Look back in anger, move forward with resolve
31 December 2020
We can’t wait to be rid of 2020.
As far as press freedom goes, this is the year the Duterte government went full force in its effort to intimidate the Philippine media – and critics and dissenters in general – into silence or timid submission to its will.
When the yet-to-be-sworn into office Rodrigo Duterte infamously said, on May 31, 2016, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” we all knew it was going to be a bumpy ride for media.
But bad as the first three years of were, 2020 trumped them all as Duterte and his minions ramped up their attacks on the free press even as the COVID-19 pandemic began to make its deadly grip felt.
In fact, the year has been bracketed by two displays of what is probably the most brazen abuse of state power: red-tagging.
On February 8, Eastern Vista executive director Frenchiemae Cumpio was arrested along with four activists during raids in Tacloban on what authorities claimed were rebel safehouses.
And on December 10, International Human Rights Day, Manila Today editor and NUJP member Lady Ann Salem was among seven persons rounded up in a series of raids in Metro Manila first touted as against a “criminal gunrunning gang” but eventually changed to ranking rebel leaders.
Both remain behind bars for predictably trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives based on planted evidence.
Days before Icy Salem’s arrest, officials of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict accused alternative media organizations, including NUJP chapters Kodao Productions, Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly and Manila Today, of being among the supposed legal fronts of the communist underground. As in many instances of red-tagging, including accusations raised against us and our officers and members – the lies hurled against our Director, Nestor Burgos Jr. of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, by self-proclaimed rebel returnee Jeffrey Celiz are a prime example – none of these claims have been backed by credible evidence.
Even the dominant media have not been spared the malicious machinations of the NTF-ELCAC and its officials, as when the agency attempted to link the campaign in support of ABS-CBN to the insurgency, with Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. quoted in a May 8 report by the Philippine News Agency as warning critics of the network’s closure with martial law, and shared material that denigrated Rappler CEO Maria Ressa.
Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Marie Badoy also recently insinuated that staff of CNN Philippines may have links to the rebels because the network’s Twitter account shared the call of an activist youth group’s call for donations for typhoon victims.
The pandemic gave Duterte convenient cover to make good his repeated threats to shut down ABS-CBN, as health concerns forced the growing crowds that had rallied to the beleaguered network since late last year to stand down, and his lapdogs in the House of Representatives allowed its franchise to lapse.
On May 5, the network stopped broadcasting and, two months later, in June, the craven majority of the House committee on congressional franchises sealed its fate, voting to deny it a new franchise to operate.
Thus, did Duterte become the second president after Ferdinand Marcos to force ABS-CBN off the air.
Not only were thousands left jobless, the loss of its network of regional stations also left many areas without their major source of news and entertainment. The full extent of this would become clear during typhoons Rolly and Ulysses.
The government also pressed on with its persecution of another Duterte pet peeve, Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa. In June, Ressa and former Rappler staff Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of cyber libel in a case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng over an article written before the passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act but which the Department of Justice maintained had been “republished” when a typo error was corrected. She has been sued again by Keng, this time for tweeting a screencap of a now taken down article that was a source for the story she and Santos were charged for.
With Congress continuing to ignore calls for decriminalization, libel and its more evil twin, cyber libel, continue to be favored weapons of the rich and the powerful to harass journalists who earn their ire. Among the more recent accused were our Director, Kimberlie Quitasol, who is editor-in-chief of Northern Dispatch, and their staff, Khim Abalos, both of whom have also been red-tagged; the staff of Radyo Natin Guimba, and the publisher and the editor of a community paper in Kalinga province who were sued for libel by the mayor of Tabuk City before the prosecutor’s office in Isabela province, some 100 kilometers away. In Camarines Norte, although a court cleared six journalists sued for libel by Governor Edgardo Tallado and former board member Rodolfo Gache, one of them, Virgilio Avila Jr., still has four pending cases, all filed by the governor.
In light of the growing number of libel suits, we have revived the Media Defense Fund from the proceeds of the successful Masked Media Campaign to provide some assistance to beleaguered colleagues.
Media killings continued, claiming four lives this year, all during the pandemic:
- Cornelio Pepino of dyMD Energy 93.7 FM in Dumaguete City, gunned down on May 5, just about an hour after ABS-CBN shut down.
- Jobert Bercasio of Sorsogon City, shot dead on September 14.
- NUJP member Virgilio Maganes, who survived an earlier attempt in 2016, killed outside his home in Villasis, Pangasinan on November 10.
- Ronnie Villamor, stringer for Masbate news outfit Dos Kantos Balita, who was covering the survey of disputed land when he was shot dead by Army soldiers in what authorities claimed was an “encounter.”
- Their deaths have brought the total of media killings under Duterte to 19, and to 191 since 1986.
To underscore the culture of impunity that surrounds the murders of journalists, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, of the cases that have made it to court, only four, including the Ampatuan massacre case, have resulted in the conviction of masterminds.
Admittedly, there were bright spots to the overall gloom surrounding this most difficult of years.
Not least of this was the successful push to have UNESCO revert the status of the Ampatuan massacre to “unresolved” after it was pointed out that the legal process is not finished and 76 suspects are still at large and will need to be tried should they be arrested.
There were also notable victories for workers who sued the GMA Network over unfair labor practices: The Court of Appeals decision in February to reinstate, with no loss of seniority and with full back wages, 51 employees who had been illegally terminated; and the September Supreme Court ruling to reinstate 30 cameramen and assistant cameramen illegally dismissed in 2013.
However, it is a sad testament to the continuing inequities within the media industry that it still takes years to seek and claim redress for such injustices.
Despite the continuing efforts of the enemies of truth to spread disinformation, the media community has, by and large, successfully fended them off, including the paid influencers and trolls of government.
As we thankfully bid goodbye to 2020, we are also aware of what could be even greater challenges and threats to freedom of the press and of expression in 2021 and beyond.
But, as we have said time and again, the Philippine media are free not because we are allowed to be but because we, the community of independent Filipino journalists, insist on being free. And, we say this with all confidence, we will continue to be, in the service of our people’s right to know.
And so we look forward to 2021 resolved to continue defending and pushing the boundaries for press freedom in our land.
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