Speak Truth to Power, Keep Power in Check
03 May 2018
RODRIGO R. Duterte’s presidency has altered and controlled the public discourse so radically in its favor in ways rude and bold. Its tragic result: it has restricted and narrowed the celebrated freedom of the Philippine press and the people’s cherished right to know.
In his first 22 months in power, Mr. Duterte has earned the dubious honor of logging 85 various cases of attacks and threats on these dual values that the Constitution upholds as inalienable rights of the citizens. The number far exceeds those recorded under four presidents before him.
Separately and together, these 85 cases — murders, death threats, slay attempts, libel, online harassment, website attacks, revoked registration or denied franchise renewal, verbal abuse, strafing, and police surveillance of journalists and media agencies from June 30, 2016 to May 1, 2018 — have made the practice of journalism an even more dangerous endeavor under Duterte.
These cases project the force of presidential power dominating the political sphere, with zealous support from Duterte allies and appointees, and their sponsored misinformation army online and off. They have hurled at members of the press insults and unfair labels, and allegations of corruption and misconduct without firm basis in fact or in law.
These cases linger amid effete efforts at solution by state agencies, and in the context of the hostile and vicious discourse against the administration’s critics and the critical media.
The President, Cabinet members, and the House of Representatives have imposed and proposed unprecedented restrictions on journalist access to official news events. Congress and executive agencies have denied or delayed the corporate registration or franchises required for operation of media companies.
Some journalists and media groups have also reported police surveillance of their movement and their places of work.
Attacks on press freedom diminish not just the news media. These weaken the capacity of the news media to sustain the people’s unfettered exchange of ideas about public issues. Presidential intolerance of criticism is now a well-established aspect of Duterte’s leadership. While he is not the only chief executive who has become sensitive to press criticism, Duterte has made sure that everyone understands that misfortunes could hound and befall his critics.
And yet Duterte has promised change; his government should wish to tell the people when and where change has come to fruition, and whether it has triggered better or worse results. By keeping citizens and voters fully informed, the media empowers the public to check whether those they elected to power are doing right or wrong. A free press sustains and strengthens democracy.
So far, that is not quite the situation under Duterte. Intimidated, restrained, and threatened with consequences, the news media have been significantly restricted to report well and fully on the war on drugs, the siege of Marawi, cases of alleged corruption in high office, questions about the wealth of the Duterte family, the public debate on Charter change and federalism, the shutdown of Boracay, and not the least significant, the incursions of China in the West Philippine Sea.
To be sure, the state of press freedom in the Philippines reflects long standing problems that beset the practice of the press, taking into account the economic inequalities among media organizations, the poor pay for many working in the provinces, and the opportunities for corruption for those vulnerable to political manipulation.
The phrase “attacks and threats” has been used by media watch organizations to sum up the many ways in which a free press is weakened, leading to the failure of its function as well as to its own dysfunctional operations.
By the diligent and independent monitoring of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), from June 30, 2016 to May 1, 2018, the following cases of attacks of press freedom have been recorded under the Duterte administration:
• 9 journalists had been killed in the line of duty, with their last reports focusing separately on the drug trade, and local crime and corruption.
• 16 libel cases with mostly by state officials/agencies as complainants, including three that had been filed before June 30, 2016. The courts have dismissed two of these three and acquitted the respondent in the third case.
• 14 cases of online harassment, perpetrated mostly by Duterte supporters;
• 11 death threats, after delivering reports critical of public officials, including Duterte;
• 6 cases of slay attempts, mostly by gunmen riding in motorcycles;
• 6 cases of harassment, mostly by state officials/agencies;
• 5 cases of intimidation, mostly by local officials;
• 4 cases of website attack;
• 4 cases of physical assault, mostly by local officials;
• 3 cases of cyber libel;
• 3 instances of reporters barred from coverage, by the Office of the President;
• 2 cases of registration revoked or franchise denial;
• 1 strafing incident that occurred in Region XII; and
• 1 case of verbal assault in Metro Manila, excluding multiple instances when the President himself took verbal broadsides, cursed, and scolded journalists, and threatened certain media agencies with closure.
Nearly all media platforms had been bruised and battered. The 85 cases have affected journalists and media agencies from radio, 30 cases; online, 22 cases; print, 19 cases; television, 12 cases; and online print/radio/TV and photojournalism, 1 case each.
By gender, nearly a third or 53 of the cases involved male journalists, while 16 female journalists and 16 media organizations make up the balance.
By location, nearly half or 40 of the 85 cases occurred in the National Capital Region or Metro Manila. One case of denial of access imposed by Philippine officials occurred in Singapore, to the prejudice of foreign correspondents working in Manila.
No cases were recorded during the period in four regions: Cagayan Valley (Region II), the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, MIMAROPA (Region IV-B, Southwestern Tagalog) and Northern Mindanao (Region X).
The other regions and their case breakdown follow:
• Region XIII CARAGA, 7 cases;
• Region IV-A, CALABARZON, 5;
• Region V, Bicol Region, 5;
• Region I, Ilocos Region, 4;
• Region VIII, Eastern Visayas, 4;
• Region XI, Davao Region, 4;
• Region IX, Zamboanga Peninsula, 3;
• Region VII, Central Visayas, 4;
• Region XII SOCCSKSARGEN, 3;
• Region III, Central Luzon, 2;
• Region VI, Western Visayas, 2; and
• Cordillera Administrative Region, 1.
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