Art Samaniego said he believes fake news is now on the decline.

“Declining ang papunta sa fake news sites. Nagiging critical na pag-iisip ng mga Pilipino,” Samaniego said. 

(Those who go to fake news sites are declining. Filipinos are now thinking critically.)

David said he is glad Facebook is doing something to curb fake news.

While some of the conference speakers agreed that it would not be a good idea to allow government to censor social media through a law, Harvard Satter Human Rights Fellow Jen Domino said it would be important that social media networks have their own form of content regulation.

All panelists agreed that the public should always be critical of the information it sees online. 

Weaponizing truth

And while De Vera talked about how red-tagging has been weaponized to target journalists, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales pointed out that, especially this coming elections, “the truth should be weaponized to the full extent to shaming these candidates and their enablers to prevent them from running if the wheels of justice seem derailed or too slow to catch them.”

Morales said corruption and disinformation is closely linked because corruption can also mean corruption of the mind.

Decay of democracy

The former ombudsman said that while she is no longer in office, she will devote her remaining years to combating corruption.

Asked how she would define the decay of democracy, Morales said it is when the rights of people are being trampled on. 

Gemma Mendoza of Rappler pointed out that the institutions of the Philippines have remained weak. 

“To begin with, news literacy is not yet that robust,” she said before talking about media’s own weaknesses.

“All of these weaknesses are being highlighted and twisted to make it appear that these institutions are not useful,” she said of how disinformation is being used to undermine media.

While Bishop David called for the need to educate students and make them critical thinkers, Morales urged the public to be more vocal. 

“We should not allow fear to overcome us,” she said. “The more you are afraid the more you are silenced. And the more the powers-that-be take advantage of you. And nothing can be stopped if you remain indifferent and silent.

“Your voice should be counted.”