The Media and the Duterte Presidency: Impunity Acute and Benign, Fettered Flow of information
by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility,
the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and
the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
THE PRESS in the Philippines has been described to be among the freest in Asia if not in the world, robust, almost rambunctious in its practice. But in the first 16 months of the Duterte administration, its status and practice have been diminished, shaken down by supporters and trolls of the President who would not tolerate critical coverage.
No less than the President has struck at the heart of the institution with threats of action against major news organizations. He has cursed journalists in public for raising testy questions about his health, catcalled a female reporter, and averred without serving proof that journalists are killed because they are corrupt.
This toxic mix — over-reaching executive power, the threat of violence and public censure, and divided and fettered newsrooms — has left the flow of information unfree, convoluted, and constrained under the Duterte presidency.
Today, as the nation marks the 8th anniversary of the massacre of 32 journalists among the 58 victims in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, in 2009, the press would do well to understand the severity of the challenges it faces. While we remain a free community in law and theory, and blessed with a Constitution that enshrines protection, a tectonic shift has moved the ground and the foundation of the practice of journalism under President Rodrigo Duterte.
To be sure, the administration has taken steps early in its rule to address the attacks and threats, and a string of unsolved murders of Filipino journalists from earlier years. Duterte signed Administrative Order No. 1, Creating The Presidential Task Force On Violations Of The Right To Life, Liberty And Security Of The Members Of The Media (PTFoMS), on Oct. 11, 2016. But the agency that is also called PTFoMS lacks resources and personnel to have genuine impact.
In Duterte’s first nine months, the Task Force said that only one journalist had been murdered because of his work — Catanduanes News Now publisher Larry Que — even as it also reported other cases of attacks on the press, including eight shooting incidents, eight threats, one detention, one request for continued Witness Protection Program coverage, and two cases of physical attack.
On May 2, 2017, a complaint was filed before the Department of Justice against Que’s supposed assailant, PO1 Vincent Tacorda. Tacorda was allegedly instructed by Catanduanes Governor Joseph Cua.
Apart from Que, two more journalists had in fact been felled by unknown guns during the period: radio blocktimer Marlon Muyco of M’lang, Cotabato’s dxND Radyo Bida, who was killed on Feb. 17, 2017; and Remate tabloid columnist Joaquin Briones of Milagros, Masbate, who was killed on March 13, 2017. PTFoMS investigated the cases of Muyco and Briones but did not consider their murders to have been work-related.
The Task Force co-chaired by the secretaries of Justice and the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), noted in a report dated May 3, 2017 that there has been “a marked improvement in media security and press freedom in the country after the creation of AO1 and implementation FOI among agencies in the Executive Branch of the government.” Former reporter and PCOO Undersecretary Jose Joel Sy Egco is the Task Force’s executive director.
But it is a story that has turned bad in succeeding months. From May to October this year, the number of casualties among members of the press began to rise again. In the first 16 months of the Duterte presidency:
• Six journalists have been killed, including the three that had been listed by the Task Force;
• Eight have survived slay attempts and received death threats;
• Three libel cases have been filed, even as a libel case filed in 2015 has led to the arrest of the accused. Other libel cases filed in previous years ended in an acquittal and two convictions; and
• Six major cases of verbal and online threats from local officials or pro-Duterte bloggers have been reported.
In its second and latest report dated Oct. 11, 2017, PTFoMS counted only the case of Sapol News Bulletin columnist Leo Diaz of Sultan Kudarat (who was slain on Aug. 7, 2017 ) as a work-related murder, and not those of four other journalists who were killed during the first 10 months of the Duterte presidency. PTFoMS also tallied three cases of frustrated murder, one attempted homicide, and two cases of threats and physical injuries against a total of six journalists.
A mirror of the society in which it operates, the Philippine press is far from perfect; it replicates the same weaknesses of those it criticizes. History is witness though to its courage in the face of crises of all kinds. In every such instance, there are enough journalists who make the necessary difference, reporting without fear, shining light on wrongdoing in high places, dauntless in the face of conflict, repression, and disaster. Speaking truth to power, Filipino journalists have galvanized the political will of the citizens to unite and stand up to despots or crooks or bullies in power.
Stunned by the challenges that confront the institution today, the media community, in solidarity, now takes stock of what it has lost in terms of press freedom under the Duterte administration.
For one, the flow of official information has been mired in apparent propaganda. Although a Freedom of Information policy has directed all offices in the executive branch to respond to requests for information, far too many exceptions and denied requests have rendered the supposed policy of openness a farce.
Official press briefings during milestone events, such as the most recent ASEAN Summit or during the war in Marawi, have been remarkable for their scarcity of substance, and those that are given seem designed to give short shrift to the real need of journalists for relevant information. The President’s communication team is cavalier in throwing around facts out of context, and dishing out partial truths, and even fabricated stories and photographs.
The President’s hostility toward critical reports has not helped. The pens behind them have met with vicious online harassment from bloggers visibly favored by government.
Given the President’s high scores in public-opinion polls, the media have been slow and reluctant to challenge the false claims and flawed political narratives that the President has foisted to justify his over-reach of power. His attacks on political opponents, such as the legal proceedings that landed Senator Leila de Lima in jail, set the bar for how far this government will go to rid itself of critics.
Journalists know also how it is to be afraid, not just for oneself but also for one’s families and friends. Rabid cyber-bashing from Duterte followers have cowed many in the media. Painting critics as invariably partisan and “yellow” has significantly restrained media investigation and inquiry. The President’s expressed animosity toward some journalists has served to put the media on notice.
Unfortunately, many newsrooms have yet to respond with appropriate, timely, and relevant measures to assure the safety and wellbeing of journalists and coverage teams assigned to cover danger-fraught assignments such as the war on drugs or the siege of Marawi, or even to deal directly with the attacks on their ranks.
The weaknesses in journalism practice exacerbate the situation. Overall, media seemed only too willing to go along with what the President and other public officials say, recording their statements without questioning the veracity or credibility of their claims. In the last 16 months, for instance, reportage on the drug war, Marawi, corruption, and many other public-policy issues has been driven largely by the government’s lead on these stories.
Media reports have typically simply quoted or aired everything that the President and his officials have said about the necessity of the use of violence in the war on drugs. Repeated claims that there are supposedly four million alleged drug addicts have passed without vigorous challenge. The manipulation of the numbers in police records and the failure of the police to report their findings on the so-called DUIs or death (later called murder, and later still, homicide) cases under investigation have come and gone with little scrutiny by the press.
By the monitoring reports of the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR), the secretariat of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), the acute assaults on media freedom and journalists have continued under Duterte’s watch. These include:
Aside from Que, Muyco, Briones, and Diaz, two more journalists had been killed:
• Volunteer broadcaster Rudy Alicaway of Zamboanga del Sur’s dxPB 106.9 FM radio, who was killed on Aug. 6, 2017; and
• Radio broadcaster Christopher Iban Lozada of Surigao del Sur’s dxBF Prime Broadcasting Network, who was shot dead on Oct. 24, 2017.
Of the six cases, CMFR considers the cases of Que, Briones, Diaz, and Lozada as work-related.
PTFoMS, for its part, has classified the cases of Que and Diaz, and more recently Lozada as work-related.
Only in the case of Que has the alleged assailant been identified while the other cases remain under investigation.
SLAY ATTEMPTS, ASSAULTS:
• Slay attempt on radio reporter Saturnino “Jan” Estanio of Surigao City’s dxRS-Radio Mindanao Network on June 30, 2016, by two men on a motorcycle. Estanio and his 12-year-old son were wounded in the incident.
• Slay attempt on blocktimer Apolinario Suan Jr. of Bislig City, Surigao del Sur’s Real FM radio, on July 14, 2016, by unidentified men who fired at his vehicle;
• Slay attempt on Virgilio Maganes, 58, radio broadcaster of dwPR in Dagupan City who was attacked by assailants while he was on his way to his radio program, morning of November 8, 2016.
• Assault on correspondents Reuben James Rosalado and Jovito Alcoran of ABS-CBN Zamboanga TV on Sept. 22, 2016;
• Slay attempt on radio commentator Julito “Paka-paka” Orillaneda of Marihatag town, Surigao del Sur’s DxJB FM on July 26, 2017;
• Slay attempt on columnist Crisenciano “Cris” Ibon of Batangas City’s Police Files Tonite on Aug. 9, 2017; and
• Slay attempt on broadcaster Carlos Sasis of Legazpi City, Albay’s Zagitsit News FM radio on Aug. 24, 2017.
• Death threats via SMS received by radio reporter Norman Mendoza of Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, on Sept. 7, 2016;
• SMS threats received by Lourdes Escaros of the dzXL RMN on November 6 and 16, 2016.
• Death threat received by reporter Jaime Aquino of The Manila Times newspaper on Nov. 23, 2016. Aquino is also facing libel charges.
HARASSMENT, ONLINE ATTACKS:
Apart from these journalists enduring direct assaults or facing death threats, there were also cases of journalists receiving verbal threats, harassed during coverage events, or assaulted online under the Duterte administration. These include:
• On July 29, 2016, the website of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism was hacked;
• On Sept. 20, 2016, Gretchen Malalad and Jamela Alindogan-Caudron of ABS-CBN were targeted by criticisms, insults, and threats by pro-Duterte bloggers. NUJP, in a statement of support for Malalad and Caudron, urged journalists to report and document any attacks and threats and call the attention of appropriate law enforcement bodies;
• On Nov. 24, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte “cussed out” Jonathan Miller, Asia correspondent of Channel 4 of the United Kingdom when the latter asked him about killings related to the war on drugs;
• On Dec. 8, 2016, the Facebook page of journalist Manny Mogato of Reuters Online was hacked. His cover photo was changed into the cover photo used by pro-Duterte Facebook page “Duterte is my President”;
• On Jan. 9, 2017, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) suffered a denial of service attack on its website, www.nujp.org. Prior to the attack, NUJP had released a statement against President Duterte’s declaration that he was ‘playing’ with the media. Duterte said in a CNN Philippines interview on 29 December 2016, “Nilalaro ko kayo. Mahilig talaga ako (sa) gan’un. Alam ng team ninyo mahilig ako magbitaw ng kalokohan.” The NUJP statement was flooded with hate comments from Duterte supporters.
• On Feb. 7, 2017, reporters Aya Yupangco (dwIZ), Dennis Datu (dzMM), and Michael Goyagoy (dzXL) were harassed by the Presidential Security detail during a coverage event in Manila;
• On April 7, 2017, then Environment and Natural Resources secretary Gina Lopez told reporter Janina Lim of BusinessWorld that “you are just a fucking employee.” She also accused reporters of being “bought,” in response to questions Lim had raised. Lopez later released a public apology for the incident.
• On April 22, 2017, verbal threats on reporter Jayson Drew of Pilipino Mirror were made by a Las Pinas City councilor;
• On Sept. 21, 2017, pro-Duterte bloggers launched an online attack on reporter Jam Sisante of GMA7; and
• On Nov. 3, 2017, RJ Nieto, known as blogger Thinking Pinoy, allegedly incited violence against Rappler reporter Pia Ranada during his radio program. Nieto urged his guest Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque to throw a hollow block at Ranada, after the latter commented that in response to journalists hurling criticisms against the government, he would throw hollow blocks at journalists. Ranada has filed a complaint against Nieto with the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas. Later, Roque in a tweet said, “”To my DDS friends: we will not throw anything at legit journos. Let’s give them hot pan de sal instead. Pls leave Pia Ranada alone! Thx.”
Cases of libel — which remains a criminal offense in the Philippines — have been dismissed or filed against journalists in the last 20 months under Duterte. These include:
• On Aug. 22, 2016, a Makati City court ruled in favor of a libel suit filed against the Philippine Daily Inquirer by former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile;
• In June 2016, a regional trial court in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental acquitted dyMD Energy FM anchor Cornelio Pepino, known as Rex Cornelio, of two counts of libel filed by Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo.
• In August 2016, Quezon Province Governor David “Jayjay” Suarez filed libel charges against three journalists critical of his administration — Senior News Correspondent of the Journal Group of Publications Gemi Formaran, Ang Diaryo Natin publisher Johnny Glorioso, and dzEL Radyo Agila anchor Rico Catampungan. On August 15, a Lucena City regional trial court served all three a total of 3,000-page subpoena for libel.
These acute and direct attempts to harass and muzzle journalists and media freedom have unfolded alongside more benign but equally grave threats to the practice of journalism and the free flow of information in the Philippines today. For instance:
Access to information remains problematic for journalists and media agencies covering the war on drugs. Getting information, especially on sensitive and controversial cases, remains constrained.
• Officials and units of the Philippine National Police Police have repeatedly denied requests for spot reports, supposedly on account of the difficulty to copy or reproduce volumes of reports.
• PNP chiefs or officers-in-charge have mostly refused to grant interviews about the relevant details of operations conducted against illegal drugs, especially if these details contradict the accounts of the family members of alleged suspects.
A freelance journalist requested copies of spot reports on the cases of those killed during police operations in an entire month. The request was repeatedly denied even as senior police officials had acknowledged that police spot reports are public documents.
Supt. Rolando Gonzales, Pandacan Police Station chief, has repeatedly denied requests for interviews about police operations his unit has conducted, even when sought for comments at the crime scene. He does not respond to questions even in face-to-face encounters with reporters.
On Sept. 13, 2017, the PNP, through its spokesperson Supt. Dionardo Carlos, said that spot reports will not be released to reporters unless the “head of office, his duly [designated] representative, his PIO (public information officer) or his spokesperson” determine that such release will not affect an investigation. He said that the directive restricting journalists from obtaining spot reports was issued as early as Feb. 18, 2014.
Instead of the police being the sole official source of reports on the drug war, a highly unusual and irregular situation has happened. Employees of some funeral parlors have also become the tipsters of journalists on where and when a “Tokhang” operation would occur. In one instance, a reporter got a call from a funeral parlor employee, who said that something was going to happen at around 2 a.m. the next day under the Jones Bridge in Manila. At the appointed hour the next day, reporters discovered the body of a supposed Tokhang victim at the exact same place.
Against their will, media personnel are sometimes compelled by police officers to sign on as witnesses in police anti-drug operations, supposedly as mandated by the law. Media team members are asked to sign on to the police’s inventory reports on the items that had been seized during police operations, in the form and manner that the police had prepared these. This practice exposes media personnel to serious legal implications and real conflict of interest.
In one case, Janelyn and Carmelo Rima, publishers of the community newspaper Island Sandigan, were charged with libel after publishing a story on a drug raid, which they covered and for which officials of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) had asked them earlier to sign on as witnesses.
Newsroom protection for the safety of journalists covering the war on drugs remains lacking. Most newsroom managers seem to consider the coverage of the war on drugs as just a typical police beat assignment. Only a few newsrooms have provided appropriate protective gear or offered hostile-environment training for their reporters and coverage teams.
Yet the risks to which journalists covering the drug war are far too real and can come from a variety of fronts. For instance, the safety of a group of journalists covering an anti-illegal drugs operation in Manila was compromised after a family member of the ‘Tokhang’ victim turned hysterical after finding out that his brother was killed after allegedly fighting back. The knife-wielding family member went distraught while the media teams tarried inside the compound without realizing that police had already left the area.
Psychological trauma overwhelms media coverage teams assigned to the war on drugs on account of their repeated first-hand exposure to revolting images of the dead, the maimed, the enraged, as well as the tremendous grief of the family members of the victims. A number of reporters and photojournalists have reported experiencing intrusive nightmares. Still a few others have reported feeling paranoid about seeing motorcycle men riding in tandem. Too, there are those who have reported feeling desensitized to or unmoved by images of blood and gore.