World Press Freedom Day this year comes at a very interesting, to say the least, period for the Philippine media, with an administration under which freedom of the press and of expression took a further beating and the country on the cusp of choosing new leaders.
Indeed, ever since 1991 when the United Nations General Assembly declared World Press Freedom Day, journalists in the Philippines and in many other countries in the world continue to mark the lack of press freedom, rather than a surfeit of it, on May 3.
As Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) recently noted in its latest World Press Freedom Index, press freedom is still wanting in the country that is touted as Asia’s oldest democracy. The Philippines maintained its dismal showing on the Index, placing 138th out of 180 countries, a slight improvement over its 141st ranking in 2014, while its score deteriorated, sliding 3.47 points from 2014’s 41.9 to 44.6 last year.
As RSF aptly noted, the impunity with which media killings and extrajudicial executions in general continue to be committed has led to more journalists arming themselves — something the NUJP continues to discourage but the authorities have time and again promoted — while others “succumb to self-censorship or corruption.”
The continued fudging over by the administration of President Benigno Aquino III of the issue of media killings contributes to this atmosphere of impunity. When the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) came out with its 2015 report last February depicting the state of impunity on media killings in the country, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. was quick to point out that the situation of the Philippines was only made worse by the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre of 58 civilians, 32 of whom were media workers. It is as if the problem is only about death figures.
In 25 years, from 1990 to 2015, the IFJ recorded 146 media killings in the country, or an average of six journalists and/or media workers killed annually. If we take out the Ampatuan massacre victims, that places the annual average at four. Whether that is six or four, the issue is the persistence of these extra-judicial killings and the fact that only about 10 of these cases have led to convictions of perpetrators, although no mastermind has been pinned down.
So far, 31 journalists and media workers were killed under President Aquino’s watch.
At these times when a journalist is killed every five days throughout the world, Irina Bokova, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has emphasized that the safety of journalists is important in maintaining free and independent journalism, which in turn, is essential in the march to progress of democratic societies.
The country’s failure to have a Freedom of Information (FOI) law has further muddled the environment for press freedom and freedom of expression. It was unfortunate that despite President Aquino’s campaign pledges in 2010 for more freedoms and transparency in government, we saw yet again the death of FOI legislation in Congress that is under the firm grip of his political allies.
UNESCO’s Bokova has counseled: “Access to Information is a fundamental freedom and part of the basic human right to freedom of expression. Receiving and imparting information, both offline and online, is a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, and rule of law.”
In its report, RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire noted: “We are entering a new era of propaganda where new technologies allow the low-cost dissemination of their own communication, their information, as dictated. On the other side, journalists are the ones who get in the way.” He might was well be referring to the generally chaotic atmosphere surrounding this year’s campaign period in the run-up to the May 9 general polls.
“Today, it is increasingly easy for powers to appeal directly to the public through new technologies, and so there is a greater degree of violence against those who represent independent information,” he added.
This is evident in a worrying trend evident on social media in the current electoral campaign in the country, in which people bash news outfits or even individual journalists for reports that do not fit their preconceived notions or openly threaten the same should they refuse to “shift sides.”
While these may be shrugged off as part of the election fever, it is disturbing that at least one political camp apparently plans to institutionalize what the RSF’s Deloire called the use of technology for the “dissemination of their own communication, their information, as dictated” through a program that will allow its supporters to bypass the “elite media” whom they perceived as biased against them.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with harnessing technology to disseminate information and muster support. But premising this on a clear hostility toward a segment of the media, even if disagreeable, is dangerous as it could easily and quickly expand to include anyone and everyone who do not subscribe to a single view.
We note with great concern the experiences of bullying and harassment of our colleagues Ellen Tordesillas and Raffy Santos for their work on reporting about the campaign activities and attendant political issues of a presidential aspirant. It is important that journalists are not hindered by threats in carrying out the work that they do because our people deserve quality information at this crucial period of our country’s history so that they are able to decide better in the ballot.
We also express concern over the safety and security of our colleagues in the provinces, especially those in areas dubbed as election hotspots, who will be covering the poll conduct. We understand that they are under extremely dangerous situations especially in their effort to uncover the poll manipulations which to this day has refused to leave our electoral system despite the adoption of automated vote counting.
On this day, the NUJP stands with allied organizations here and around the world in reiterating our resolve to defend freedom of the press and of expression and continue the struggle for the full enjoyment of these rights.
We are confident that all independent Filipino media workers will remain united to resist any and all attempts to further erode our rights and liberties, and to press the next administration to enact measures to enhance press freedom, such as the FOI law, and repeal those that restrict it, such as the criminal libel law and the cyber libel provision of the Anti-Cybercrime law.
We urge the Filipino people to join us in vigilance because press freedom does not belong to the press but to you, in the service of your right to know. [ May 3, 2016]