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Philippine journalists continue to face harassment — US State Department report

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Philippine journalists continue to face harassment â US State Department report
This Feb. 7, 2021 photo shows a banner calling for the release of Tacloban City broadcaster Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who was among those arrested in Feb. 7, 2020 in a series of raids on what authorities said were safe houses for communist rebels.
Philstar.com / James Relativo, file

MANILA, Philippines — Threats and harassment against journalists in the Philippines continue as President Rodrigo Duterte's tirades against the media send a chilling effect, according to a report by the US Department of State.

The report, however, said that Philippine media remained generally free to voice their criticism of the government. 

The US Department of State's 2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices listed down several incidents of violence and harrassment against members of the national and local media:

  • Duterte's verbal attacks against female journalists, especially online news outlet Rappler CEO Maria Ressa 
  • The unlawful arrest of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and six others in December 2020 for reportedly illegal possession of firearms. The charges against Salem and others have since been dismissed.
  • The remarks of retired general Antonio Parlade, Jr. in February 2021 against Inquirer.net journalist Tetch Torres-Tupas over a story on Aeta farmers charged with alleged violations of the Anti-Terrorism Act and filing a petition against the controversial law
  • The shooting of radio commentator Renante Cortes outside his station in Cebu in July 2021, which the police said was likely because he produced hard-hitting commentaries

Citing US non-profit Freedom House, the report said "impunity remains the norm for violent crimes against activists and journalists" in the country.

The 1987 Constitution explicitly protects the freedom of expression, which the government "sometimes respected", according to the report. 

"On the surface, individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest. Observers and NGOs (non-government organizations), however, stated that President Duterte’s public tirades against individuals, organizations, and international bodies who criticized his policies continued to have a chilling effect on free speech and expression," it said.

The France-based media freedom NGO Reporters without Borders identified Duterte as one of its "press freedom predators", saying that he "easily imposes his line on media outlets owned by businessmen that support him, while independent media outlets assume the role of the opposition, with all the risks that it faces."

While the Philippine media generally remained free, active and able to voice criticism of the government, two specific media outlets faced pressure from the current administration, the US report noted. 

The report said that broadcast giant ABS-CBN and Rappler faced politically-motivated and legal challenges as Duterte publicly called them out for their alleged wrongdoings. 

ABS-CBN was forced to shutter its broadcast operations after lawmakers decided to not renew its broadcast franchise and after it received a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission. 

READ: Government seals ABS-CBN's broadcast shutdown with frequencies recalled

Meanwhile, Ressa and her staff have faced at least 11 cases and complaints since Duterte stepped into power, the report said. It added that many observers believed that Rappler faced legal and administration actions from the State because of its critical coverage of the government.

The Philippines slipped two notches to 138th place out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom index and had a global score of 2.10. The government has said that the lower ranking is negligible and that the press situation in the Philippines is still better than other countries in the region.

The government's media security task force has also stressed that press freedom ratings during the Duterte administration are better than during the Aquino administration.

Election-related violence

Citing figures from the Philippine National Police, the US report said there were 60 incidents of election-related violence which caused 23 deaths in the month leading up to the 2019 midterm elections.

Election officials, however, described the polls as generally peaceful. 

The report said that there were 144 election-related incidents, mainly fistfights and small-scale bomb attacks, which took place in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao before the elections, citing UK-based peacebuilding group International Alert. 

International and national observers saw the midterm polls as "well-organized and generally free and fair", but they saw that vote-buying continued to be rampant and that political dynasties still held a tight grip on elective offices. 

The 2022 national and local elections are scheduled for May 9.  — Angelica Y. Yang

ABS-CBN

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