More than 3 decades after Filipinos reinstated democracy, press freedom is once again under siege in the Philippines.
In January 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the registration of Rappler for allegedly violating the Constitution and the Anti-Dummy Law – a move seen as nothing short of harassment aimed at stifling media in the country.
Seen as an extension of various threats by President Rodrigo Duterte against media organizations, this action by the administration will surely just be the beginning.
It is also one of the worst moves against the media since the declaration of martial law by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. But what did each administration do that threatened press freedom?
Press freedom was one of the main victims when the Philippines was placed under Martial Law by then president Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972. The dictator, fearing the power of the media, made sure that his dictatorial government had full control over all news agencies. (READ: Marcos’ Martial Law orders)
After signing Proclamation No. 1081, Marcos released Letter of Instruction No. 1 which ordered the “takeover and control” of all newspapers, magazines, and radio and television facilities.
Among media outlets in the country affected were the Manila Daily Bulletin, ABS-CBN, the Manila Times, Philippine Free Press, Philippine Graphic, and the Daily Mirror, among others.
Marcos justified the order by saying that it was meant to “prevent the use of privately-owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities, and all other media of communications for propaganda purposes against the government.”
Aside from this, through his various Presidential Decrees, he penalized the printing of materials that “can undermine integrity of the government” and cancelled franchises and permits of media facilities.
Information relayed to the public were highly censored and subject to approval by a government body. Those who refused to go through the process – or were deemed to have published or written materials subversive to the government – were arrested and denied due process.
The People Power Revolution of 1986 toppled the Marcos dictatorship and made Corazon Aquino – the widow of opposition figure Benigno Aquino Jr – president.
Under her administration, jumpstarted by the formulation of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the freedoms previously taken away by Marcos were reinstated.
But the years after the reinstatement of democracy were marred by plots to overthrow the Aquino administration. These actions were spearheaded by members of the military. The way the government handled these attempts were also heavily criticized.
According to the Reporters Without Borders, in dealing with the media, Aquino was “uncomfortable with it but managed to deal with it conscious of the vital role of media in a democracy.”
She, however, filed a libel case against journalist Luis Beltran over his column that said Aquino hid under the bed during one mutiny in August 1987. The National Telecommunications Council, in 1989, also ordered the closure of two radio stations for airing “rebel propaganda” but the orders were eventually lifted the same month.
At least 21 journalists were killed under her administration, according to data from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
Reporters Without Borders also said that the administration of Fidel V. Ramos recognized the role of the media in pursuing and upholding democracy.
However, CMFR monitoring showed that at least 11 members of the media were killed under the Ramos administration.
While Aquino and Ramos had amicable relations with the media, Reporters Without Borders described Joseph Ejercito Estrada as “less tolerant.” He, after all, used his influence to put pressure on several media outlets deemed critical of him and his administration.
In 1999, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) saw itself at the receiving end of pressure when it was openly criticized by Estrada for alleged bias.
Advertisers, prompted by the President, withdrew from the country’s largest broadsheet. In a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Inquirer told the media watchdog that 3 government-run corporations, also withdrew their advertising.
While the Inquirer “survived” the ad boycott, things were much worse for the Manila Times which was hit by Estrada over a story which described him as an “unwitting ninong (godfather)” to a government contract.
The story, written by business reporter Joel Gaborni, was published on February 16, 1999. Less than a month after, on March 9, Estrada filed a P100-million libel suit against the newspaper claiming that it was an attack against “reputation, honor, and dignity” and “honesty and integrity as a public official.”
Under pressure from the former president, on April 8, the Gokongwei family, then owners of The Manila Times, ran a front-page apology to Estrada. That apology triggered the resignation of senior editors and writers and sparked media debate on press freedom.
Estrada withdrew the libel charge against the newspaper yet continued government pressure on the Gokongweis. The family eventually sold the newspaper to Katrina Legarda and Reghis Romero, who only served as a front for Estrada crony Mark Jimenez.
On July 23, 1999, The Manila Times printed its last issue under the Gokongwei family. The new owners resumed operations a few months after.
Today, the newspaper is owned by former Arroyo publicist Dante Ang, who is President Duterte's special envoy for international public relations. (READ: Manila Times' big boss is Duterte's PR guy)
The administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was marred by libel suits, a raid, and the single deadliest attack against the media. (READ: Arroyo's Fortress and the Nosy Press)
In fact, in November 2006, then Malacañang reporter (and now Rappler editor) Mia Gonzales was nearly arrested while inside the Palace grounds in relation to a libel case filed by Arroyo against her over a 2004 Newsbreak report.
Not taking the threats sitting down, journalists – from Newsbreak, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Malaya, and the Daily Tribune – filed a class civil suit amounting to P12.5 million against Arroyo. The libel cases, they said, created a “chilling effect” on the Philippine press.
The move by the presidential spouse who had been in the middle of controversies relating to corruption and use of influence was condemned by local and international rights groups.
In 2007, Arroyo dropped all libel cases.
The Daily Tribune was also subjected to harassment when in February 2006, the police raided its office after alleging that it was a “possible source of destablization materials.” The Supreme Court, in May 2006, declared the raid “plain censorship.”
The end of 2009 was a terrible year for press freedom when the single deadliest attack against the media happened when 32 journalists among the 58 killed in a massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao province. They were attacked, brutally killed, and buried using a government-owned backhoe.
The powerful Ampatuan clan – ally of the Arroyo administration – was believed to have plotted the massacre to derail the candidacy of political rival Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu in the 2010 gubernatorial elections.
It was only 10 years later, in December 2020, when Ampatuan brothers Datu Andal Jr, Zaldy, and Anwar Sr were convicted of 57 counts of murder.
Many groups refer to the Arroyo administration as the period when media killings peaked post-Marcos. Data from CMFR shows that 83 media workers were killed from 2001 to 2010.
While there was no concrete policy or action against the media, then president Benigno Aquino III was known for his constant appeals to the press for “balanced” reporting.
The problem, however, lies in the huge number of journalists killed under his administration.
At least 31 members of the press were killed during the Aquino presidency – 2nd to Arroyo in terms of magnitude post-Marcos – according to data from the CMFR.
Even before President Duterte took his oath of office in 2016, he was known to have a “colorful” relationship with the media.
In a press conference in May 2016, he said that journalists are legitimate targets of assassination “if you're a son of a bitch.”
"Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch," Duterte said when asked how he would address the problem of media killings in the Philippines.
That was just the start of his tirades against the media. Barely two years into his presidency, Duterte and his government have continuously threatened, harassed, and made antagonists out of several media outlets.
In March 2017, Duterte called certain media entities "bastos" (rude) for writing supposedly unfair news about him and his administration.
These threats continued in the next months.
In April 2017, Duterte said that he wants to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, further accusing the network of “swindling” after it did not show his already paid political ads during the 2016 campaign season. (READ: Duterte's ace against ABS-CBN, the Philippines' biggest network)
The same month, after being at the receiving end of threats, the Prieto family announced it was in talks with Ramon Ang, head of San Miguel Corporation, for the sale of its majority stake in the Inquirer. Ang was also described by Duterte as his friend.
The move, according to the family, was a “strategic decision” but insiders said it was due to continued harassment and pressure.
During his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2017, Duterte claimed that social news site Rappler is "fully owned" by Americans, warning the company that this violates the 1987 Constitution.
This claim reflects the disinformation directed by pro-Duterte bloggers and various allies of the administration against Rappler even during the election period. The news outlet has consistently debunked this claim. (READ: Debunking lies about Rappler)
Almost 6 months after, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler's registration for allegedly violating the Constitution and the Anti-Dummy Law.
This move is nothing short of harassment aimed at stifling press freedom in the Philippines. On December 14, 2016, the Office of the Solicitor General wrote the SEC, asking it to investigate Rappler over its Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs).
Duterte then banned Rappler reporter Pia Ranada from entering Malacañang in February 2018, and eventually from any event with the President. In April 2019, Rappler filed a petition before the Supreme Court against the coverage ban, calling on the High Court to rule that Duterte does not have power the over media. (READ: Everything you need to know about Rappler's Malacañang coverage ban)
Rappler's CEO Maria Ressa, in February 2019, was arrested and detained overnight in relation to a cyber libel complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng, one of the many cases against her and Rappler under the Duterte administration.
The year 2020 also proved to be a year where Duterte increased his attack on press freedom in the country.
In June 15, 2020, the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 convicted Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.
It was in 2020 when Duterte also made good on his promise to block ABS-CBN's franchise. In February 2020, Calida filed a quo warranto petition, asking the SC to void the franchises of the network giant "as they are unlawfully exercising their legislative franchises."
The House of Representatives, meanwhile, proceeded with a series of hearings on bills for the new franchise of ABS-CBN after stalling. The existing franchise of the network, however, expired on May 4 without any concrete action from legislators.
On May 5, a few hours after the National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease and desist order, ABS-CBN signed off.
On July 10, the House committee on legislative franchises adopted a resolution to reject the bills seeking to grant ABS-CBN a new franchise.
Several journalists and media outlets were also red-tagged by the Duterte administration in 2020. Official Facebook pages of government agencies became a platform of attacks against local media.
On December 10, the Philippine National Police arrested journalist Lady Ann Salem, editor of Manila Today. Salem's publication Manila Today was red-tagged by the controversial National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
At least 19 journalists have been killed under the Duterte administration as of November 2020, according to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines.
The Philippines also ranked 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index for 2020. The report highlighted the state-sponsored troll armies and the "national-populism," which creates intolerance towards critical journalism in the country. – Rappler.com
Photos from Agence France-Presse, The Official Gazette, and Rappler files
Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.