This report was presented during the “1st Philippine Media Safety Summit: Surviving Pandemics and Other Provocations by Challenging Current Paradigms” on May 2 at the Luxent Hotel in Quezon City in observance of the 31st World Press Freedom Day.

IT HAS become a tradition for the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) to present its findings on the state of media freedom in collaboration with other organizations. For some eight years now, it has undertaken this exercise with co-founders of the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All (FMFA) network which includes the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), MindaNews, and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

All those letters may be just a bowl of alphabet soup for many members of the media. But these acronyms are an expression of solidarity among journalists which stands out in Asia where few countries have been able to demonstrate the capacity to confront and counter the perils they face as a community. It stands on the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. We know how often some media groups are tempted to go it alone, holding back from joint action and thus unable to put up a stronger defense of their freedom and autonomy.

The FMFA has been holding a World Press Freedom program focused on the data collected and analyzed by CMFR Alerts staff. CMFR corroborates its data with reports filed by the NUJP.

CMFR started to review cases reported in the news and write up case studies on journalist killings in 1992. We have since added another database to track other attacks and threats that do not involve killings but are just as chilling on the freedom and autonomy of the press.

Why is this important?

As in any battle, effective defense requires knowing the reality, the landscape, and the terrain of journalism and news. Knowing the sources of threat and attack and understanding the means of perpetration is half the battle. We must know what is going on, share the knowledge about it and the nuances and changes through different periods, studying the cases that indicate the quality of press freedom under different administrations. The process exposes the outlook of public officials and those in power, especially the conduct of law enforcement agents.

These developments must be tracked and reported so everyone knows how their effects can be mitigated and what we as a community can do to encourage a societal or all-of-nation approach.

The cases however can be an inert resource if all we do is present them as a ritual involving little action. Lately, our efforts have been focused on spreading the word, understanding how the dangers can be rooted in the mindset or outlook of those in power, of those assigned to police and other law enforcement agencies – who may tend to regard the work of the press as inimical to their work.

The writing of this report involved a quick recall of President Rodrigo Duterte’s treatment of the press, his response to even a simple question about his health, and the crude insult to the journalist who dared. The deployment of social influencers, of troll armies to demonize mainstream press succeeded in promoting the disinformation through social media bloggers and vloggers, who turned the public against the newspapers, TV, and online news, which produced news and information through a process of verification. Up to now, we have yet to know the extent of harm Duterte has inflicted on the press and its freedom in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, despite the change in style and outlook of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the current president has yet to act on his words upholding the place of the press as a pillar of democracy.

The change in style in the presidency of Marcos Jr. has been welcomed by so many groups and sectors. It is important however to measure how much he has done, and what action he has taken to dismantle the apparatus to establish the free press as an “enemy of the state” just because it is critical of the government.

So far there has been no dramatic change in actual conduct. The offensive operations remain; the official mechanisms are as they were, and the proper decorum and conduct of President Marcos can be a distraction, making us feel and believe that we are not as vulnerable under his watch.

So let us examine the data:

Attacks and threats against media workers

CMFR and NUJP recorded around 135 incidents of attacks and threats against media workers from 1 July 2022 to 30 April 2024. This number exceeds the number of attacks and threats in the first 22 months of Duterte’s term.

During the period, there were 75 cases of intimidation. These include 45 cases of red-tagging and 19 cases of surveillance.

Eight journalists were charged with libel and cyber libel. In addition, four of the five arrests recorded during the period were for past cyber libel charges.

There were three killings during the period: Rey Blanco on 18 September 2022, Percy Lapid on 3 October 2022, and Cresencio Bundoquin on 30 May 2023.

Lapid was a highly popular broadcaster who criticized Duterte, Marcos, and government actions. His killing was given prominence with each action taken by the Department of Justice reported by the media. Lapid’s killing involved a procedure closely similar to a plot of a local film, which presented the temporary release of convicts so they could do the job to return to prison after, with proper incentives or compensation. In Lapid’s case, convicts planned the killing inside the prison, outsourcing the gunman and his cohorts to carry out the crime. The entire scheme involved the complicity of prison officials. The police investigation identified a ranking official as the alleged mastermind, who remains at large as of press time.

Metro Manila had the highest number of incidents at 82; followed by Eastern Visayas, 16. Unfortunately, CMFR could not determine whether these numbers may have to do with the press in Metro Manila being more critical in its coverage of government. Tame and tepid reporting does not provoke attack or threat. Who needs to get their hands dirty eliminating a silent watchdog?  A critical press on the other hand would be endangered and may be subjected to all kinds of actions against life or livelihood.

State agents as perpetrators

Of the 135 cases, 50 cases or 37 percent were allegedly perpetrated by state agents: 32 from state forces which include the military, police, and the NTF-ELCAC; nine from the National Government; eight from the local government; and one from a foreign government.

This development should be noted as a focal point; actions of state agents must be taken as deeply disturbing and deserve focused strategic action, campaign, or advocacy.

Evaluation of press performance

The state of the press, its safety and security should involve a review of press performance. Let us say at this point that coverage leaves much to be desired, although there are exceptions. It has not helped that public officials seem reluctant to be subjected to hard and tough questions. The Palace has been careful about choosing only members of the media who will not ask hard and tough questions to interview President Marcos. Unfortunately, perhaps, hoping for such access, the media have shown themselves generally compliant in covering policies and issues.

Most reports are based on what the government has to say or initiated by the government, rather than set by an independent editorial agenda. The conduct of the Marcos government has not changed from Duterte’s time in that it has not been opened up and increased access to critical journalists.

CMFR in its last report in 2023 at the FMFA World Press Freedom Day program in partnership with the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication provided a matrix of the decrease in time and space given to news. The situation has not improved much.  

CNN Philippines closed down in January 2024, taking away a huge percentage of news and current affairs programming in free TV.

We are aware that the diminution of news space and time is also a global experience, given the continuing domination of social media as a source of news. This should offer little consolation. In a democracy that has held up press freedom since 1986, the shrinkage of news in media further weakens the state of public education. News has always been and should always remain one of the ways by which society continues to learn.

Less news diminishes the vigor of our public forum and the quality of our public exchange.

Media and human rights

Let me focus briefly on the issue of human rights.

We should note the organic connection between democracy and human rights and media and human rights. The state of human rights in a country is usually indicated in the news about these violations. But the reporting of human rights violations, involving activists or journalists are often reported only as ordinary crime, without the framework of understanding the place of human rights in society.

Journalists must be sensitive to this need, that media can do much to promote citizen awareness of their human rights and how perhaps the legal community can assist in their defense against illegal police actions.

CMFR has noted how media reports on unlawful arrests and detention do not refer to these as human rights violations, as perhaps, reporters are not informed enough about due process and legal requirements that must be observed in the enforcement of the law.

Reporting on human rights requires more training and education for journalists. Producing human rights stories should be a goal, including the training required so that newsrooms can include these stories as an integral part of the news agenda.

CMFR recommends more human rights reporting on the part of the press. But it is also aware of the dangers of human rights reporting when dealing with public officials who believe that critical reports identify journalists among the enemies of the state.

The condition makes it imperative for journalists to regain the public they have lost. We must work to connect with the people we claim to serve. Press freedom after all is not a value that only journalists can enjoy. Press freedom is designed to create a society where citizens are continually educated, learning what they must know, helping them develop the judgment to choose good leaders, and committed to democratic development so citizens can exercise their rights without fear.

Public support for the press provide the best defense for press freedom. If people believe in the value of good journalism, they will hold accountable those who attack and threaten journalists.

Providing journalism as a public service is not going to be easy. Newsrooms may have to re-think the old ways and explore new approaches to engaging the people again. If news has lost its value and journalists their primacy as gatekeepers, it is time to review the situation and find ways of restoring these values.

This may involve creating new news models so you can connect with the new ways that people live their lives.

In the end, we have no choice but to engage in a collective assessment of how we may have contributed to the loss of public confidence in the service we provided.

We have no other option but to reclaim their confidence, earn it, win back the public, and innovate so we can engage their attention. For without the people’s engagement and their support, the journalism we produce would be pointless.