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Filipino student scribes fight for press freedom

Young journalists explore the potential of campus publications in one of the worst nations for the profession in the world
Troy Ortega (left) after receiving the awards on April 7.

Troy Ortega (left) after receiving the awards on April 7. (Photo: An Lantawan)

Published: April 11, 2024 12:17 PM GMT
Updated: April 11, 2024 12:34 PM GMT

“It was never easy,” said Troy Ortega after his online daily bagged the Campus Press of the Year award in the Philippines on April 7.

Ortega faced many hurdles after the 22-year-old political science student assumed editorship of the An Lantawan (The Lighthouse) in one of the worst nations for journalists in the world last year.

Ortega’s perseverance as the editor-in-chief yielded rich dividends as the “Ben Domingo Jr. Award of Campus Press Freedom,” named after a veteran Filipino journalist, also came his way besides the main honor among state-run universities and college publications in the Eastern Visayas region on April 7.

After Ortega started his stint with An Lantawan, trouble followed.

A libel suit against former editor-in-chief, Gio Costuna, surfaced on July 17, 2023, and Leyte Normal University authorities warned of the closure of the publication in October 2023 due to non-accreditation.

The university, established in 1921 when the Catholic-majority nation was a colonial territory of the US, was forced to withdraw the threat as support for the An Lantawan poured in from various quarters.

Though the libel case was dismissed by a court in the same year, it strengthened Ortega’s resolve to head the publication, which was catering to an estimated 7,000 students at the university.

“We struggled hard but it was all worth it,” he said.

“These awards are not only for the An Lantawan but also for all student publications that continue to fight repression up to this day,” said Ortega who is burning the midnight oil as a fourth-year student.

Many organizations and people from all walks of life in the Eastern Visayas “stood in solidarity for us,” he said.

In the 2023 rankings on the Global Impunity Index, the Philippines is grouped among the worst nations for journalists.  The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said perpetrators of journalist killings have gone scot-free in the country for 16 consecutive years.

Ortega, along with 400 campus journalists from 28 publications in the Visayas region, attended a five-day Eastern Visayas Regional Tertiary Schools Press Conference (RTSPC) at Visayas State University (VSU) in Baybay City, starting April 3.

The biggest regional gathering on student journalism saw participation by writers, editors, educators, experts, and national and international scribes.

Dr. Uldarico Alviola, head of the Development Communication Department at VSU and the interim president of the Regional Tertiary Press Advisers’ Association, said the “role of campus journalists is vital in encouraging critical thinking” among college students.

“You are the agents of change as you influence public opinion,” added Ularico.

Let’s continue to harness the potential of campus publications “to counter misinformation and disinformation,” which is flooding the archipelago, he added.

A survey by the advocacy group Social Weather Stations in December 2021 showed that 51 percent of Filipinos had difficulty spotting fake news on social media, television, and radio.

Award-winning journalist Jeff Canoy from ABS-CBN Integrated News, the news division of Philippine media giant ABS-CBN, urged young journalists to keep telling stories about their communities.

"As journalists, you don't stop being a journalist. When something happens in front of you, you want to tell the story, and you want to tell it right," said Canoy, who faced threats when his media network was shut down on May 5, 2020, by the government of Rodrigo Duterte.

"We're not sure where we're going but we have to boldly go, we have to keep on going,” added Canoy, the keynote speaker at the gathering on April 7.

Another award-winning journalist, Jamela Alindogan, called on student writers to start looking at their journalistic crafts as "real, timely, and professional."

"You are not just students practicing one day to become journalists. You are already journalists," said Alindogan, who has worked with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network.

"Make it simple, make it local, make it heartfelt. Learn to negotiate with the administration. Be pushy, be courageous, and don't be afraid to break barriers," Alindogan said during a workshop for campus writers on investigative reporting.

"Stand together against repression by university administrations," she added.

Veteran Filipino journalist, Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and CEO of online news site Rappler, spoke during the opening ceremony via a video message on April 3.

Ortega was happy that the RTSPC was taking place after a five-year hiatus.

"We can show our solidarity and help each other now more than ever," the editor-in-chief of the three-decade-old campus daily told UCA News on April 9.

“I hope the awards will force the university to give the An Lantawan the recognition it deserves,” Ortega said.

“Journalism is beyond medals and laurels," he affirmed.

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