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Journalists in Philippines decry abuse

Media independence under attack amid killings and fears of more violence

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Updated: May 06, 2019 10:15 AM GMT
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Journalists in Philippines decry abuse

Activists and members of the media stage a demonstration in Manila on May 2 to denounce what they described as attempts to suppress media freedom in the country. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

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Media freedom advocates in the Philippines claim attacks on journalists by President Rodrigo Duterte and his government aim to cripple independent news outlets.

Ellen Tordesillas, head of an investigative journalism organization called Vera Files, accused Duterte of pre-emptively warning journalists against publishing "inconvenient, awkward stories."

Siding with the truth had become a dangerous business, warned Jesuit priest Father Jose Ramon Villarin, who is president of Ateneo de Manila University.

"Sometimes the price for that choice may be our very lives," he told a forum on media freedom and media responsibility held last week to mark World Press Freedom Day.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines reported that 12 journalists had been killed in the country since Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016.

Cyber attacks

News and human rights’ advocacy groups complain of on-line strikes aimed at disabling their websites.

Len Olea, editor of the news site Bulatlat, said some attacks were so big that the number of attempts to access the website in just one second was the equivalent of about six months of visits by legitimate online users.

When other news sites tried to host Bulatlat stories, they, too, were targeted.

"Without the help of international friends, we would have gone under," said Olea.

The group Reporters Without Borders offered to host a mirror site for the news outlet.

Starved for funds

Meanwhile, the management and staff of independent news site Rappler have been slapped with at least 11 criminal charges in the past 14 months.

The organization's chief executive officer, Maria Ressa, has been arrested twice.

The company, which has been accused of violating anti-dummy company laws, tax evasion and 'cyber-libel', has already paid out about US$40,000 in bail and travel bonds for Ressa and her colleagues.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a shutdown order against the company in 2018, making it difficult to do business, Ressa said.

And potential advertisers are wary of being tagged as supporters of a media company that the president hates.

The government has written to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, demanding access to their records on donations received for families of 32 media workers killed in a 2013 massacre in the southern Philippines.

In a statement, a group of family members claimed they had never sought a review of the donated funds.

A new order by the SEC, supposedly tied to anti-money laundering and anti-terror concerns, has deputized state security forces to investigate so-called politically-sensitive organizations, including media outlets.

Ouster conspiracy

The presidential palace has accused Rappler, Vera Files, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Union of People's Lawyers of spearheading an ouster plot against Duterte.

Tordesillas of Vera Files was tagged as the main peddler of an anonymous video detailing alleged links between Duterte's family and friends of members of a narcotics syndicate. The presidential palace said negative news stories are part of a plot to oust the president.

The media groups, however, pointed to factual errors in the claim.

The government denies attempting to suppress media freedom.

In an interview with ucanews.com, Joel Egco, executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, said "many see the president as a stupid, loose talker ... but he is intelligent."

Duterte was such a good leader that he did not "engage" even when he was being attacked, said Egco, adding that the government is “doing the right thing."

He maintained that national laws, as well as an order signed by Duterte, ensure freedom of information.

"We have even an administrative order to protect the life, liberty and security of media workers. What are they afraid of? Everybody can talk," he said.

Lawyer Antionio La Viña, who writes opinion pieces in various publications, cited a "poisonous environment and climate of repression and impunity" in the country.

La Viña added that government accusations against individual journalists had a "chilling effect" on the media as well as on human rights lawyers and activist groups.

He said that the government's verbal attacks on reporters spurred violence against both members of media organizations and rights' defenders.

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