On World Press Freedom Day, groups wary of shrinking space for fundamental freedoms

On World Press Freedom Day, groups wary of shrinking space for fundamental freedoms
File photo shows members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines holding a protest.
The STAR / KJ Rosales, File

MANILA, Philippines —  Journalists and press groups on Sunday commemorated World Press Freedom Day despite limits on and threats to it in the Philippines in recent months.

The commemoration comes a day before the franchise for broadcast giant ABS-CBN expires.

Amid tightened enforcement of quarantine rules, which include a broad definition of punishable false information, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines in a statement issued Sunday also called on the country's press to unite in resistance to what it tagged as "efforts to exploit the emergency to clamp down on our fundamental rights and liberties."

As of this publishing, Metro Manila has been under enhanced community quarantine for seven weeks with two more to go before a decision is made on possibly lifting it. 

"As in years past, we observe World Press Freedom Day more for the lack than the reality," NUJP's statement read. 

READ: Philippines falls two places on World Press Freedom Index

"Today, we see the existing space for freedom of the press and of expression narrow even more not only because of the inevitable changes in the way we do things but also, if not more so, from authorities' uneven and often arbitrary implementation of the law and of measures ostensibly supposed to keep us safe," they added.

This comes after seven media workers were among the more than 40 persons arrested by police in Iloilo City during "a protest caravan in connection with the killing of Bayan Muna officer Jory Porquia."

According to a report by alternative news site Bulatlat, members of video production group Panaysayon, radio program Dampig Katarungan, and digital print outlet Panay Today were arrested and charged.

Altermidya (People’s Alternative Media Network), to which Bulatlat and other alternative news outlets belong, said that "hose who speak out and express their grievances on government’s response to the pandemic face censure by national and local officials and state forces, or an army of trolls online."

"Several netizens have either been arrested or issued subpoenas by the National Bureau of Investigation—the most recent, a Norzagaray teacher who got arrested for posting online a question about government aid," Altermidya also said.

Precarious employment amid COVID-19 pandemic

Aside from the risks of covering the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists also face uncertainty in their jobs as measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading has affected businesses.

Citing feedback from journalists on the ground, NUJP said that many journalists, especially freelancers and correspondents in the provinces, "have been basically left to fend for themselves in covering the pandemic."

Due to budget constraints many have had to provide their own personal protective equipment. "While there are commendable efforts by some colleagues to help others, these are admittedly not enough," NUJP said.

"Although there is a growing recognition of stress and trauma as part of the risks journalists face, aside from the peer support network initiated by NUJP and programs set up by other media groups and the larger media outfits, there are hardly any readily available and sustained support systems for colleagues experiencing mental health issues," it also said.

"Meanwhile, like so many in the national workforce, contractual media workers, who are covered by 'no work, no pay' policies, face uncertainty as their outfits cut down on production or cancel programs. And colleagues have voiced fears of widespread job cuts should the crisis drag on and cut deeper into already falling revenues."

'False information'

For their part, professors of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication expressed concern over provisions in the Bayanihan Heal as One Act arbitrarily prohibiting the creation and spread of false information. 

In particular, Section 6 (6) of Republic Act No. 11469 penalizes the following with imprisonment of 2 months or a fine ranging from P10,000 to P1,000,000 at the discretion of the court:

"individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails or other similar acts"

The prohibition was made "even without a clear definition of what constitutes false information," the professors said in their statement. 

"This explains why even the freedom of expression of ordinary citizens has been wantonly violated."

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, added in an earlier statement that: "This provision of the law is overbroad and  can easily be misused by Philippine authorities to crack down on online criticism of government efforts."

READ: Campus journalists decry threats on student who criticized Duterte administration

"Given the Duterte administration’s well-documented hostility towards freedom of the press and online critics, this law could be used to criminalize any online information the government dislikes," he added. 

The 1987 Constitution guarantees "the freedom of speech [and] of expression."

'Press freedom under siege'

Much of the same groups have previously said that the practice had been more dangerous under the Duterte administration. 

Coinciding with World Press Freedom Day, think tank Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its 2020 World Press Freedom barometer which saw the Philippines ranked 136th with a score of -0.37 or 2 notches below its 2019 ranking. 

Regional think tanks have also pointed out that in the Philippines, clear restrictions on online freedom of expression and opinion were imposed by the government.

RELATED: Gov't repression of rights a common ASEAN trend amid pandemic — think tank

"The state of the media in the Philippines has made it difficult for journalists to perform their functions in the time of COVID-19," the UP College of Mass Communication wrote. 

"There are clear threats against journalists and media workers. The police and military engage in red-baiting, not just of activists but also journalists deemed critical of the administration. There are cases of journalists belonging to the alternative media who get arrested and detained for doing their jobs."

FLAG: Press freedom continually threatened

In a separate statement, the Free Legal Assistance Group also expressed its support for the media, acknowledging that "despite the clarity of the constitutional provision, it is a protection that is continually threatened by existing laws that criminalize content, such as laws on libel and cyberlibel, sedition and inciting to sedition."

Philippine jurisprudence in Chavez v. Gonzales, G.R. No. 168338, February 15, 2008 also holds that "the need to prevent violation cannot per se trump the exercise of free speech and free press, a preferred right whose breach can lead to greater evils."

"Despite the consistency of the Supreme Court's characterization of press freedom as a preferred right, the protection of press freedom finds no preference when journalists are killed in the practice of their profession and no speedy or adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law is at hand to fully investigate, prosecute, and hold accountable those liable. It is a protection that becomes illusory when the press are viewed as prey rather than partners," FLAG's statement read. 

ABS-CBN franchise

This comes as ABS-CBN Corp.'s legislative franchise is set to expire on May 4. 

Before the outbreak of COVID-19 restricted movement and drastically altered work arrangements, government lawyers filed a quo warranto petition questioning the already-expiring franchise of the media network. 

The Palace has denied that Duterte's ire for the media network was motivated by any political vendetta given the separation of powers between the two branches.

However, both chambers of Congress are dominated by administration allies and have historically voted favorably towards the president's decisions.

"All the president wants is fair reporting. If you are bad towards the president, he will treat you worse," Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go, former presidential aide and de facto spokesperson, was quoted as saying in the Senate hearing tackling issues on the network's franchise. — Franco Luna

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