journalism in the Philippines

PH media landscape remains ‘largely grim’ despite change in leadership, says report

Gelo Gonzales

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PH media landscape remains ‘largely grim’ despite change in leadership, says report
Ironically, the RISJ includes SMNI, which red-tags journalists and activists, in its annual ranking of media organizations’ reach

MANILA, Philippines – The annual Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford found that the Philippines media landscape, despite the change in leadership in 2022, remains “largely grim,” with attacks on journalists not letting up since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. became the president. 

It noted 75 cases pertaining to violations of press freedom under Marcos’ rule from June 2022 and April 2023, including the killing of journalists Percival Mabasa, Cresenciano Aldovino Bunduquin, and Rey Blanco, and the use of legal action against journalists. 

Red-tagging remains a tool to harass and silence journalists, with targets from both mainstream and alternative media including ABS-CBN, Rappler, Bulatlat, and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). 

A major proponent of red-tagging is the far-right broadcast network Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), in what is a continuance of its ways from the Duterte years.

Ironically, RISJ included SMNI in its ranking of media organizations’ reach, thus lending a semblance of legitimacy to an organization with a known history of peddling and amplifying disinformation, and red-tagging journalists and activists. SMNI is owned by a preacher who is wanted in the US for alleged crimes of rape and human trafficking.

In its inclusion of SMNI in the rankings presented via a table, it grouped the organization with ones that abide by journalistic standards. 

Trust scores

The report cited one extreme example of the law being weaponized to silence journalists is the case of two broadcasters in Southern Luzon who are facing a whopping 941 counts of cyber libel put up by a provincial governor.

Rappler was acquitted of tax evasion cases in January, but the cyber libel case involving CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. remains pending in the Supreme Court.

The RISJ noted the correlation between low media trust scores and constant media criticism. It said, “Politicians and activists are seen as a main source of media criticism in the Philippines (46%), where journalists critical of the government are routinely branded communists or terrorists.” 

It also said that the public’s perception of Rappler is “no doubt in part influenced by ongoing social media attacks from influencers, partisan activists, and others.” 

Part of the RISJ’s annual report is a table showing trust scores of media groups among the populace. Rappler has a 47% “Trust” score, 33% “Don’t Trust” score, and 21% “Neither” score, compared to last year’s 46% “Trust” score and 32% “Don’t Trust” score. 

RISJ said about the trust scores that “some independent outlets respected for their reporting on those in positions of power are often actively distrusted by supporters of the politicians in question and subject to coordinated harassment, so scores should not be seen as a measure of the quality or trustworthiness of the content.” 

In spite of that, the table and accompanying graphics have been used in information operations to tear down the credibility of news organizations that try to hold power to account. 

Ressa on the release of the 2023 report, told The Guardian, “We are not alone. This ‘study’ is like giving a loaded gun to autocratic governments trying to silence independent journalists not just in the Philippines but in countries like Brazil and India, where information operations and the lawfare are used to persecute, harass, and chill.”

Ressa also announced that she had resigned last year over the RISJ report’s measurement of trust scores. Ressa went public with the move this week as the metric continued to be used this year, without sufficiently taking into account the disinformation campaigns that Rappler has endured through the years, and social media algorithms’ biases for hate and lies. 

“Last year I resigned from the board because I thought it was horrendous that they went ahead with it and that it was weaponized and used against us, at a critical time,” Ressa told The Guardian. “Government officials were quoting Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism to attack us.” 

“I still have decades of jail hanging over me. So to actually do this again, despite repeated warnings, is just unfathomable to me,” Ressa added.

In her resignation letter to RISJ in July 2022 after the organization released its media trust scores for that year, Ressa said: “The graphics you have used through the years are misleading and lack proper labels. The note you quote, ‘should not be treated as a list of the most trusted brands’ is not enough when it’s not part of the chart itself. It also then belies why have that chart in the first place for what are – at most – vanity metrics. The way you market the report and its headlines lead to what you call ‘abuse’ but they are natural consequences of this flawed approach.” 

“When journalists are under attack, it isn’t business as usual for academics studying journalism. This isn’t just bad actors manipulating the study; the flaw is in the study itself,” Ressa wrote. She argued that RISJ’s methodology lacks the sensitivity in carefully considering how such metrics can be weaponized in the current Philippine media landscape, if not contextualized sufficiently.

Rappler’s head of disinformation research Gemma Mendoza also wrote in an opinion piece: “So why is it important – imperative – for an institution like the RISJ to contextualize its reports this way? Because by not placing its scoreboard in the proper context, this yearly exercise becomes nothing more than a popularity contest. It can be weaponized against any news organization who dares speak truth to power.” 

The scoreboard graphs remain in this year’s edition. 

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, backed up Ressa’s words, telling The Guardian, “[This report] is interpreted as being a comprehensive view of everything going on in journalism but, if you only take an audience view of the threats to journalism, specifically in markets where you do not have strong protections for a free press, you are at high risk of ending up with a distorted picture.” 

The RISJ said that it has considered Ressa’s input in reviewing their methodology, to “mitigate against the risk of abuse” but concedes that like “all work in the public domain, our research can be abused.” 

TikTok continues fast growth

According to the report, online and social media are still the most popular sources of news in the Philippines, with 86% of the 2,284 surveyed earlier this year indicating that online platforms as a source of news. Social media followed at 70%, while TV declined from last year’s 60% to 52%, and print declined from last year’s 16% to 14%. 

TikTok continues to grow fast, with 21% now accessing news on it, a growth of 6% percentage points from last year’s 15%, and a big leap from just 2% in 2020. It overtook Twitter to be the fourth-most popular social media platform for news, but still trailed Messenger, YouTube, and Facebook in that order. 

Globally, visual platforms are poised to grow, according to RISJ. “In the longer term, our data suggest that significant shifts in audience behaviour, driven by younger demographics, are likely to kick in, including a preference for more accessible, informal, and entertaining news formats, often delivered by influencers rather than journalists, and consumed within platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.

Visual and audio formats won’t replace text online, but they are set to become a more important part of the mix over the next decade,” RISJ said. 

This year’s report also warned about AI. “New technological disruption from Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just around the corner, threatening to release a further wave of personalized, but potentially unreliable content. Against this background, it will be more important than ever for journalism to stand out in terms of its accuracy, its utility, and its humanity.”

“There will be many different paths but innovation, flexibility, and a relentless audience focus will be some of the key ingredients for success,” the RISJ said. –

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.