UCA News

Philippine Catholic university under fire over ‘censorship’

Suppressing campus press for a benign photo is violation of students rights enshrined in the constitution, protesters say
Demonstrators hold a prayer vigil outside the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in protest against the alleged 'attacks on press and academic freedom' on its campus media organization, TomasinoWeb.

Demonstrators hold a prayer vigil outside the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in protest against the alleged 'attacks on press and academic freedom' on its campus media organization, TomasinoWeb. (Photo: Anakbayan Facebook page)

Published: February 27, 2024 11:27 AM GMT
Updated: February 27, 2024 12:24 PM GMT

The University of Santo Tomas (UST) in the Philippine capital Manila has drawn ire from student journalists and advocacy groups for allegedly ordering its campus publication to delete a photo of students that it considered inappropriate. 

Various student journalist groups have marched on the streets slamming the UST authorities for ordering online portal, TomasinoWeb, to remove the photo of students in uniforms visiting a 7-Eleven store on the campus.

Founded in 1611, the UST is the oldest and one of the largest Catholic universities in Asia. It came under criticism on social media and has faced street protests after issuing the order on Feb. 16.

The publication removed the photo from its online site and social media pages following the order.

It all started after some members of the university administration raised concerns regarding a photograph showing some College of Information and Computing Science (CICS) students in their uniforms in front of the 7-Eleven branch at the UST.

The university said the photo has become a source of “public ridicule” toward CICS students, their college, and the university as a whole due to “the supposed association of the CICS Type B uniform with the convenience store’s employee uniforms.”

“TomasinoWeb never intended to cause any harm to anyone. While we believe being a convenience store worker is honest work, we acknowledge that the photograph still caused a stir online, and for that, we sincerely apologize,” said the statement.

Moreover, on Feb. 18, in another statement the university said the publication’s advisor had resigned, and the site would be on hold until further notice, triggering another round of online and offline protests.

During the protests in Manila and other cities, demonstrators carried placards slamming the UST for what they called suppression of campus journalism by imposing censorship in a country known as one of the most dangerous places for journalists due to violence, killing and impunity.

A group of protesters held a prayer vigil in front of the UST against what they called the "attacks on press and academic freedom" on the campus.

Leo Laparan II, the now-resigned adviser of the publication, said what happened was nothing but “censorship.” 

“And I cannot accept, and I cannot believe that as a practicing journalist, this incident happened in my two-decade career in a media organization in a student environment setting,” said Laparan II, a desk editor with the national English newspaper, Philippine Star.

"Pressured, you insisted on taking it down, then there was a threat that if you didn't do it, you could be sanctioned. Where will we be?” Laparan said.

As a form of protest, 975 signatories from the UST alumni groups created a website Stand With TomasinWeb to support the independence of the publication.

The signatories strongly criticized the Office for Student Affairs (OSA) and called for the removal of all personalities associated with the incident.

The groups claimed that “it is clear that what brought UST public ridicule is not TomasinoWeb’s photo, but the university itself and its refusal to uphold and recognize students’ rights.”

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called on UST to “stop censoring the campus press.”

“Any imposed take down, especially over an imagined slight and not because of a factual or ethical lapse, erodes press freedom and the independence of the press,” it said in a statement on Feb. 19.

At least seven UST college-based student publications also issued a joint statement on Feb. 20 in support of TomasinoWeb.

The UST administration and the Office of Student Affairs have yet to issue an official statement on the controversy.

Other student publications have expressed solidarity with TomasinoWeb.

“Censorship, even at the campus level, is a form of oppression that suppresses free speech. Press freedom is not a privilege, but a fundamental right that serves as the bedrock of a democratic society,” said An Lantawan, a student publication of Leyte Normal University in Tacloban City in the central Philippines.

An Lantawan itself became a victim of campus censorship last year that invited condemnation.  

In a statement on Feb. 26, campus publications urged for the “swift enactment of House Bill 1155 or the Campus Press Freedom Bill” to ensure freedom of expression on the campuses.

Between 2010 and 2020, about 1,000 cases of campus press violations were reported in the country, according to the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, an alliance of tertiary student publications.

The violations mostly include harassment, libel cases against campus publication staff, and administrative intrusion.

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