Attacks on journalists continue under Marcos: 2023 DNR Philippines

The Philippine media landscape remains largely grim despite the change in the country’s leadership in mid-2022. Attacks on journalists, which escalated during the six-year presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, have not let up since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office.

Dozens of violations of press freedom have  already been recorded under Marcos’s  watch – 75 cases between June 2022 and  April 2023 – topped by the killing of two  hard-hitting radio commentators and  increasing use of legal action (‘lawfare’)  against journalists. A prominent critic of  Duterte and Marcos, Percival Mabasa, was  gunned down south of Manila in October,  and soon afterwards death threats were  sent to at least three journalists on social  media. Police in plain clothes paid ‘surprise  visits’ to homes of several reporters,  stoking fears of surveillance of journalists.

‘Red-tagging’ of journalists – being branded  as a communist or terrorist – persists.  The targets come from mainstream and  alternative media alike: journalists from  ABS-CBN and GMA networks, Philippine  Daily Inquirer, Rappler and Bulatlat news  sites, the community paper Northern  Dispatch, and representatives of media  organisations such as the National Union  of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

Among those behind the systematic  red-tagging is Sonshine Media Network  International (SMNI), a far-right broadcast  network owned by religious leader Apollo  Quiboloy, wanted by the Federal Bureau  of Investigation for sex trafficking and  corruption charges. SMNI, which was  awarded a free-to-air frequency that  ABS-CBN had held till Congress rejected  its franchise renewal application in  2020, is included in this year’s survey:  12% of respondents said they accessed  online news from SMNI, demonstrating  its popularity since the 2022 election  despite having been flagged for peddling  disinformation. The latest to join the  network’s roster of commentators is  Duterte himself who in January revived  his weekly show Gikan sa Masa, Para sa  Masa (From the Masses, For the Masses)  days before the International Criminal  Court announced the reopening of its  investigation into possible ‘crimes against  humanity’ arising from his brutal antidrug  campaign. Duterte’s programme originally  aired on ABS-CBN Davao from 2001 to  2015 when he was city mayor.

In response to the spike of cyber libel and  other criminal cases against journalists,  the NUJP teamed up with lawyers’ groups  to launch Project Lawfare for their  defence. As one example of the extent  of these actions, two broadcasters in  southern Luzon are facing 941 counts of  cyber libel lodged by a provincial governor.

Rappler, which was repeatedly attacked  by Duterte when he was president, and its  CEO and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa were  acquitted of tax evasion in January. But six  months earlier, an appellate court upheld  a decision convicting her and a former  colleague of cyber libel and even increased  their prison sentence, and public perception  of the site is no doubt in part influenced  by ongoing social media attacks from  influencers, partisan activists, and others.

Radio and TV brands remain the most  popular media overall in the Philippines,  with the big GMA Network having a  dominant audience share: 53% accessed  it offline and 48% online. In February, the  network began broadcasting morning  news programmes in several regions,  further boosting local TV news.

GMA’s longtime competitor, the Lopez owned ABS-CBN Corp., was stripped  of its franchise in 2020 but continues  to broadcast online and via various  agreements. Its long-running nightly  newscast, TV Patrol, simulcasts on its  own cable channels as well as A2Z of  the evangelical church-owned Zoe  Broadcasting, and is now among the top 20 most-viewed TV programmes. But a  multimillion-dollar deal with TV5 that  was supposed to pave its return to free  TV was terminated in September amid threats of lawmakers and the government  to investigate it for possible violations of  the law. Meanwhile ABS-CBN is closing its  TeleRadyo news channel to stem further  financial losses and will seek to distribute  its content via new partnerships.

ALLTV, owned by business mogul and  Duterte-Marcos ally Manuel Villar,  debuted in September on the frequency  once assigned to ABS-CBN. Instead of  producing its own news programmes, it  tied up with CNN Philippines to broadcast  the recently revived hourlong News Night.

In answer to falling sales and rising costs  of community publications impacted  by economic downturn, inflation, and  the pandemic, the Philippine Press  Institute, an association of newspaper  publishers, in October converted the PPI  News Commons into a news aggregator  with its 70 members on board, in hopes  of leveraging the wider market base to  attract ads. Last year, the Philippines  became the first market in Southeast Asia  to roll out Ads for News, a global effort  that seeks to direct digital advertising to  trustworthy local news outlets screened to  exclude disinformation and other content  unsuitable for brands. Three big Philippine  corporations have initially agreed to take  part in the programme.

DNR 2023 - Philippines - p2

(Yvonne T. Chua is an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines.)