RP falls in 2024 press freedom index due to red-tagging, Cumpio’s continuing imprisonment

The Philippines fared worse in the World Press Freedom Index, falling by two points to 134th out of 180 countries this year compared to 132nd in 2023.

Red-tagging and the continued detention of community journalist and broadcaster Frenchie Mae Cumpio were two of the factors in the drop, global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (Rapporteurs Sans Frontieres, RSF) in its latest report said.

RSF said that while policies under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appear “more consensual” compared to his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, “authorities still often resort to red-tagging.”

The group described red-tagging as a practice inherited from the colonial era and Cold War in which journalists who do not toe the government line are branded as “subversive elements” or “reds.”

“This is tantamount to telling law enforcement that they (critical, independent journalists) are legitimate targets for arbitrary arrest or even summary execution,” RSF explained.

The latest index said the Philippine is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists where impunity for crimes against them “is almost total.”

The Philippines is classified as a “difficult” country while Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland are categorized as “good” alongside Portugal, Finland and Greenland

RSF said that while the Philippine government set up the Presidential Task Force on Media Security in 2016 but the inter-ministerial body has proved “unable to stem the vicious cycle of violence against journalists.”

The index also lists Cumpio as a journalist in detention despite efforts by government prosecutors to paint her as a member of an underground Communist group, the New People’s Army.

Greater concentration in ownership

RSF also said ownership in mainstream media has also recently reached even greater levels of concentration than in the past, “a development accompanied by closer ties between media owning families and political barons at regional and national levels.”

“The ABS-CBN/GMA duopoly is now being challenged by a third media giant, the Villar family’s Villar Group, which is openly affiliated to former President Duterte’s clan,” it said.

The Villars is the country’s richest family that counts among its members senators and representatives in the Philippine Congress.

“Even more worrying is the growing influence of the current President Marcos’s cousin, Martin Romualdez, who is Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 2023, his company, Prime Media, which owns the Manila Standard newspaper, established a joint venture with ABS-CBN’s radio business to gain even more influence,” RSF added.

Romualdez is touted by his supporters to be presidential timber in the 2028 national elections against Vice President Sara Duterte in what is seen as a massive clash of political dynasties who have had presidents among members.

Kodao’s Raymund Villanueva (left) and Danilo Arao (right) at the 2024 World Press Freedom Day Rally last May 3. (Photo by Lito Ocampo/Kodao)

Media safety summit approves declaration

Meanwhile, Philippine independent media organizations and more than a hundred leading journalists and journalism educators from all over the country concluded the two-day First Philippine Media Safety Summit with a declaration affirming independent and critical journalism last May 3, World Press Freedom Day, in Quezon City.

The declaration also condemned the killing of journalist and the lack of resolution of cases as well as the deliberate targeting of journalists and media organizations.

The media safety summit was organized by the Asian Institute for Journalism and Communication, the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, the Freedom for Media-Freedom for All Coalition, MindaNews, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Philippine Press Institute.

The summit was joined by the Commission on Human Rights, Internews, the Royal Norwegian Government, various projects under the United Nations in the Philippines as well as Karapatan, College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines and the People’s Alternative Media Network.

The NUJP led a World Press Freedom Day rally at the Boy Scout’s Circle in Quezon City after the declaration’s approval. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

CHR: Democracy needs a free press

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) underscored the role of a free press in a democracy, even as it noted the Philippines’ steady decline in the World Press Freedom Index in the last four years.

In her keynote message for a journalists and human rights defenders’ project Friday, May 28, CHR executive director Jacqueline Ann de Guia said democracy needs a free press to thrive and survive.

“It is the power of a free and independent media—to be a watchdog, to promote transparency and accountability, and to amplify the voices of the weak, disadvantaged, and marginalized—that put pressure on government to be responsive to the needs of the people,” de Guia said.

De Guia however expressed alarm at the state of press freedom in the country, adding that international group Reporters Without Borders has noted continuing attacks against mass media, journalists and other human rights defenders in the past four years.

“The state of press freedom in the country is a cause for concern for CHR. In the past four years, data from the World Press Freedom Index shows a continuous decline of the Philippines from 133rd out of 180 countries in 2018; to 134th in 2019; 136th in 2020; and 138th in 2021,” de Guia said.

De Guia spoke at the project launch of Safeguarding Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines by various media groups led by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and the International Media Service.

Other attendees included members of the Journalists Safety Advisory Group (JSAG) that crafted the Philippine Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists (PPASJ) last November 2019 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre.

The JSAG included the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Center for Community Journalism and Development, and the Philippine Press Institute.

Commission on Human Rights executive director and spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia. (AIJC photo)

In her address, de Guia said the press must maintain its ability to expose corruption, demand redress of grievances, and call out lies and propaganda in favor of truth.

She added that the press must equally allow the people to decide better and demand more from the government that bears the obligation to uphold and protect the human rights of all.

The last four years have seen journalists, media workers, and media organisations being repeatedly confronted by a dangerous and hostile climate marked by episodes of harassment, silencing, and even death.

“And with the closure of ABS-CBN, we have greatly felt the gap in delivering critical information in hard-to-reach communities to help them cope and survive disasters, calamities, and this current Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

De Guia said that the CHR’s Task Force on Media-Related EJKs (extrajudicial killings), with regional desks in its Bicol, Cotabato and Cebu regional offices, is ready to investigate attacks against the press.

“Thus far, 21 media killings have been docketed for investigation in different CHR regional offices covering July 2016 to May 2021. We are also investigating 7 cases involving 20 victims of other alleged human rights violations, including unlawful/arbitrary arrest/detention, frustrated killings, and red-tagging,” she said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Espina-Varona wins international award for journalists

A Filipino won one of the most prestigious global awards for journalists for her resistance to “financial, political, economic or religious pressures or because of the values and rules that enable them to resist” in reporting on issues that are sensitive in the Philippines.

Cited for her many reports on child prostitution, violence against women, LGBT (lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgenders) issues and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona was awarded the Prize for Independence by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in London Thursday, November 8.

In her acceptance speech, Espina-Varona shared the honor with her “embattled Philippine colleagues: the 185 killed since the 1986 restoration of a fragile, perpetually threatened democracy, 12 of them in the first two years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule.”

“This is also for colleagues who face death threats, vilification campaigns, and revocation of access to coverage, for doing what journalists are supposed to do — questioning official acts and claims, especially on issues of human rights and corruption,” she added.

Varona said other threats are more insidious — like having journalists becoming witnesses to cases filed by cops in the aftermath of raids, practically a quid pro quo for continued access to police operations.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) is launching the “Sign Against The Sign” campaign to repeal the law that fuels the practice today in Quezon City.

“There is another grave problem we face: the proposed draconian changes to the law that would make terrorists of practically all critics of the government and make journalists and media accessories whenever we give voice to persons and groups the government deems ‘terrorist’ — practically all dissenters,” Espina-Varona added.

She said she is proud of Philippine journalism, of colleagues who probe not only the effects of growing autocracy, but also the roots of social woes that allowed a false messiah to bedazzle Filipinos.

“If I am independent, it is because there are colleagues and fellow citizens who fight for rights and freedoms, who refuse to be silent in the face of thousands of murders and other injustices, who fight on despite threats, arrests and torture, whose words and deeds speak from beyond the grave,” Espina-Varona said.

“Filipino journalists are brave because we come after the many who showed courage over hundreds of years. And we are brave because our people are brave,” she added.

Espina-Varona said Filipino journalists cannot let the Filipino people down, nor allow them to forget the country’s dark past as well as their triumph against it.

The NUJP congratulated Espina-Varona for the award in a statement Friday, thanking its former president for recognizing the role independent Filipino journalists played in defending and advancing the Filipino people’s rights and liberties.

The NUJP also thanked the awardee for her recognition of journalists who defend democracy “despite the dangers they face, not least from the very forces supposedly sworn to protect and preserve our freedoms.” # (Raymund B. Villanueva)