MANILA — The government's shutdown of the free TV broadcast of ABS-CBN, the cases filed against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, and several attacks on the Philippine media in a short period of time show how afraid President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration is of accountability, veteran Filipino journalists said Friday.
Sheila Coronel, one of the founders of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), said the government is afraid the truth would come out at one point because of critical reportage.
“I think it’s the government that is afraid. You have a government that’s very strong, that has the military and the police under its command and it is clamping down on these young reporters… I mean that is such an asymmetrical battle," Coronel said during a discussion on the state of journalism in the country.
"It is threatening the publishers of newspapers, it has closed down the largest TV network. Those are the actions of fear and not strength,” Coronel added.
She said the government is afraid because the “watchdog tradition in the Philippine media would assert itself.”
“Why are they afraid? They are afraid that the truth will come out… They are afraid that the corruption and abuses in this regime are going to be exposed. It’s the government that is afraid,” she added.
ABS-CBN News chief Ging Reyes said some politicians and people in power try to demonize the media for their own interests.
“Most of the time it is the case with people in power. You know ABS-CBN, Inquirer, Rappler and all the other news outlets have offended one way or another many of those in power now and before. And yet this time somehow, it is different,” Reyes said.
“Some of these people behind our powerful institutions do understand what press freedom is and yet they choose to demonize the media for reasons that are self-serving,” she said.
On May 5, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered ABS-CBN's free TV and radio broadcasts to go off the air.
The House Committee on Legislative Franchises then voted on July 10 to "kill" a new broadcast franchise for ABS-CBN Corp., shutting down a major part of the country’s largest media network, in what is seen as part of a worsening crackdown on press freedom under Duterte.
Human Rights Watch said the closure “reeks of a political vendetta.”
In June, a Manila court found Ressa guilty of cyber libel over an article tagging a businessman to alleged illegal activities.
The case has been controversial from the onset because the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which punishes cyber libel, was not enacted until September 2012 or 4 months after the May 2012 article was published.
Aside from the cyberlibel case, Rappler and Ressa are facing charges of tax fraud, violating the Securities Regulation Code and the Anti-Dummy Law, among others.
Journalists fight vs disinformation on social media
Reyes lamented how social media have been used to spread disinformation, as with the case during ABS-CBN’s franchise hearings wherein disinformation seemed to be amplified on social networking sites.
The case of ABS-CBN has seen the whole gamut of disinformation, gaslighting, demonization, etc. So here we are, the biggest difference is we have social media now, a very potent tool for spreading disinformation that was not in existence during the time of Marcos or Gloria Arroyo,” she said.
Ressa echoed her sentiments, saying the country is treading on an environment of lies, to the point that fact-checking alone could be flooded by disinformation.
“It is misdirection, it is so interesting that it all comes down to power and money, and that’s what we have seen play out… If the lies happen so frequently, the fact checks don’t matter and... the fire hose of lies changes your reality, it makes the people more docile because you don't have any idea what you know [the truth is,] Ressa said.
Coronel warned there has been a systematic campaign to spread disinformation and propaganda in favor of the government.
In previous administrations, the tactic was to curtail the media but now, it is to drown out news through misinformation, she added.
“The tactic [before] was to curtail information... In the current landscape, the tactic is to flood media including social media and mainstream media with disinformation. It’s no longer constricting but flooding, that is the main difference,” she said.
The DaangDokyu program titled "Reality Check: The State of Journalism in the Philippines", also featured Inquirer opinion journalist John Nery and Associated Press journalist Jim Gomez. It was moderated by One News’ Roby Alampay.
You can watch DaangDokyu’s episode here: