State of Press Freedom in the Philippines 2023
THIS ANNUAL exercise is rooted in the context of human rights as a manifestation as well as mechanism of democracy. CMFR has always understood the protection of press freedom as a right not only of journalists and members of media but of all citizens. The press provides them with the kind of news and information that empowers them as citizens with the capacity to participate in the public forum, to express their ideas, and finally to choose their leaders wisely as without democrat leaders, democracy falls apart.
The collection of data related to press freedom has enabled not just CMFR but all its FMFA partners to plan activities, promote media solidarity when journalists are attacked and to identify cases that demonstrate how easily human rights can be trampled upon or trivialized by those in power.
This year CMFR is presenting two levels of evaluation: data related to the level and the nature of attacks and threats against press freedom based on the consolidated data of CMFR and National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Additionally, it presents the map of space and time given to news and public affairs in the Philippine broadcast media.
The focus on broadcast is in line with the dramatic decline of print as a medium for the various reasons which have been discussed in the past and which we will not take up at this time.
This year, with hardly any news cheering the event, the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) celebrated its Golden Jubilee, a span of 50 years when broadcast media became a prime source of political information and news for Filipinos. For good or bad, radio and TV sustained operations during periods of dramatic change. Established during the Martial Law regime, it presented itself as a mechanism of self-regulation, while observing the terms of coverage set by government. KBP members were on site to cover People Power events of February 1986, the shaky transition to democracy and EDSA Dos which threw out the actor president Joseph Estrada.
This report focuses on the present, the state of the press in the country in the first ten months of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Attacks and Threats under Marcos Jr.
Duterte’s personal animosity toward the media was contagious – as other public officials and government agencies followed his example, displaying their own sensitivities or outright hostility toward journalists. CMFR reports each year noted the increase assaults, harassment, banning of journalists from public events, among many others. When Duterte declared his resolve to end the Communist insurgency, law enforcement agencies, through the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) initiated more red-tagging of media members and organizations. Note please that there is no law that bans any ideology or organization for its ideology. Media must update the public on the insurgency; it does not make these reporters insurgents.
And yet media and individual journalists have become highly vulnerable to such actions by law enforcement agencies. Also targeted are NGOs which publish content related to their advocacy have also been targeted. Uniformed officials have even raided university libraries for supposedly subversive publications violating learning institutions’ protected academic freedom. Unfortunately, media reports on these without note of these actions being unconstitutional.
President Marcos Jr. has been amiable toward the press. His brief speech at the KBP jubilee noted the country’s low ranking at 157 in the global press freedom index. He said he hoped to improve this ranking, and asked the KBP to work with him. His performance as speaker has turned the page from his predecessor.
But actions speak louder than words. And there has been no real action to prevent the kinds of attacks that made the Duterte regime as dark as it could ever be for the media and for democracy. The improvement shows that at least, attacking journalists and media is no longer government’s number one priority.
CMFR and NUJP recorded 75 attacks and threats against media workers from June 30, 2022 to April 30, 2023.
40 of the cases of intimidation include 31 cases of red tagging media members or news orgs and 8 cases of surveillance.
10 cases of libel and cyber libel involve two 2 arrests and one 1 conviction.
There were two killings during the period: Rey Blanco on 18 September 2022 and Percy Lapid on 3 October 2022. The latter which featured a highly popular broadcaster who criticized Duterte, Marcos and government actions was followed by the media. Its color elements made it easy to follow. Lapid’s killing involved a procedure featured in a local film where convicts in prison were hired as assassins, the entire scheme plotted with complicity of prison officials. Police investigation identified a ranking official as the alleged mastermind.
State agents as alleged perpetrators
Including Lapid’s case, 41 cases involved state agents as alleged perpetrators.: 23 from the national government; 12 from police; and, 6 from local government.
The fact that the category of red-tagging shows up as the highest number of attacks/threats suggests that Marcos has not departed from Duterte’s custom of deploying law-enforcement agents on various fronts. In fact, 75 exceeds the number of attacks/threats in any one year during the term of Duterte. This suggests that Marcos has not pulled away from the pattern showing state agents themselves actively going after the media.
Another level of media containment
To examine another aspect of control or containment. CMFR scanned the media landscape and mapped the space and time given to news and public affairs – which would show whether the free press provides the kind of news and information that enables and empowers citizens in a democracy.
These programs ensure that the news media are providing news as a public service, making people aware of what is going on, interpreting current events, helping them think about the issues, engaging them so that their voices can be heard. Most significantly, news should help citizens to think about what they themselves can, including choosing their leaders well.
The potential for doing this resides more in the broadcast media as print lost its primacy. In the nineties, the growth of the community press expanded democratic space, competing with national newspapers in the provinces. The pandemic however forced many of these enterprises to close down, change owners, move online. One only has to check the number of newspapers in any convenient store to confirm the diminished presence of print in the news market.
Philippine TV Landscape and the Digital Shift
Television arrived in the Philippines in 1952 and into the third millennium had surged as a primary source of entertainment as well as a major source of news and political information.
Even the spread of social media did not dislodge TV’s primacy in the Philippine media landscape. A survey conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2019 found a TV set in 97.5% of households in the country. As advertising revenues allow free access to TV programs, the medium has dominated the Filipinos’ consumption of news and information with the evening newscast and late night public affairs talk shows.
Of course, we know that more than anything else, Filipinos turned to television – for entertainment, for diversion, to be in the know about celebrities, connected to the faces and personalities in show business, in noontime variety shows, in day or primetime soap operas.
But recent developments have caused dramatic changes in national viewing.
The pandemic and the government’s closure of the major broadcast network, ABS-CBN, caused a tectonic shift in program content and public access to channels.
COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of ABS-CBN
The two combined to cause drastic changes in country’s TV viewing habits. The stringent measures and extraordinary length of the lockdown forced most people to stay at home – which increased TV viewing time. According to a study by Kantar Media Philippines, the average daily TV viewing time in the country increased 24 percent, from 3 hours and 31 minutes in January 2020 to 4 hours and 22 minutes in May 2020.
As the pandemic persisted, however, public health restrictions forced TV networks to adapt. Even in the area of entertainment, production crews were prevented from shooting on-location. Countless variety shows which depended on the spontaneous participation of live audiences were forced to suspend their long-standing hold on the lunch hour.
As the virus threat circumscribed movement, TV networks had to come up with new ways to create content, mainly moving programs to online platforms. Networks such as GMA and TV5 strengthened their own streaming services, while ABS-CBN turned completely digital with their content.
Closing down ABS-CBN
Meanwhile, in the political realm and quite unrelated to the pandemic, government closed down the largest broadcast network not just in the country but in Southeast Asia. Its channels reached out to Filipino communities abroad.
The case is well known. The various agencies with whose regulations ABS-CBN was supposed to have been non-compliant declared the network clear of wrongdoing. Still, the Committee on Public Utility insisted on denying its application to renew its franchise, the last having lasted for fifty years when the network thrived and flourished, establishing its presence in remote areas. The public understanding should appreciate the case simply as abuse of state power.
ABS-CBN had 143 broadcast stations nationwide; its closure was a major blow to the industry with some ten thousand employees losing jobs. The decision also cut off communities where only ABS-CBN provided free TV channels.
The government action had another effect. The impact of actual closure darkened newsrooms everywhere as owners of media companies and journalists realized that they could be just as vulnerable to the same kind of attack. TV news became more careful about not crossing lines, afraid of causing offense, and keeping away from sensitive stories.
New Players in Post Pandemic
Entry of Manuel Villar as media mogul after Advanced Media Broadcasting System received the ABS-CBN frequency in January 2022. Villar’s wife and son are sitting senators.
The broadcast network publicly known as ALLTV had a soft launch on July 15, 2022. However, since February 6, 2023, some of its programs were temporarily shelved due to unknown reasons; its 19-hour programming cut down to 10 hours and 30 minutes.
Meanwhile ABS-CBN scrambled to find ways of transmitting their programs. It is a blocktimer in the A2Z channel, owned by religious leader Eddie Villanueva. A2Z channel NCR and several major cities including Cebu, Davao and Iloilo. It currently has 22 broadcast stations nationwide. ABS-CBN also has an existing blocktime agreement with TV5 owned by media mogul Manny V. Pangilinan. ABS-CBN shows, including primetime news program TV Patrol, made a free-tv comeback through these deals. ABS-CBN has become a “content creator” according to Laurenti Dyogi, ABS-CBN head of TV production with more entertainment than news.
PH Free TV
Free TV is an important component of the national communication system. It is what provides TV access to the majority of Filipinos who cannot afford cable and internet fees. Free TV serves as the only source of news and entertainment to the masses. Without ABS-CBN, their access options have drastically declined.
CMFR did a quick scan of the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) complete list of operating TV stations nationwide. ABS-CBN shows currently air in 49 broadcast stations nationwide (22 of A2Z and 27 of TV5 including stations of its affiliate Mediascape Inc.). This number is only 34.27 percent of the 143 stations prior to its closure.
The current biggest channel, GMA-7 has 106 stations currently operating nationwide.
News and public affairs programming
Actually, the context of this reduction involves the relatively small amount of news that free TV provides Filipinos. KBP members are only required to dedicate at least 30 minutes of their daily programming to news and current affairs. All free TV channels except GMA7 are members of the KBP.
The NCR news environment
There are currently around 32 free TV channels available in NCR (with some available in some cities in the. Only 10 of these carry news and public affairs. CMFR did not count GMA’s simulcast of news in its other digital channels.
Among the TV channels with wide reach, GMA dedicates 23.3 percent or 280 minutes of their 1200 minutes total daily airtime to news and public affairs programs; TV5, 19.3 percent (220 of 1200 minutes); A2Z, 15.8 percent (180 of 1140). CNN is a news channel (100 percent), while PTV4 is primarily a government news and information channel (59.2 percent).
CNN is an exception as all news channel. Government PTV4 carries government information and news, much of which propaganda.
SMNI (Quiboloy), NET 25 are all church or faith-based channels which show more news. CMFR has not scanned the quality of the news these provide.
ALLTV currently has no news and current affairs in its daily programing.
The Internet Age: TV goes digital
The KBP compared the 2019 (pre-pandemic) and 2022 (post-pandemic) based on Kantar Media studies and found that TV viewership decreased from 94 percent in 2019 to 89 percent in 2022. Online content, however, increased from 59 percent to 76 percent. Radio listening decreased slightly from 59 percent to 58 percent.
Despite these setbacks, Philippine TV continues to adapt and evolve. With the rise of streaming services and social media, TV networks have been experimenting with new formats and platforms to reach their audiences; finding creative ways to entertain and engage their viewers.
The internet has become a democratic space for all sorts of content catering to a wide variety of audience. To reach the growing online demographic, print, radio and television published online editions, adding original content to previously published or broadcast news in other platforms.
So how are we doing in digital space?
Based on the 20223 digital report of We Social, Filipinos spend an average of 19 hours and 14 minutes on the internet, with an average of 3 hours and 43 minutes in social media.
On a positive note, the same study said that the top three reasons for using the internet are: finding information (79.8 percent); Keeping up to date with news and events is on the sixth spot with 69.2 percent.
While, the main reasons why people use social media is, keeping in touch with friends and family (69.2 percent); followed by reading news stories with 47.3 percent.
Unfortunately, while social media carry news, journalists and news organizations are ranked only on the 12th spot for Internet users.
Conclusion: News must follow its audience
While production of content is important, distribution is equally important; and could perhaps determine the actual reach of providers, including journalists. It is therefore critical for journalists to follow their audience across all platforms.
In the Philippines, market studies still see TV as playing a crucial role in delivering news and information to the masses. For the press to serve as pillar of democracy, It’s crucial for media organizations to strike a balance between traditional and digital media, ensuring that they provide content in all types of media to meet the needs and preferences of their audiences.
As the media landscape continues to evolve, news organizations need to keep up with the changes and innovate as necessary, adapting style or approach to stay connected to audiences who have moved away from broadcast news. In today’s digital age, it’s no longer enough to simply produce quality content; it’s equally important to ensure that it reaches the right audience through effective distribution.
The “magic box” now “flat screen” is still seen to retain its place in personal and public spaces, a fixture in restaurants, airports, anywhere people stop, pause, wait.
It is therefore necessary to keep producing the news. For broadcast news to actually grow its role in the development of democratic societies, it must its increase its hold on the content that flows out from the TV and radio.
The situation remains fluid. Just as the music market seems now to create special audiences who are going back to record players and LP records, who knows when such a return to TV can drive back the industry to new levels of engagement even better than anything we have yet seen.
To enhance the role of news in a democratic society, the media community should unite in calling for more news, more discussion, more exchange about political matters. KBP should review the present allotment of such small measures to news/public affairs and consider expanding the scope and deepening the context of news and its discussion.
The placement of public affairs in late night hours excludes so many working Filipinos from the national conversation.
Meanwhile, faculty and students need to strengthen the foundations of learning news, not just journalistic skills, but the intellectual discipline that will support analysis and interpretation of news. Journalists need to be creative, finding new ways of telling stories that are relevant to people’s role as citizens and their sovereignty as citizens.
This involves connecting to the audience, understanding their differences and similarities. News conventions have made journalism about the prominent and the powerful. Ironically, this emphasis has weakened the press as a pillar of democracy.
Moving away from government and other centers of power, news can help people participate in shaping their future. Moving closer to the people, journalists could revitalize press freedom and help cure the ills of Philippine democracy.
This report was presented during the “Fight for Truth and Human Rights: Report Presentation and Round Table Discussion” on 3 May 2023 at the University of the Philippines-College of Mass Communication Auditorium in observance of the 30th World Press Freedom Day.
The event was presented by the “Freedom for Media, Freedom For All (FMFA) Network” in partnership with the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP CMC).
FMFA is composed of CMFR, NUJP, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Mindanews, and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI).