Filipino photojournalists hold a protest outside the Lower House of Congress in Manila in 2014 against a proposed law that would have restricted the taking of news photographs. (Photo by Vincent Go)
A governor, his aide, and a police officer were charged with murder in the Philippines on May 2, on the eve of International Press Freedom Day, for the killing of a journalist in December.
The killing of Larry Que, publisher and journalist at Catanduanes News Now, was the first "verified media worker killing" under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
"The case in itself is a high profile case it involves narco-politics, drugs," said Joel Sy Egco, head of the government's Presidential Task Force on Media Security.
"It shows the president was right about the pervasiveness of the drug problem," added Egco.
Que was shot on Dec. 19 in Catanduanes province two weeks after he published an article linking government officials to the illegal drug trade in his province.
Among those charged with murder were Catanduanes Governor Joseph Cua, the governor's aide, Prince Lim Subion, and police officer Vincent Tacorda.
Egco said Que's case was among 180 media killings being investigated by his office, which was created by Duterte in response to calls to protect media workers.
UNESCO this week underscored the importance of having any act of violence against the media investigated "completely and fully."
"We believe that it's very important that the Philippines respond to these communications on the allegations we [in UNESCO] are receiving — allegations of harassment and violence," he said.
Speaking to journalists in Jakarta, Frank La Rue, UNESCO assistant director-general, said journalists "cannot function if there is harassment ... or if there is intimidation or fear."
The former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression said he would want to visit the Philippines to have a dialogue with civil society and the government on how to boost safety and guarantee press freedom in the country.
Still dangerous for journalists
Despite some improvement, the Philippines is still high on the list of the most dangerous countries for journalists, according to watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, the Philippines ranked 127th most dangerous out of 180 countries surveyed.
The watchdog warned that, "the insults and open threats against the media" by Duterte "do not bode well."
It said that although the Philippine media "is fairly free and diverse," Duterte "alarmed media freedom defenders with his unveiled encouragement of violence against journalists."
Reporters Without Borders noted that, "private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity."
A report by Freedom House on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day also noted that, "Duterte's slurs and death threats against journalists further inflamed an already dangerous environment for the press."
Freedom House is a U.S.-based organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.
The group's report said, "political leaders and other partisan forces" in countries like the United States and the Philippines, "attacked the credibility of independent media."
Threats against the media
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has criticized Duterte for announcing his intention to block the franchise renewal of a television station that has been critical of his administration.
"What we do know is the last time a president actually shut down the press, it did not end well for him, like it almost always never ends well for tyrants," read the union's statement on April 28.
The group was referring to late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ordered the closure of several news organizations when he declare martial law in the 1970s.
Duterte has been vocal in his criticism of the news media for supposedly being biased.
The union said that by issuing threats, the president is "signaling his willingness to use [his presidential power] to stifle freedom of the press and of expression."
Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 due to unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, according to Freedom House.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the report noted that Chinese authorities imposed some of the region's harshest penalties for online criticism in the past year.
China also tightened restrictions on news production by web portals and blocked additional foreign websites and apps.
The World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders noted that the overall level of media freedom constraints and violations rose by up to 14 percent in the past five years.
The Asia-Pacific region is ranked in the Index as the third worst violator that "holds many of the worst kinds of records."
The Index cited China and Vietnam as the "world's biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers," while Pakistan, the Philippines, and Bangladesh are among the "most dangerous countries for journalists."