Strong record of empowerment: The feminist movement in PH media

Current situation of attacks and threats confront the gains of women journalists in the workplace

HISTORICALLY, WOMEN in the Philippines have been set apart from the experience of their counterparts in most Asian countries. Filipino women had gained enough stature to enter trade and professions. Their position in the family was recognized, they shared in the same rights of the male heir. There were enough women role models who projected their capacity to take on roles and responsibilities in professional and civic realms. 

Through centuries of change, substantive policy gains strengthened the force of law on custom and culture to protect women, while recognizing their significant contribution to national development in almost all its aspects. 

The hard work of pioneer generations secured the momentum of the women’s movement, enough to overcome the “historical roots” and “centuries of colonization” that supported gender stereotyping and outright barring of women from the workplace.  

“We have made great strides,” said Dr. Sylvia “Guy” Claudio in an interview with CMFR, as she discussed the plight of women and the achievements of the women’s rights movement. 

Claudio, Professor Emeritus at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD), holds doctorate degrees in medicine and psychology. She also previously served as the Dean of UP’s CSWCD. Since the Marcos dictatorship, she helped establish civil organizations focused on health and women’s rights such as the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health, and provides free counseling services for women and LGBT survivors of violence.

She described the situation of women in the country as “a glass half-empty or glass half-full,” half-empty because “barriers remain” in furthering women’s rights but half-full because of gains seen in promoting and protecting women’s rights in legislation and as workers. 

One such industry where Filipino women have undoubtedly flourished is the Philippine press. In 1987, scholar Doreen Fernandez documented the rise of women in the Philippine Media in a paper for the journal “Media Asia.” Fernandez explained how Philippine journalism came to be led, not just participated in, by women—evolving from “stereotype” to “liberation.” She focused on this turning point when in the early eighties, women journalists questioned government actions, challenging the limits of media censorship imposed by the Marcos’ military regime.

Even before Martial Law, women journalists had worked their way out of the “lipstick beat” when “news hens” recorded the events and milestones of high society. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and Julie Yap Daza were regular columnists on Op-Ed pages. Kerima Polotan Tuvera, a novelist, was a leading writer of articles of the fabled weekly magazine, Philippine Free Press. There were others. In 1981, Hans Menzi, the publisher of the leading Bulletin Today and an open supporter of President Marcos, noted the lifting of Martial Law on paper and added more women columnists to write for the Op-Ed section. These columns critiqued, tweaked and teased, making irreverent fun of and seriously questioned follies, foibles and the continuing practice of warrantless arrests of the regime, exploring the dissent and dissatisfaction in the national situation. 

Dr. Sylvia Claudio (below) interviewed by CMFR Team.

The alternative press which gained nationwide circulation probably had more women than men as editors and reporters, supporting as well as recording not just the “parliament on the streets.” These also tracked both the two insurgencies led by the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). 

Progress shown by inclusive policies

Global forces helped secure the place of women in Philippine newsrooms. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995 resulted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a landmark policy document on gender equality adopted unanimously by 189 countries. The section on “Women and the media” called attention to the situation of the strategic objectives of this area, focused on increasing women’s participation in and access to media to promote “balanced and non-stereotyped” portrayals of women in news. 

CMFR, which was founded in 1989 launched a nation-wide training program for journalists to report gender-aware and gender-sensitive news, including broadening the scope of news interest in women’s activities, apart from the standard “villain, vamp and victim” stereotypes. Women NGOs were engaged in various ways to promote the real and actual profile of women in Philippine society, highlighting the strides in professions that were still regarded as male-dominated. 

The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW), formerly the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW) documented the strides made in women’s participation in media. 

In 2013, the PCW in collaboration with CMFR and other media organizations, produced a guidebook “Towards a Gender-Fair Media”   which noted policies that showed continued progress in addressing women’s issues: 

  • The Labor Code of the Philippines, which specified that “The state shall afford protection to labor, promote full employment, ensure equal work opportunities regardless of sex, race, or creed.”
  • The Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995
  • The Magna Carta of Women, which fulfills the Philippine government’s commitment to the United Nations General Assembly’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by the Philippines in 1981. 

In 2017, the first edition of the guidebook was updated and given a new title: “The Gender-Fair Media Guidebook.” The updated version discussed international conferences focused on strengthening commitments to promoting and protecting women’s rights, including those of women in the media industry. 

Claudio added that legislation, in particular, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 or the RH Law and the Safe Spaces Act of 2019 are hard-won victories for Filipino women. 

Worsened by Duterte

But despite the legal battles won and decades of advocacy, patriarchal forces continued to uphold male domination, represented by the inherent conservatism of church and family. 

It took only six years of Rodrigo Duterte to unleash the current display of Filipino misogyny running deep in the country’s cultural DNA. “The pendulum swings back and forth. Duterte pushed the pendulum to awful points. Duterte brought it to the public sphere, in social media, at levels where he is making policy pronouncements that were clearly astoundingly violent,” said Claudio in the same interview.

Duterte was not alone in this regressive shift around the world. The rise of populist presidents, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the American President Donald Trump. While in office, President Duterte frequently spouted sexist remarks, openly cursed women and women journalists. He and Trump were offensive, but Duterte may have outdone all others in the use of crude sexual language as well as sexist conduct on the presidential stage. 

Claudio recalled how Duterte and members of Congress slut-shamed Leila de Lima, a strong and open critic of Duterte even before he became president. Claudio explained how the law was used against her “merely because she dared to challenge him (Duterte).” Claudio also added how the pandemic, Duterte’s prolonged and harsh lockdowns, indicated more cases of violence in homes where women and girls were made vulnerable to violence from their male kin, including incest. 

The woman’s organization, Gabriela, said Duterte’s remarks emboldened perpetrators, proved by a spike in reported rape cases during his term in comparison to figures in the past ten years. “The number of female victims of human trafficking spiked by 66.7% from 252 in 2018 to 420 in 2019. Rape cases rose by 30% during the same period,” the group said in a GMA News Online report.

In the media and just during the Duterte administration, CMFR documented 265 cases of press freedom violations from June 30, 2016 to June 30, 2022, 69 of which involved women journalists.

These numbers reflect the many women who work in the media. Even during the 1990s, women working in the Philippine press were already above targets set by the Beijing document. A quick scan of editorial newsrooms show that these numbers have continued to rise. Some newsrooms like Altermidya, Bulatlat, and Rappler are led by strong women while more than half or 50.99% of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) members are women.

According to the International Womens’ Media Foundation (IWMF) in 2011, 50% of Filipino women journalists “are at parity with men in middle management, which includes senior editors and chiefs of correspondence.”

Harassment in Workplaces, Battles in the Online Space

Sexual Harassment

In December last year, noted the “widespread phenomenon” and data which showed that one out of five people experienced harassment in employment. As Duterte had doubled down his power with threats on the media, specifically those involved in the publication of numbers killed during his “war on drugs,” the work-related risks were two-fold for women journalists. 

“It’s underreported if not unreported. Many times, these issues, no matter how prevalent, are discussed in hush, in group chats, in very small circles. But it’s happening in newsrooms, in corridors of power,” Janess Ellao, a woman journalist of alternative media Bulatlat and officer of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) told CMFR in an interview as she discussed cases of sexual harassment and other issues faced by journalists and media workers in the country. She is also co-author of the Handbook of Research on Discrimination, Gender, Disparity, and Safety Risks in Journalism published in 2020.

Ellao explained that she has documented cases where perpetrators were colleagues, government officials, or other sources. These may include touching, verbal prodding to use one’s beauty for an “exclusive”, crowding one’s personal space, and remarks masked as jokes, among others. She recalled her personal experience, when she sensed a source touching her arm, and when she moved away, the man started yelling, complaining that she was impolite or “bastos” and then labeled her a “communist.”

Ellao said women journalists only rarely step forward to report and discuss these cases, because it would project women in the media as weak. But as pointed out by Claudio, untreated violence has deep psychological consequences such as low self-esteem, depression, and forces other women to leave the industry entirely.

While some newsrooms have policies on women safety in workplaces, not every newsroom has established standards of what is acceptable conduct among men and women co-workers. Ellao and Claudio agreed that policies should be reviewed and the environment in newsrooms should be safer.

The IWMF’s 2011 report documented the percentage of newsrooms with specific gender-related policies. While none of the six Philippine news companies surveyed as part of the study had a “specific policy on gender equality,” all but one (83%) of the companies have instituted a policy against sexual harassment. IWMF observed that a specific gender equality policy may be “unnecessary” given the national scope of the Magna Carta on Women that has been in place since 2009.    

Janess Ellao (below) interviewed by CMFR Team.

Claudio also pointed out that there is a problem in the idea among women and LGBT in the media that “you’re not supposed to be the news.” For her, when journalists experience unequal treatment or victimization, “you are the story. You have to be the story. We should congratulate any woman who makes herself the story if that’s what happened.”

Threats and attacks on digital space

Further, most threats and attacks against women journalists have been on digital space. Dr. Claudio pointedly said, “Slut shaming is reserved for women” – citing the case about Rappler’s Maria Ressa. Ressa, since her critical reporting of Duterte, received death threats, rape threats, doxxing, DDOS attacks, racist, sexist, and misogynistic abuse sent via social media and text messages. At one point, Ressa recorded receiving more than 90 hate messages an hour on Facebook. Claudio added that the Duterte administration “ruined a woman’s reputation first and then used the law and weaponized social media.”

In the digital space, netizens usually protected with their anonymity, become so bold as to undertake a ceaseless barrage of threats on text and emails, including rape and filing of cases for their reports, spewing the crudest of insults, sexist and body-shaming remarks. Even male journalists and their families have not been exempt, Ellao noted, as threats target their mothers, daughters and female members of their family. 

In 2022, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published “The Chilling,” pointing to the sharp increase of online violence against women journalists due to populist politics, disinformation. It described social media as a dangerous platform. Researchers found that 73% of women journalists said they experienced online violence, in which 20% said they had been attacked or abused offline. Online violence against women journalists aimed to “belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; and professionally discredit,” women journalists, creating a “chilling effect” on women journalists and “their sources, colleagues, and audiences.”

In the Philippines, “The Chilling” found that Facebook has been the main vector of online violence against women journalists in the country, with the main perpetrators being “political actors such as government officials.” The research expounded how “online attacks are primarily politically-motivated, and that those who cover sensitive issues or report critically about governmental matters are the primary targets, with women being disproportionately targeted.”

Despite progress made by many employers over the past years, only 25% of women journalists said they reported the incidents to their employers, and these did not gain support or assistance. 10% advised them to “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up” while 2% asked what the women did to “provoke” the attack. Apart from victim-blaming, in some cases, women journalists are actively discouraged from speaking about their experiences. 

Enduring battles

Fast forward to 2023 and women journalists face a new president with the familiar surname. Under the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) has so far documented 47 incidents of press freedom violations from June 30, 2022 to March 8, 2023, with 14 incidents involving women journalists. While these numbers don’t specify as gender-based attacks, these highlight the dual risk of women in the media, as women and as truth-tellers.

Claudio has noted the “difference in language” used by Marcos Jr.—but the departure must provide more support for women’s rights. However, she acknowledged that the president can work on more immediate economic and rights issues that also greatly impact women’s welfare and social development, like food supply issues and human rights. “To win our feminist struggles, we need democracy, human rights, and economic development,” she explained. 

As for Ellao, women journalists now “really have to be brave. While it’s not as brazen as before, it’s there. Minsan mas nakakatakot (sometimes it’s scarier) because it’s not happening in your face.”

These numbers and stories only prove how the age-old problem of misogyny cannot be erased overnight. And in the course of time, women advocates must check the situation with current data. 

The risks and challenges to women journalists’ safety, autonomy, and freedom to tell the truth are on the rise. Women must seek allies from among industry leaders, business, and the public to recognize how threats against women diminish press freedom, given the number of women in the media.  

Awareness must not wane and reports and discussions must continue beyond the 31 days of Women’s Month.