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Philippines media faces ‘eternal threat of punishment’ after cyber libel convictions

The Duterte administration’s war on media has entered a new phase

By Karlo Mongaya

A Manila court convicted one of the Philippines’ leading journalists on charges of cyber libel in a case widely seen as the latest attack on dissenting voices and press freedoms in the country.

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa sentenced news website Rappler’s chief executive editor Maria Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. to 6 months and 1 day up to 6 years in jail and ordered them each to pay P400,000 (about US$8,000) for moral and exemplary damages on June 15.

Ressa and Santos are the first journalists in the Philippines to be found guilty of cyber libel since the law was passed in 2012. They were allowed to post bail pending appeal under the bond they paid in 2019, which cost 100,000 pesos (2,000 US dollars) each.

Rappler, an independent website of international renown has been targeted by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. The court, however, found Rappler itself to have no liability in the cyber libel case.

Targeting Rappler

Press freedom advocates in the Philippines and across the world swiftly decried Ressa’s conviction as part of the Duterte administration’s campaign to terrorize and intimidate journalists.

The case against Ressa and Rappler was filed in 2017 by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 Rappler story covering his alleged links to Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was being impeached on corruption charges at the time.

Keng’s case was initially dismissed in 2017 because it was beyond the statute of limitations. Moreover, the article itself was published four months before the cybercrime law was enacted.

But the case was subsequently readmitted by the Philippine justice department, which extended the period of liability for cyber libel claims from one year to 12 years and argued the article was covered by the law because it was ‘republished’ in February 2014, when Rappler updated it.

While Duterte and his spokesmen deny any links to the cyber libel case, Rappler has been on the receiving end of regular ire from the president and his allies for actively investigating and exposing the administration’s bloody war on drugs, social media manipulation and corruption.

Rappler reporters were banned from covering presidential press briefings in 2018, for what Duterte characterized as “twisted reporting” during a presidential address.

Pro-Duterte trolls deride Rappler as a peddler of “fake news” and hurl invective at its reporters.

The cyber libel case is but the first in a total of 8 active legal cases against Ressa and Rappler which include another libel case and tax violation allegations. All were filed after Duterte came to power in 2016.

The Duterte government moved to shut down Rappler in January 2018, claiming that it violated laws on non-foreign ownership of media outlets — a claim that is demonstrably false.

A protester calls for ‘mass testing, not mass silencing’ at a rally held on June 4, 2020, the day the Philippine Congress passed the anti-terror bill. Photo by Kodao Productions, a content partner of Global Voices

Curtailing dissent

The College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines (UP), the country’s premier state university, condemned the decision as a dangerous precedent that gives authorities the power to prosecute anyone for online content published within the past decade:

The State can prosecute even after ten, twelve or more years after publication or posting. It is a concept of eternal threat of punishment without any limit in time and cyberspace.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the charges that Rappler faces is only the latest in “a chain of media repression that has seen the forced shutdown of broadcast network ABS-CBN and a spike in threats and harassment of journalists, all because the most powerful man in the land abhors criticism and dissent.’’

The government forced the country’s largest television network, privately-owned ABS-CBN, off air last May after the pro-Duterte congress refused to renew the station’s broadcasting license.

Growing persecution of media comes against the backdrop of an anti-terror bill passed by the legislature that allows the president to create an anti-terrorism council vested with powers to designate individuals and groups as “terrorists.”

That designation in turn allows warrantless arrests and 24 days of detention without court charges, among other draconian provisions.

Authorities have brazenly denied the bill threatens freedom in the country.

AERIAL SHOT: 5,000 human rights advocates and activists observe physical distancing as they commemorate Philippine Independence Day and hold a ‘Grand Mañanita’ against the Duterte government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill today, June 12, on University Avenue, University of the Philippines- Diliman, Quezon City. Photo and caption by Kodao Productions, a content partner of Global Voices

Holding the line

At a press conference after her court hearing, Ressa vowed to hold the line:

Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.

A few days before Ressa’s conviction, thousands defied the lockdown to join anti-terror bill protests in Manilla despite threats of violence from the police.

Protesters ironically described their demonstration as a “mañanita” — the word that Police General Debold Sinas, a Duterte ally, used to justify his birthday party celebration, which took place amidst severe restrictions on gatherings.

Double standards for Duterte allies and the weaponization of laws against critics were a constant theme in tweets that used the #DefendPressFreedom hashtag in response to the Ressa case.

(Kodao is a content partner of Global Voices)

Resist the further erosion of our rights

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines bewails the filing of another cyber libel complaint against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa over a tweet she posted in February 2019.

The suit brought against Ressa by Wilfredo Keng, the same complainant in the cyber libel case for which she and former writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted, this time cites a February 15, 2019 Tweet showing screenshots of a 2002 Philstar.com article on the businessman’s alleged links to the murder of a former Manila councilor.

This article, which Philstar took down on February 16, or a day after Ressa’s tweet, because “the camp of Mr. Wilfredo Keng raised the possibility of legal action,” was one of the sources cited in the article over which the first suit was filed.

As grave as the implications the conviction of Ressa and Santos hold not only for the media but for every Filipino who uses the Internet and social media, we fear this complaint, if the State further perverts the law, could spell doom for freedom of expression online.

To our colleagues in the community of independent journalists, let us remain vigilant and continue to resist all attempts to intimidate and silence us.

To the people, we call on you to stand with us. We cannot afford to lose freedom of the press because it belongs to you, the people we serve. It is this freedom that allows us to serve your right to know by delivering you the timely and accurate information you need to decide on your individual and collective futures.

To the State, we ask: Do you really believe you can continue to subvert the rule of law and further erode our already diminished rights and freedoms without an accounting?

The NUJP National Directorate

A full-blown dictatorship is made more palpable

“With the conviction of Ressa and Santos, the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the killings and threats against journalists, the numerous violations faced by Filipinos on a daily basis and the passage of the terror bill, a full-blown dictatorship is made more palpable.”–Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general

Quarantine Curbs Access to Information

By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

IS FREEDOM of information one of the casualties of Covid-19?

Since April, the staff of the Digital News Exchange (DNX), a community-based news site in Bacolod City, has had zero success in getting a response to its requests for information on Covid-19-related procurement and cash aid.

They’re not the only ones. Journalists around the country say both national and local government agencies have either delayed or denied their information requests. Officials, they said, were particularly reluctant to release information that would hold them accountable for their spending.

So far, only one in 10 of the Covid-19 requests filed in the government’s eFOI portal between March 13 and May 27, 2020 has been granted. Most of these requests were for information on Covid-19 spending and financial assistance, according to data from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the manager of the eFOI platform where information requests from national government agencies in the executive branch are filed. 

The PCOO has so far received 1,332 requests from journalists and the public for Covid-19-related information. More than half of those requests are still being processed while about a third have been denied supposedly because they were lodged in the wrong agency, the requester did not provide his/her complete details, or the information is already available online. (See Charts 1 and 2.)

Most of the denials were requests for Covid-19 spending or Social Amelioration Program (SAP) data from the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, Interior and Local Government, and Budget and Management. The PCOO refused to entertain these requests; instead it advised requestors to ask their local government unit or call a DSWD hotline number. (See Table 1 below.)

Like many journalists around the country, DNX was particularly interested in how funds allocated for Covid-19 relief have been spent. It is working on a project called Money Watch to monitor how money from Bacolod City’s P100-million calamity fund was allocated. 

It’s been eight weeks since the DNX staff sent the city government and its Department of Social Services and Development a request for data on pandemic-related spending. But up to now, they have not heard back.

City officials were not always so stingy with information. In mid-March, as the lockdown started, they responded promptly when DNX reporters asked about Covid-19 preparations. This positive response prompted DNX reporters to forego filing formal information requests for the time being. They also feared that formal requests would be processed only when the quarantine was already over. But in April, when DNX asked for spending details, city officials were no longer as open as before. “Finding sources is as difficult as catching a greased pig let loose,” said Julius Mariveles, DNX’s executive editor. 

Like city officials, barangay officials, who are responsible for releasing cash subsidies, delivering relief goods, and keeping the peace in their communities, were also unwilling to give information. Mariveles says being “out on the field” has become a common excuse for these officials’ inability to provide data.

DNX has so far released just one Money Watch story. It revealed discrepancies in the number of targeted and actual beneficiaries of the city’s Covid-19 financial assistance, as well as the lack of reports from several barangays.

The national government has allocated at least P500 billion to address the impact of the pandemic that has killed nearly a thousand Filipinos and placed millions out of work because of the lockdown. This amount does not include emergency funds that local governments can tap in addition to any revenue and savings that they may also decide to use for Covid-19-related expenses. 

DNX’s small team of four reporters tried their best to report on how Bacolod apportioned public funds for coronavirus projects. But they were at their wit’s end: With limited access to data and sources plus pandemic-related constraints on field reporting, there was only so much they could do.

In Metro Manila, Cebu, and other parts of the country, journalists who shared their experiences with PCIJ encountered varying levels of difficulty, depending on the type of information they were requesting. While information about the national government’s plan and budget to fight the virus are readily available online, getting more detailed information on how the plans are being implemented and the money spent is another story. 

Obtaining details about Covid-19 spending at the local level has been especially difficult. Unlike frontline agencies at the national level, local governments do not proactively publish data on their websites. Moreover, with press briefings now online, officials and their PR staff often screen questions from the media, making it harder for reporters to demand answers. 

Since March, when government offices were wholly or partly closed, most routine requests for information have not been processed. The Philippines is among many governments in the world that had to suspend the processing of freedom-of-information or FOI requests because of the pandemic. 

The PCOO has so far issued four advisories notifying offices in the executive branch of the suspension of FOI processing. The advisories apply only to agencies covered by Executive Order 2, s. 2016, which laid out the Duterte administration’s FOI guidelines. 

On June 1, PCOO lifted the suspension of FOI processing, except in areas under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). But it said agencies with sufficient capacity can go ahead and process FOI requests despite quarantine regulations.

The other branches of government – Congress, the judiciary and local governments – were not covered by the suspension, but their responses to information requests were understandably slowed down because offices have not been in full operation for at least 10 weeks. Although the ECQ in Metro Manila was lifted on June 1, government offices still follow alternative work arrangements, which means shortened hours or suspension of certain services.

These measures have exacerbated delays in the release of information crucial for holding government accountable. For example, for over a year now, PCIJ’s longstanding request for the statements of assets of national government officials has been pending because the Office of the Ombudsman has yet to issue guidelines for releasing such documents. 

To be sure, a number of national agencies, particularly those at the frontlines of Covid-19 response, have published records proactively, without the need for a formal information request. Some departments, despite operating on a skeleton staff, continue to accept and respond to requests by email. 

But things were better last year. From October 2018 to September 2019, the PCOO received 18,036 eFOI requests or an average of 347 requests per week. Nearly half of these requests were granted. During the ongoing quarantine until May 27, an average of 318 requests were lodged in the eFOI portal every week but the success rate was just 17 percent. 

According to Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, public-records requests must be addressed within 15 working days. Executive Order 2, s. 2016 gave executive agencies more time — not longer than 20 business days — to respond to such requests. 
 
With the lockdown, however, government agencies could not meet these deadlines. PCOO Assistant Secretary Kristian R. Ablan says PCOO suspended the required processing time because of the “justifiable concerns” of FOI officers that they may be held liable if they fail to address requests within the prescribed period.
 
FOI officers working from home said they lacked internet connection, office equipment such as laptop computers and scanners and digital copies of files. They also found it difficult to coordinate remotely with record custodians. 

The health and safety of the FOI officers were also factored in. “We didn’t want to put their health at risk during ECQ,” he says.

Jenina Joy Chavez, co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now!Coalition (R2KRN), acknowledged these difficulties. Speaking at an online forum on May 27, she said suspending FOI operations may be necessary, but she also asked whether the government has done anything to help agencies respond to information requests even during a lockdown.

“Whether or not we’re in quarantine, the importance of the right to information remains the same,” said Chavez. During the quarantine, citizens yielded or entrusted power and resources to government, she said. Transparency measures are needed so the public is able to seek accountability and protection. 

On March 29, R2KRN asked the inter-agency task force and departments implementing the government’s Covid-19 action plan for a copy of the plans and structure of the task force as well as for specific sets of documents and data held by the departments of health, social welfare, agriculture, labor, and budget, and the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System.

The status of this request is being published online and updated weekly by the coalition members, including PCIJ. Most of the information requested has been partially fulfilled, but most of the releases are in PDFs, not in open-data or spreadsheet format that make the numbers easier to analyze.

R2KRN publishes weekly reports on the quality of information being provided by frontline agencies. Its May 5 report said that the health department is perhaps the only government agency that collects, processes, posts, and updates information on a regular basis. 

The coalition also raised questions about the completeness of the data. For instance, the daily Covid-19 case counts do not give a full picture of how the virus is spreading. Moreover, only 1,782 of more than 23,000 registered health facilities have submitted details on health capacity and needs. “With incomplete information, it is not clear how capable the health system really is to deal with the Covid-19 emergency,” R2KRN said.

In its May 12 report, R2KRN noted the sparse data released by the DSWD’s Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC), where updates on Covid-19 assistance are posted.  

The DROMIC provides data broken down by province and city, but does not say how many families have received assistance. It also does not disaggregate new from cumulative data, which would have been helpful in determining the rate of response by government and private entities.

The attempt to publish the list of SAP beneficiaries was commendable, said R2KRN. 

However, most of the links are down. The list is also partial and only includes areas that have reports from the DSWD’s field offices. Information can be downloaded but only as PDFs. 

Ryan Macasero, Rappler’s Cebu Bureau reporter, says he has been able to obtain Covid-19-related information but the process has become more laborious. Getting answers from officials, who may only be reached through virtual press briefings or call and chat, has taken more time and effort. 

“It makes their lives easier, but our jobs more difficult,” he says.

What seems to work, Macasero says, is when many reporters ask the same question. 

“We back each other up in the agencies’/office’s official media group chats and say we have the same question to try to emphasize that it’s important they answer us regarding these questions, because it’s information the public needs to know.” –With additional research   by Arjay Guarino, PCIJ, June 2020

Reporting the people’s demands is not a crime

STATEMENT BY THE PEOPLE’S ALTERNATIVE MEDIA NETWORK/21 May 2020

Information is of utmost importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporting the people’s grievances and demands is the solemn duty of the media; it is not a crime.

The Guimba municipal council’s Sangguniang Bayan Resolution No. 52 s.2020 last May 11 empowered the mayor of the Nueva Ecija town to file criminal charges against radio network Radyo Natin Guimba (RNG) for alleged violations of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020 (Republic Act 11469) by reporting the complaints of residents over the implementation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP).

Prior to the resolution, RNG reported that a municipal councilor and son of the incumbent mayor confiscated RNG field reporter Lina Villaflor’s media identification cards issued by the Presidential Communications and Operations Office.

Earlier, on April 22, the mayor had written the station requesting a copy of the radio broadcast aired that day, stating that the “false and malicious” statements made by the commentator could be a basis for his legal action against the station.

This is a form of censorship meant to intimidate the media into either silence or reporting eventually and issues in a manner acceptable to local government officials.

Subsequent direct attacks against the station have been reported, among them the barring of RNG reporters from covering the sessions of the Guimba Sangguniang Bayan. On May 19, the local police again barred an RNG reporter from covering the distribution of rice seeds to farmers.

All these are in violation of press freedom, and were apparently in response to RNG’s reports on the problematic implementation by the Guimba local government of the SAP.

RNG reported that several residents had trooped to their station to air complaints on the “selective” manner in which the cash aid is being distributed—that the municipality and its barangay officials were prioritizing rich farmers over small tillers.

RNG also reported that the local police have prevented them from taking photos and videos of people who trooped to the municipal hall to complain about the SAP implementation.

As much as it is the constitutional right of the people to air their grievances, it is also the constitutional right – and the primordial duty – of the press to report on these issues.

Local government executives should keep in mind that that the current national emergency does not empower officials to silence dissent and curtail press freedom, both of which are essential to a functional democracy in which elected officials are duty-bound to defend the Constitution. #

Reporting the people’s demands is not a crime

Altermidya.net

Information is of utmost importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporting the people’s grievances and demands is the solemn duty of the media; it is not a crime.

The Guimba municipal council’s Sangguniang Bayan Resolution No. 52 s.2020 last May 11 empowered the mayor of the Nueva Ecija town to file criminal charges against radio network Radyo Natin Guimba (RNG) for alleged violations of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020 (Republic Act 11469) by reporting the complaints of residents over the implementation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP).

Prior to the resolution, RNG reported that a municipal councilor and son of the incumbent mayor confiscated RNG field reporter Lina Villaflor’s media identification cards issued by the Presidential Communications and Operations Office.

Earlier, on April 22, the mayor had written the station requesting a copy of the radio broadcast aired that day, stating that the “false and malicious” statements made by the commentator could be a basis for his legal action against the station.

This is a form of censorship meant to intimidate the media into either silence or reporting eventually and issues in a manner acceptable to local government officials.

Subsequent direct attacks against the station have been reported, among them the barring of RNG reporters from covering the sessions of the Guimba Sangguniang Bayan. On May 19, the local police again barred an RNG reporter from covering the distribution of rice seeds to farmers.

All these are in violation of press freedom, and were apparently in response to RNG’s reports on the problematic implementation by the Guimba local government of the SAP.

RNG reported that several residents had trooped to their station to air complaints on the “selective” manner in which the cash aid is being distributed—that the municipality and its barangay officials were prioritizing rich farmers over small tillers.

RNG also reported that the local police have prevented them from taking photos and videos of people who trooped to the municipal hall to complain about the SAP implementation.

As much as it is the constitutional right of the people to air their grievances, it is also the constitutional right – and the primordial duty – of the press to report on these issues.

Local government executives should keep in mind that that the current national emergency does not empower officials to silence dissent and curtail press freedom, both of which are essential to a functional democracy in which elected officials are duty-bound to defend the Constitution.

Radio station condemns threats and attacks from LGU

A Central Luzon radio station is condemning threats of criminal charges by local government officials using the government’s coronavirus emergency law.

In a statement, Radyo Natin-Guimba (RNG) in Nueva Ecija said the Guimba Municipal Council’s recent resolution authorizing mayor Jose Dizon to file charges against the radio station for alleged violations to the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020 (Republic Act 11469) is a direct violation to press freedom.

The station added that the Council’s move is also tantamount to the suppression of the people’s right to demand assistance and relief amid massive loss of livelihood resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ano ba ang masama at nalabag sa ginagawa ng Radyo Natin Guimba na isaboses ang tinig ng mamamayan, marinig ang kanilang apela, reklamo at daing habang sila ay nakakwarantina at hindi makapaghanapbuhay?” RNG asked. (What is wrong and what violation is committed by Radyo Natin Guimba when it only gives voice to the people in order for their appeals and complaints to be heard while they are under quarantine and are unable to work?)

RNG explained that because of the slow distribution of the national government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP) by the LGU, many townsfolk went to their station to broadcast complaints.

Many of the complaints arose from reports that some SAP beneficiaries were rich farmers while many poor peasants have been left out, the station added.

“Ilang matanda, nagpapasusong ina , buntis, solo parent, at mahihirap na pamilya ang dumulog sa aming istasyon at kanilang inirereklamo ang mga Barangay Health Workers (BHWs), Day Care Workers, Kapitan at Municipal Social Welfare and Development Office (MSWDO) sa pagpili ng bibigyan ng SAP,” RNG said. (Some elderly, lactating mothers, pregnant women, solo parents and poor families asked help through our station and complained of discrimination by Barangay health workers, day care workers, Barangay Chairperson and the Municipal Social Welfare and Development Office.)

RNG also said Guimba police also prevented them from taking photos and videos of people lining up to complain about being excluded from SAP.

Townsfolk crowd Guimba’s municipal hall during SAP distribution. (RNG photo)

Elderly complainants were holding up placards saying “Nasaan ang ayuda?” (Where is the assistance?) “Protektahan ang matatanda.” (Protect the elderly.) “Help us.” “Nagugutom na kami!” (We are already starving!) that the local police also threatened to file charges against, RNG said.

The police also took Ina Jo Colcol, a resident of Brangay Balingog East, and Dexter Eusebio of Barangay Sta. Veronica to the local police headquarters and ordered to delete their photos and videos last May 4, the station revealed.

A RNG field reporter was also prevented from taking photos and videos of the people who trooped to the municipal mayor’s office to appeal their SAP exclusion, the station revealed.

Townsfolk crowd Guimba’s municipal hall during SAP distribution. (RNG photo)

Other attacks on press freedom

Before the town council session last May 11, Municipal Councilor Bonbon Dizon, son of Mayor Dizon, confiscated RNG field reporter Lina Villaflor’s media identification cards issued by the Presidential Communications and Operations Office and the station and took photos of them, RNG reported.

The councilor passed the identification cards’ details to Nueva Ecija assessor OJ Manuel Cornejo via a phone call, RNG said.

It was at the May 11 session that the Council approved Sangguniang Bayan Resolution No. 52 s.2020 allowing the filing of criminal charges against RNG by the mayor.

In an emergency meeting of Guimba’s League of Barangay Chairpersons, Cornejo–reportedly a frequent presence at the mayor’s office while the head of a provincial government office–publicly declared the planned charges against RNG.

Last May 18, RNG’s reporter was told to leave the session room as the topic being discussed was “sensitive.”

Last May 19, local police again confronted a RNG reporter covering the distribution of rice seeds to farmers.

The police reportedly told the reporter to first seek a permit from Mayor Dizon.

“We will not agree to the harassment by the LGU. It is our duty to report truthfully and give the people accurate information as is their right. We do not agree that press freedom is a violation to the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” RNG said in its statement.

LGU denies harassment

In a phone interview with Kodao, however, Guimba municipal information officer Sherwin Guiuo denied RNG’s allegation of harassment by the mayor and the council.

“The LGU acted on reports from barangay officials that some whose photos were posted online reacted negatively to RNG’s uploads. In the first place, they are not hungry as the LGU was in fact distributing relief,” Guiuo said.

The officer said the resolution is not harassment but obedience to RA 11469’s Section 6 on penalties.

Section 6’s item F orders penalties on “individuals or groups creating or perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms.”

“The council is duty bound to give the mayor the authority to take such actions as provided by the law. The mayor in turn is duty-bound to implement the law,” Guiuo said.

‘Abusive’

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chairperson Nonoy Espina however said the LGU’s actions and plans against RNG are abusive.

“The harassment of RNG and its staff by the Guimba LGU is a shameless trampling on freedom of the press and on the right of their own constituents to know what is happening in the municipality,” Espina said.

“This is clear abuse of authority that has no place in a democracy,” Espina added.

RNG is a member of both the Manila Broadcasting Company’s Radyo Natin project and People’s Alternative Media Network. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Harry Roque owes CNN-Philippines and reporter an apology, NUJP says

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said that Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque should apologize to CNN Philippines for berating its reporter in an online press briefing Tuesday, May 12.

In a statement, the media group said Roque owes the media company and reporter Triciah Terada an apology for “his boorish and, as it turned out, misbegotten tirade.”

Reacting to a CNN tweet on Monday, May 18, Roque denied he admitted that the government has no coronavirus mass testing program and would leave it to private businesses.

It was reported that the government has no plan or action, or that the expanded target testing is not a priority. This is very wrong,” Roque said in Filipino.

He said reporter Terada quoted him “out of context,” adding that CNN’s tweet insinuated that the government has passed on to the private sector the responsibility for expanded testing.

CNN said in a statement it is standing by its story, adding the report was not written by Terada.

“CNN Philippines assures the public that we reported the facts in the May 18 story,” it said.

Roque was in fact responding to the request of GMA’s Joseph Morong to confirm that government had no mass testing program, to which he replied, “[I]n terms of mass testing that Wuhan (China) did with all its 11 million residents, we have no such program and we leave that to the private sector.”

NUJP said that, ironically, even as he berated Terada, Roque unwittingly proved in effect the report right when he said, “It is not mass testing that we are doing, it is expanded targeted testing.”

Multiple news organizations also carried the same story that quoted Roque.

“Officials who earn public ire for their pronouncements should not blame journalists who are merely doing their jobs,” NUJP said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Joint statement: Stand with ABS-CBN, Defend Free Expression

Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, Jr. of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF ELCAC) issued a statement Monday night claiming that “the ABS-CBN issue is about CPP [Communist Party of the Philippines] propaganda, so it falls under NTF ELCAC’s mandate.”

The statement came after the brouhaha ignited by the recent crossposting in several official government social media accounts of false information about the ABS-CBN issue.

Despite the fact that the NTF ELCAC got burned by the Palace when Communications Sec. Martin Andanar admitted that the cross-posting of NTF ELCAC’s infographics on ABS-CBN did not undergo the “usual vetting procedures,” Parlade persisted in linking the ABS-CBN issue to the CPP.

Under different circumstances, we could have dismissed Parlade’s red-baiting statement. But the reality is that journalists are being harassed, arrested, and killed under the pretext of counter-insurgency.

In a futile attempt to blindside the alternative media, Parlade directly mentioned the Altermidya Network and its members including Bulatlat, Kodao, Tudla, Kilab, Northern Dispatch, and even the formations National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Union of Journalists of the Philippines (UJP), and the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, labeling all these groups as “creations of the CPP.” The general also labeled veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona as a “long-time cohort” of the CPP and dared her to “expose herself some more.”

As we have said, time and again, the fight for the ABS-CBN franchise renewal is a fight for free expression and a fight for all. But Parlade is instead red-tagging virtually everyone and anyone who supports the call for the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise.

There is nothing new in this attack. Keen observers of the increasingly deteriorating state of press freedom in the country were not surprised. In the context of the Duterte administration’s weaponizing the public health emergency to further its goal of controlling information and public opinion, Parlade’s use of the ABS-CBN issue is just one more demonstration of its determination to silence dissent and free expression.

At a time when millions are standing up and speaking out about the abuses of the Duterte administration, state agents respond with a patently unconstitutional crackdown on the media sector.

Parlade’s empty accusations should not deter the media from reporting the truth. Rather they should continue to monitor and hold government to account despite its concerted efforts to silence them.

Stand with ABS-CBN!  Defend press freedom and free expression!

SIGNATORIES

Altermidya Network
Bulatlat
Kilab Multimedia
Kodao Productions
Northern Dispatch
Tudla Productions
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
College Editors Guild of the Philippines
Union of Journalists of the Philippines-UP

Philippine Press Institute
International Association of Women in Radio & Television (IAWRT) Philippines
UP Journalism Department
Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines (PCP)
Let’s Organize for Democracy & Integrity – LODI
Concerned Artists of the Philippines
NUJP-NCR
Manila Today
Pinoy Weekly
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STATE OF PHILIPPINE MEDIA 2020: Journalists Struggle to Cover the Pandemic as Space for Media Freedom Shrinks

The shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media network, is the latest in a series of attacks and threats against the Philippine press.

BY ANGELICA CARBALLO PAGO/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

MEDIA freedom and free expression have become casualties of the “war” against the Covid-19 pandemic that has led to severe restrictions on news coverage and economic difficulties for newspapers, media advocates said on Monday.

Members of the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All (FMFA) Network cited arbitrary arrests and a growing crackdown on dissent on social media amid enhanced community quarantine measures, in a virtual forum that tackled the annual “State of Media Freedom in the Philippines” report.

The forum was held a day after the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, and on the eve of the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media network, by state regulators.

‘Not just a metaphor’

Speaking at the online forum, Melinda Quintos-De Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), noted that the government response to the pandemic has been depicted as a war.

“But that is more than just a metaphor because the military and police have been put in the frontlines as visible implementors,” de Jesus said.

‪International media watchdogs have noted that all over the world, the pandemic has restricted space for freedom of expression. The Philippines is no exception, with Congress passing Republic Act 11469 or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” which gave President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers to quickly respond to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The emergency law penalizes “fake news” under a general provision that is open to misinterpretation and abuse.

An example is the case of an overseas Filipino worker in Taiwan, Elanel Ordidor, whose deportation was sought by labor attaché Fidel Macauyag over a social media post criticizing the President. Taiwan has since rejected the request.

The forum also took note of accreditation measures imposed by the Inter-Agency Task Force for Management of Emerging Infectious Disease, which have expanded bureaucratic control over the media.

Nonoy Espina, president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said local governments were implementing their own media accreditation schemes, citing Negros Occidental province and Bacolod City.

“This added requirement affects how we gather and how we deliver news, because (if access to) information is controlled, it can be very difficult to do journalism,” Espina said.

During the open discussion, Pulitzer Prize winner Manny Mogato said: “One of the biggest threats to journalism is government propaganda when it hijacks the narrative of the public health crisis by making it appear it was doing a good job of responding to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Attacks on media

In the annual media freedom report, the CMFR and NUJP documented 61 incidents of threats and attacks against the press, including the deaths of three journalists, for the period January 2019 to April 2020.

The State of Media Freedom in the Philippines report also covered the release of the December 2019 ruling that convicted those behind the Ampatuan Massacre, which claimed the lives of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in November 2009.

MindaNews’ Antonio La Viña, former Ateneo de Manila School of Government dean, said the long-delayed court decision on what is considered the world’s single deadliest attack on journalists, was a “good ruling, with a lot of shadows — the role of political families in the Philippines that is linked to impunity.”

“We need to make sure another massacre will not happen again,” he said.

Apart from CMFR, NUJP and MindaNews, the FMFA network includes the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

An epidemic of experts

Tech entrepreneur and data ethics advocate Dominic Ligot, a member of the PCIJ board, urged journalists to counter Covid-19 disinformation by being on the lookout for politicization, “armchair epidemiology,” the mushrooming of experts, and the need for critical discourse.

Journalists, he said, should challenge experts and even question the assumptions underlying disease transmission models and projections.

“We are in an interesting time when everyone is in a physical lockdown and at the same time, everyone is wired up digitally,” he said.

For the first time, he noted, the public has been given access to a barrage of scientific and technical information on social media, pointing to numerous policy notes published on Facebook.

Ligot warned that journalists scrambling for expert opinion could contribute to disinformation by highlighting imprecise data or incomplete forecasts.

“We are in an environment where everyone is suddenly an expert,” he said.

Journalists need help, too

NUJP’s Espina also raised safety issues and economic difficulties confronting journalists, particularly freelancers and provincial correspondents, since the start of the lockdown.

“The biggest problem, especially for freelancers and correspondents working in small outfits, is the lack of support in covering the pandemic,” Espina said.

Espina said these journalists were left to pay for their own personal protective equipment, vitamins, and other out-of-pocket costs.

“One correspondent I have talked to said, ‘I have no idea if we’re getting a hazard pay,’ and the outfit that she works for made no mention about it,” he said.

The drastic cutdown in television programs and operations was also a huge blow to contractual media workers in the broadcasting industry who are usually under a “no work, no pay” arrangement, Espina said. With the crisis cutting on already falling revenues, closures and layoffs might be inevitable, he warned.

This was echoed by Ariel Sebellino, executive director of the Philippine Press Institute, who said that about half of the organization’s members, mostly family-owned community papers, have ceased printing due to economic losses caused by the lockdown.

“We must all get our acts together and respond to the needs of community journalists during this pandemic,” Sebellino said. “There must be a concerted effort to help improve the situation of our journalists in the provinces.”

Espina said he had received complaints from journalists who were unable to receive cash aid from the government’s Social Amelioration Program, the Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) of Department of Labor and Employment, and other forms of government assistance, because of misconceptionsthat media workers were making a lot of money.

An overlooked aspect is the pandemic’s toll on the mental health of journalists who are, in a way, also frontliners in the Covid-19 response, Espina said.

“None of us is immune to the fear and uncertainty that the pandemic brings,” Espina said. “We need to recognize that we are not superman. We need to take care of ourselves.”— PCIJ, May 2020