When Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was elected president, various groups raised the alarm about a possible decline of press freedom in the country.
The fears come from a number of factors, foremost of which is the fact that the President’s father and namesake, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, quelled dissent by jailing critics, including opposition leaders, journalists, and activists.
When Marcos took office, the country was also reeling from a climate of fear, created by his predecessor and political ally, Rodrigo Duterte, who openly threatened the press, forced major media network ABS-CBN off the air, and revoked Rappler’s operating license.
It did not help that Marcos himself granted more access to vloggers and influencers than professional journalists during the campaign.
In his first year in office, the President repeatedly said he would ensure freedom of expression and of the press. But his “laissez-faire policy” about it showed his support for the status quo, according to lawyer Marichu Lambino, University of the Philippines professor.
“The fact that he’s not doing anything about (and he’s not correcting) all of the cases of prior restraint, censorship, and repression that were perpetrated during the Duterte regime… shows that he is continuing a policy of harassing independent news media organizations and shutting down independent news media organizations,” Lambino told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
“That shows the real state of the nation,” she added.
His two State of the Nation Address (SONA) speeches so far have also been silent on attacks against press freedom.
TOP PHOTO BY LARRY MONSERATE PIOJO FOR PCIJ
The state of the Philippine media is troubling. Majority of media channels are now owned by religious sects, politicians, and tycoons closely affiliated with key government officials like the President, Lambino observed.
This development reminded her of the “crony press” that promoted government propaganda during the 14-year martial rule of Marcos Sr. dictatorship.
“When martial law was declared, the first thing that was done was to shut down all news organizations and the relatives and friends of the Marcos family took over those news organizations… in a similar form, it is now developing today,” she said.
While the pandemic fast-tracked the pivot to digital media consumption, surveys show that television remains the top news source for Filipinos.
Lambino observed that two-thirds of free television and live-streaming channels were owned by religious sects that were supportive of the previous Duterte presidency and the current Marcos administration.
These include Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, founded by the televangelist Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, who is on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s “most wanted” list on trafficking charges; INC TV and Net 25 of the Christian Era Broadcasting Service International and Eagle Broadcasting Corporation, owned and operated by Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), a religious group known for bloc voting; ZOE TV of the Jesus is Lord (JIL) Church Worldwide, founded by former presidential candidate Bro. Eddie Villanueva; and UNTV of the Members Church of God International, most known for Bro. Eli Soriano’s Ang Dating Daan.
Quiboloy and INC endorsed the tandem of Marcos and Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio in the 2022 presidential elections.
Villanueva ran for president in 2004 and 2010, and then for senator in 2013. He lost in all three bids, but won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2019 as a nominee of a partylist group. His son is Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva.
Political and business families — primarily, the Villars and Romualdezes — have also joined the broadcasting industry.
The Villars own Advanced Media Broadcasting System (AMBS) channel AllTV, which took over the frequency previously used by the Lopez-owned ABS-CBN.
Patriarch Manuel “Manny” Villar Jr., former Senate president and presidential candidate, is the Philippines’ richest man, according to Forbes’ 2023 World's Billionaires list, with a net worth of $8.6 billion (P467 billion).
His wife Cynthia and son Mark are both in the Senate, while his daughter Camille is Las Piñas City’s lone representative in the House. Cynthia’s sister-in-law Imelda Aguilar and the latter’s daughter April Aguilar-Nery are the city mayor and vice mayor, respectively.
House Speaker Martin Romualdez, a cousin of the President, owns Prime Media Holdings, which has a joint venture with ABS-CBN. The struggling media company was forced to shut down its dzMM Teleradyo operations.
Tingog Sinarangan Partylist Rep. Yedda Marie Romualdez is married to the Speaker.
The Romualdez’s family also owns the national broadsheet Manila Standard and the Journal Group of Publications (which publishes tabloids People’s Journal and People’s Tonight, among others). The Speaker’s sister-in-law Alexandra “Sandy” Prieto is the chief executive officer of the Inquirer Group of Companies.
This “crony media ownership” results in a diminishing space for free and independent news organizations, Lambino said.
Attempts by independent media groups to enter into partnerships “are met with threats,” she said, citing the case of ABS-CBN, which lost its broadcast franchise in 2020.
In 2022, ABS-CBN was supposed to get a 34.99-percent minority stake in TV5, which would have allowed it to return to free TV. But the P2-billion investment deal fell through when TV5 owner Manny V. Pangilinan was threatened with an investigation for allegedly violating the prohibition against monopolies.
ABS-CBN also switched off dzMM Teleradyo operations due to financial losses, then entered into a joint venture with Romualdez’s Prime Media.
For Lambino, this is proof that only those close to the government are “left free to broadcast without threats of harassment, while those remaining independent news organizations constantly face threats of being shut down and investigated.”
Jonathan de Santos, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), also raised fears about the “concentration of power” among media owners who are vocal about their political aspirations and business interests.
“Grabe ‘yung concentration of power nito. And for them to have control of a potentially powerful medium, medyo nakakakaba rin ‘yun (The concentration of power here is immense. And for them to have control of a potentially powerful medium, that is a bit nerve-wracking),” he said.
Besides, media ownership also affects the quality of news content the public consumes.
Lambino observed that most news reports now lack context and are “single-sourced” with many journalists relying on government press releases for their reports.
“While journalists and reporters within these media organizations remain independent and continue to struggle for a free and independent press, there will always be a constant clash with the interests of the owners because the owners have their own interests to protect, and that is to continue supporting the present administration,” she said.
“It has implications on the kind of democratic space that we have right now because when people do not have information, they are not able to make informed decisions,” she added.
Journalists killed, ambushed
The Philippines rose 15 notches in the latest World Press Freedom Index, but it continued to be among the world’s “most dangerous” countries for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Despite the improvement, NUJP’s De Santos said press freedom remains under threat because the “structures and tactics” used to silence journalists continued to exist.
In the first 12 months in office of Marcos, or from July 2022 to June 2023, NUJP has recorded 83 incidents of media attacks, including the killing of three journalists, the physical attack of two others, and 21 reported incidents of harassment.
Within the same period under the Duterte administration, three journalists were killed, four were assaulted, three received death threats, and there were at least 11 incidents of harassment. Of the three murders, the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) considered only one as work-related.
Newspaper columnist Virgilio Maganes, who survived a slay attempt in November 2016, was killed outside his home four years later.
In July 2016, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) website was hacked following the publication of its reports on the drug war. It was one of the first cases of harassment and online attacks against journalists and media outlets under the Duterte presidency.
Twenty-two journalists and media workers in total were killed between 2016 and 2022. (Related story: Cases vs killers of media workers in the Philippines flounder in courts)
Negros Oriental-based radio commentator Rey Blanco was stabbed in the neck in September 2022. He was declared dead on arrival at a hospital. Blanco was the first media worker killed on Marcos’ watch.
Two other radio broadcast journalists were gunned down in Marcos’s first year: Percival “Percy” Mabasa in October, and Cresenciano “Cris” Bundoquin in May.
In all three cases, the suspects were arrested and facing murder charges.
In Mabasa’s case, three pleaded guilty to being accessories in the murder and were sentenced up to eight years in prison.
Meanwhile, radio journalist Florencio “Flo” Hervias was mauled in October, while photojournalist Joshua Abiad and his family were shot in June.
One of the alleged gunmen in Abiad’s murder attempt was arrested this month.
NUJP’s De Santos said these significant updates on the cases are “good signs” of the government’s commitment to protect journalists.
“Mukhang promising dahil may usad naman ‘yung mga kasong ‘to (It looks promising because there’s progress in these cases),” he said.
But he also pointed out that none of the masterminds have been arrested, which would show how the government addresses impunity by “holding people behind these attacks to account.”
While hopeful, De Santos also admitted that the recent cases were “concerning” because these happened in Metro Manila and in provincial capitals, which are considered relatively safer than other parts of the country.
Mabasa and Abiad were based in Las Piñas and Quezon City, respectively. Bundoquin and Hervias were based in Calapan City in Oriental Mindoro and Iloilo City, respectively.
Vera Files, an independent non-profit media organization, also received death threats following its fact-check of Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s claim that Duterte’s statement to kill police officers involved in the illegal drug trade was made out of frustration. Vera Files reported that Dela Rosa contradicted Duterte’s “long-established stance” on the issue.
According to NUJP data, there were 17 cases of Red-tagging of media workers since Marcos became president. This list included De Santos himself, as well as organizations he is affiliated with — NUJP, which he chairs, and Philstar.com, an online news website where he sits as an editor.
“What I learned from that experience is… a lot of newsrooms are not actually equipped to deal with that or address it,” he told PCIJ.
While being a communist is not against the law, communism has been equated with terrorism in the public consciousness. The mere labeling or affiliation of an individual to communist groups can be dangerous or lethal.
Since 2020, Tacloban-based community journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio has been detained on trumped-up charges of terrorism financing and illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
If at all, this is one example of the use of legal and regulatory frameworks to intimidate the press.
Rappler founder and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa’s acquittal from tax evasion charges filed by Duterte’s government was seen as a “ray of hope” in the media community. But it was one victory compared to the many cases of lawfare, or the use of legal systems and structures, against journalists.
“There has been a shift. Mas marami nang dinadaan sa legal cases or regulatory processes (More are resorting to legal cases or regulatory processes),” De Santos said. These include at least 11 cases of libel and cyberlibel filed against journalists in the first year of the Marcos presidency.
Darcie de Galicia of Radio City 97.5 FM and Noel Alamar of ABS-CBN’s Teleradyo, for instance, are facing 941 counts of cyberlibel filed by Quezon Gov. Helen Tan and her husband, Public Works regional director Ronnel Tan.
“Hindi mo alam kasi ano’ng gagawin mo ‘pag nahaharap ka sa kaso, or even if alam mo, wala ka namang resources. Matatakot to talaga (When you’re charged in court, you don’t know what to do, or even if you know, you don’t have the resources to defend yourself. You’ll be overcome with fear),” De Santos said.
“In some cases, hindi naman sila ba-back up-an ng newsroom nila, or pwede na ‘yung kaso could take decades [to be resolved] (In some cases, they don’t get legal backing from their newsroom, or that the case could take decades to be resolved),” he said.
Libel and cyberlibel are considered crimes in the Philippines and have been used to intimidate and harass media workers. These can lead to self-censorship or non-publication of stories deemed critical of people in power for fear of reprisal.
Meanwhile, alternative news websites have also been fighting another form of censorship. Bulatlat has gone to court to nullify an order issued by the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) blocking public access to its website during the Duterte administration.
Then National Security Adviser (NSA) Hermogenes Esperon requested the issuance of the order, arguing that Bulatlat’s website and several others had been “found to be affiliated with and supporting terrorists and terrorist organizations.”
De Santos said the Marcos administration may choose to rescind the order anytime.
De Santos expressed hopes that Marcos would make good on his promises to uphold transparency and promote the role of the press in nation-building.
Both De Santos and Lambino urged the President to certify as urgent measures decriminalizing libel and repealing the Anti-Terrorism Act.
“Napakalakas ng political capital niya (He has a strong political capital). Nagsabi na siya actually na government should be more open. So bakit hindi mo pa itawid doon na i-certify most urgent? (Why don’t you go to the extent of certifying these as urgent?)” he said.
Apart from the decriminalization of libel, Lambino said that the cyberlibel provision in the Cybercrime Prevention Act should be removed so that the “real intent (of the law), which is to go after human trafficking syndicates, child prostitution, child abuse, can be realized.”
If Congress could not repeal the anti-terror law, then Malacañang should direct the anti-terrorism council, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), and other government agencies to stop using the law against independent news organizations, campus journalists, and human rights workers, she said.
“At the very least this administration can do that. If it’s not doing that, you can very well conclude that it is a policy,” Lambino said. END