Freedom of Expression Declines Further Under Marcos

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Freedom of Expression Declines Further Under Marcos

As expected, the Philippines’ new leader has done little to reverse his predecessor’s dire track record on free speech.

Freedom of Expression Declines Further Under Marcos
Credit: Flickr/Ingmar Zahorsky

Three months after coming to power, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has failed to reassure the media community and the public that he will promote freedom of expression and reverse the impunity that worsened during the term of his predecessor. To be sure, there was little expectation that the son of a deposed dictator would be a champion of press freedom, but his election pledge of unity and healing could have been a good opportunity to affirm his commitment to protecting the public’s right to information.

For the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the first 100 days of the new government saw a continuing decline in free speech, and the group documented 17 cases of press freedom violations. These include two media killings, four cyber libel incidents, two arrests for cyber libel, one libel charge, one case of surveillance and harassment, two cases of “red-tagging,” one denial of coverage, one physical assault, one death threat, and two instances of online harassment.

The recent murder of a radio broadcaster in Metro Manila was widely condemned because of its chilling effect. The murdered journalist was a staunch critic of corruption activities involving officials of the previous and current governments. Surprisingly, a gunman confessed his crime but it raised more questions since the person who supposedly hired him is inside a maximum prison facility and has already died. The quick response of authorities indicated the clamor for swift action against the rising attacks targeting journalists.

After the killing of a radio journalist, several TV reporters came forward to reveal the threats they have been receiving on social media. A reporter also shared that a police officer visited his house to inquire about his safety. These incidents alarmed media watchdogs. The police clarified that they only have good intentions in personally reaching out to journalists, but they promised to stop the practice of making surprise home visits. Authorities also vowed to look into the online threats directed against several prominent journalists.

The Commission on Human Rights has denounced the recent spate of media-related attacks. “Any attempts to silence the press – particularly by creating a culture of fear and violence – directly impacts democracy and the human rights situation in the country.”

The Movement Against Disinformation (MAD) assailed the culture of impunity that has gravely affected the work of journalists. “This is a death by a thousand cuts of Philippine democracy, where a pillar in the checks and balances system is insidiously undermined then suppressed,” the group said in a statement.

MAD and NUJP have also issued statements condemning the practice of red-tagging after several journalists were named as members of the Communist Party and its armed wing by a former spokesperson of the government’s anti-communist task force.

Among the red-tagged journalists was Rappler editor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, whose cyberlibel conviction was recently affirmed by the Court of Appeals. She noted that she faces continuing harassment even after a change in government. “The ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against me and Rappler continues, and the Philippines legal system is not doing enough to stop it,” Ressa said. “I am disappointed by today’s ruling but sadly not surprised.”

The veteran Filipino-American journalist and editor could serve time in prison if the Supreme Court rejects her appeal. Various groups have expressed support for Ressa including the Hold the Line Coalition which has called on Marcos to withdraw all charges and cases against her.

Ressa’s case is an important indicator of how the Marcos government will deal with the media. It also has a disturbing implication for other journalists and media companies since Ressa was convicted for an article she didn’t write and charged under a law that had not yet been passed when the alleged libelous article was published by Rappler.

Media groups have been calling for the decriminalization of libel. Instead of heeding this appeal, Marcos signed the Mandatory SIM Card Registration Bill into law, a measure that could potentially enable mass surveillance. Despite the numerous economic and health problems facing the country, it is revealing that the first law signed by Marcos could be a tool for political repression.

Human rights group Karapatan cited the notorious record of the government in upholding the privacy rights of citizens. “The SIM card registration is another attempt of the government to institute false public security when it has failed to uphold the people’s right to security and privacy by being the primary source and enabler of more threats like data breaches, surveillance and poor implementation of laws on data privacy,” it stated.

Journalists continue to face violent threats, critics are slapped with harassment suits, and the public is wary about the impact of the mandatory SIM card registration law. The Marcos government should spend its next 100 days addressing the concern about the unceasing decline of freedom of expression in the country.