Defend free press in Philippines, activists tell UN

The freedom of expression is under attack in the Philippines and the United Nations is looking into it.  In late January, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression Irene Khan has arrived in Manila to assess the Ferdinand Marcos Jr government’s human rights mechanisms, particularly on the freedom of opinion and expression.

According to reports, Khan will visit Baguio, Cebu, and Tacloban and meet with various national and local government officials and civil society activists, including former senator Leila de Lima who was recently released after five years imprisonment on what the courts now stated as unsubstantiated charges of drug trafficking.

Civil society groups representing alternative media journalists, artists, and human rights advocates, who have submitted a human rights report to Khan, are calling on her to investigate the mounting number of cases of violations against the rights of activists, media professionals, and members of the academia to express their views. Khan will be in the country until February 2.

Activists said the freedom of speech is under attack. Photo credit: iStock/ Ralf Geithe

In a recent press conference, the leaders of the different groups shared the highlights of the report, which have inputs from 40 different organizations.

Cristina Palabay, the secretary-general of the biggest human rights group in the Philippines, Karapatan, criticized the government of Pres. Ferdinand Marcos Jr, in particular the Department of Foreign Affairs, in the wake of its statement that the visit of Khan in the country proves the government’s “open, sustained and sincere cooperation…with bilateral and regional partners and the UN.”

Palabay said: “Integrity in cooperation with international human rights mechanisms means heeding recommendations of these international experts and bodies, consistent with government obligations under human rights treaties, conventions and declarations. 

“The Philippine government has disregarded, shrugged off, and flat-out rejected past recommendations given by UN special rapporteurs who have visited the country in years past.  Now, the Marcos Jr. government has stepped up the unwritten policy of wanton repression against Filipinos, violating rights and basic freedoms including our freedom of expression,” 

Palabay argued that the Filipino government treats international engagements as “all niceties” and “opportunities merely to boost his (Marcos Jr.) tainted image before the international community.

“Meanwhile, real figures and real issues on human rights haunt his administration, and the outright disregard of such issues reflects his callousness.” 

Activists want the government to respect a free press. Photo credit: iStock/ Cineberg

Attacks against journalists and media 

Among the sectors most eager to meet with Khan are alternative media journalists.  According to data from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), 109 journalists had been at the receiving end of threats and harassment under the two-year old Marcos Jr. administration. This figure was 47 percent higher than the number of journalists who experienced state-sponsored harassment during the first two years of former president Rodrigo Duterte.

Four members of the media were killed in the last two years – Percy Lapid, Juan Jumalon, Cris Bunduquin and Renato Blanco. The police did not turn up meaningful leads and the killers remained at large. In the meantime, there were 20 documented cases of red-tagging against journalists.

Red-tagging is the malicious harassment and blacklisting of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of a sitting government administration.

A reporter’s microphone shackled by barbed wire. Photo credit: iStock/ mesh cube

According to the World Press Freedom Index 2023 released by the Reporters Without Borders, the Philippines remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists. In the 2023 Global Impunity Index by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Philippines ranked eighth.  

Both institutions revealed Philippines to be a “dangerous” workplace for reporters, especially for radio journalists. Topping the year 2023’s impunity index was Syria, followed by Somalia, Haiti, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico and then the Philippines. After the Philippines were Myanmar, Brazil, Pakistan and India.

“These are all reasons why the UN is coming in – there is an urgent need to look into the state of press freedom in the country and why it continues to worsen,” said Raymund Villanueva, the chairperson of the AlterMidya People’s Alternative Media Network. 

“No government has the right to stop is citizens from having opinions and expressing them, especially if these are opinions that question the government’s actions or inaction on important social, political, and economic concerns.”

Paul Soriano, secretary of the NUJP, concurred, and said that the democratic spaces for expression and journalism should be protected and maintained.

“Filipinos should fight back against the curtailment of the freedom of expression and fight for the right to a fair, objective, and independent press,” he said.

In May 2023, the hosts of a news show on the pro-government network SMNI accused NUJP and its chairperson Jonathan de Santos of supporting communist insurgents. In June, environmental advocates from the northern regions filed a case calling on the Supreme Court to give them legal protection after units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) included their names in a red-tag list.

Journalist Atom Araullo also filed a lawsuit against SMNI after he was red-tagged by the hosts of one of its programs. 

An educational talk on freedom of expression and opinion.

Censorship against artists

Artists are also the targets of governmental harassment. Lisa Ito, secretary general of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) said the artist community remained vigilant against attempts of the government to suppress art that has critical and progressive leanings. 

In July 2023 in the wake of Pres. Marcos Jr.’s second State of the Nation Address, the Quezon City Police District filed charges against visual artist Max Santiago, who was accused of violating the relevant law for his “Doble-Kara” effigy, an effigy depicting Marcos Jr with two faces.

Cartoonist Kevin Eric Raymundo, who is popularly known as Tarantadong Kalbo (literally trouble-making bald man), was accused of being a sympathizer of the communist armed group, the New People’s Army (NPA). Unknown parties reproduced copies of Raymundo’s work and plastered them in areas around the metro with messages calling Raymundo a communist.

“We hope that UN Rapporteur Khan will look closely into these attacks against cultural workers,” Raymundo said.

Filipino teachers are also prohibited from using alternative information sources to supplement official educational materials approved by the Department of Education (DepEd), who is headed by former president Duterte’s daughter, current vice-president Sara Duterte.

Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT)’s secretary general Raymond Basilio said teachers are now forced to keep to only approved books in teaching their lessons.

“Teachers and students both benefit when teachers are allowed to expand their learning and include information and data outside books. We cannot help but see this prohibition as an attack against learning and critical thinking,” he said.

Red-tagging of journalists. Photo credit: iStock/ natasaadzic

Restrictions against political gatherings

During the height of the COVID-1 pandemic, urban centers were put under militarized lockdown. Two years later after the pandemic was over, gatherings, particularly those that are political in nature, are still being monitored. This, civil rights groups said, is an infringement on the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of assembly.

“Take how the police keep insisting that people should first secure permits before holding protests in public spaces including so-called ‘freedom parks’ – this is against the Public Assembly Act of 1985,” said secretary general Raymond Palatino of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN).

“We comply with this questionable requirement, but the PNP still harass the gatherings by putting up barriers and deploying police to the rally sites,” he said. “They even charged grassroots leaders and members with silly charges like obstructing traffic and loitering.”

Shutting Down News Sites

Among the biggest attacks against freedom of expression and freedom of the press, advocates said, was the government’s well-funded and coordinated cyber-attacks against alternative news sites, for example, Bulatlat, Kodao, Altermidya and Pinoy Weekly. The websites of Karapatan, Bayan, and the independent economic think-tank Ibon Foundation were also hacked and taken down.

Civil rights groups said that like its predecessors, the Marcos Jr. government “is peddling a toxic lie that the full exercise of civil and political rights is tantamount to a crime; that criticism and raising legitimate demands are criminal acts.”

According to a report by Bulatlat, former National Security Advisor Hermogenes Esperon Jr. in June 2022 requested the National Telecommunications Commission to block 25 websites managed by independent media publications and civil society organizations, which the Commission complied.  

Bulatlat filed a civil lawsuit demanding to nullify the request and also appealed to the local courts to restraint the Commission until a final verdict is handed down. 

The plea was granted, but the temporary unblocking of websites was limited only to Bulatlat. Other affected news websites were forced to create new domain names to get around the restriction.

Protestors want the government to nullify the National Telecommunications Commission’s blocking order.

Freedom for detained journalist

Civil rights groups appealed to Khan to support the release of detained alternative media journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio.

Before her arrest and consequent imprisonment in 2020, Cumpio was an active broadcaster with the MBC network’s Aksyon Radyo in Leyte. She was the executive editor of alternative media outfit Eastern Vista and a former editor of the University of the Philippines-Tacloban Vista student publication.

Cumpio was also manager-in-training of the Radyo Taclobanon, a women-led disaster resilience community radio station project in Supertyphoon Yolanda-hit Eastern Visayas. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa even mentioned her during her acceptance speech in 2022.

Raymund B. Villanueva, reporter and editor at multi-media production outfit Kodao, said: “We appeal to Ms. Khan to conduct a thorough investigation on the continued vilification of journalists, affecting the exercise of press freedom and the people’s right to know in the Philippines. These are very serious concerns that the Marcos Jr. administration has so far refused to address. 

“We hope that by calling the international human rights community’s attention to these issues, we can expect some immediate relief or at least goad the government into positive action.” 

Civil rights activists want the government to free jailed alternative media journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio.

All photos credit unless otherwise stated: Concerned Artists of the Philippines and Karapatan

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