MANILA, Philippines – Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque was quick to defend President Rodrigo Duterte following the conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Ray Santos Jr over cyber libel, using Duterte’s past support for a Davao-based journalist jailed for libel as “proof” he supported press freedom.
In a press briefing on Monday, June 15, Roque referred to how then-Davao City mayor Duterte backed Davao radio commentator Alex Adonis, who was convicted for libel and imprisoned in 2007. Adonis faced charges for libel over a report about an alleged extramarital affair of then House Speaker Prospero Nograles, Duterte’s political rival.
The case is shared history for Duterte and Roque, a former human rights lawyer, as the latter served as Adonis’ legal counsel. It was in lawyering for Adonis that Roque got to know Duterte.
Roque likewise pointed to how Duterte “never filed a libel case” against journalists during his career in government to prove the President supported a free press.
“Nagpapatunay po na hindi po Presidente ang nasa likod sa panunupil diumano ng kalayaan ng malayang pananalita at pamamahayag…. Suportado po ni Presidente ang malayang pananalita at malayang pamamahayag,” Roque said as he opened his regular press briefing, commenting on Ressa and Santos’ case.
(This shows the President is not behind the alleged attacks on freedom of expression and the press…. The President supports the freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I hope that’s clear.)
“Naniniwala po siya sa malayang pag-iisip at pananalita at ang paninindigan niya ang taong gobyerno ay hindi dapat onion skinned. Kinakailangan hinaharap ang pula ang taumbayan, lalo na kung ito ay nanggagaling sa ating media,” he said.
(The President believes in the freedom of expression and he asserts that government officials should not be onion-skinned. They should face criticism from the public, especially if it comes from media.)
What Roque didn’t say: Yet Roque left out several threats and verbal attacks Duterte has made against media during his presidency.
Since 2016, Duterte has lashed out against the press as he claimed journalists were “not exempted from assassination.” The President likewise hurled insults against reporters, calling them “spies,” “lowlives,” and “vultures.”
ABS-CBN currently remains off the air as after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease and desist order against media giant last May 5, a day after the expiration of its congressional franchise. Bills seeking the renewal of the network’s franchise were still being discussed in Congress.
In 2017, Duterte attacked the owners of Inquirer by accusing them of “swindling” the government and threatened to sue them for “economic sabotage” in relation to the long legal battle between government and Sunvar Realty Development Corporation, which is also owned by the Rufino-Prieto families, over Mile Long, a 6.2-hectare commercial property in Makati City.
Sunvar eventually vacated the property after Solicitor General Jose Calida, Jr showed a Court of Appeals (CA) resolution authorizing the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 141 to execute a year-old vacate order.
Rappler, meanwhile, faces a shutdown order that is currently being reviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission while Ressa faces 7 more criminal charges in court.