A reporter holds a placard during a demonstration in Manila against alleged attacks on press freedom in the country. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)
Filipino journalists are getting ready to counter an allegation made by no less than the president's spokesman that some media practitioners are involved in a conspiracy to destabilize the government.
The presidential palace has released a "matrix" blaming a group of journalists of spreading on social media a video linking family and allies of President Rodrigo Duterte to a narcotics syndicate.
The "matrix" listed the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, independent news outfits Rappler and Vera Files and the National Union of People’s Lawyers as those behind the video.
It also included names gathered from old staff boxes of media outfits, a list of internet addresses that do not exist, and a supposed email exchange of stories among competing journalists.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo insisted on the infallibility of the information, which the president credited to an unnamed foreign ally.
The attacks worried Jesuit priest Jose Ramon Villarin, president of Ateneo de Manila University.
"Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are vital freedoms of democracy," said the priest.
"The state of these freedoms are reflected in other rights," he said.
It’s not all fear, however.
On April 30, at least 41 journalists filed a petition with the Supreme Court in support of Rappler, which has been banned from covering the president since early 2018.
The petitioners said they have not been subjected to the ban, but described it as "sufficiently expansive and elastic" to violate the constitutional right on press freedom.
There have been at least eight instances of Rappler reporters being kicked out of public events because of the ban.
The petitioners said Duterte and his aides gave various excuses for the ban, showing "caprice and whims" that constitute "grave abuse of discretion."
The legal move came as media organizations launched a #FightBack campaign to coincide with the annual observance of Press Freedom Day on May 3.
The call is a step up from #HoldTheLine campaign, which was rolled out by Rappler following stepped up attacks against the media outfit.
Maria Ressa, Rappler's chief executive officer who has won a slew of press freedom awards, has been arrested twice, for a tax case and a "cyber libel" case filed by a Duterte ally.
At least 11 cases have been filed against Ressa and Rappler in the past 14 months, including five tax cases, also stemming from a corporate registration case, and an anti-dummy case.
The legal challenges filed by Rappler and other journalists followed the filing of a civil case on March 29 against two private firms linked to cyber attacks on the websites of alternative media outfits.
Alipato, publisher of news websites Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, filed the case against two internet service providers after a digital forensic investigation tracked down online attackers to the providers' servers.
"The magnitude, scope and scale of the cyber attacks suggest that they were targeted, deliberate and organized," read the complaint filed before the court.
The "orchestrated and well-funded" attacks "obstructed, defeated, violated, impeded or impaired the plaintiffs’ freedom to maintain publications," it added.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it supports the cases filed by the media entities.
"It sends a clear message to the enemies of press freedom, not only will you fail, we will fight back," said Nonoy Espina, the union chairman.