Filipino journalists marked World Press Freedom Day with a call Friday to close ranks against a perceived crackdown on independent media by the Duterte administration, whose drug war has been the focus of critical coverage by some local news outlets.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines rallied their members to continue reporting fearlessly despite a hostile climate and threats. At least a dozen reporters in the country have been slain during President Rodrigo Duterte’s three years in office.
“This is not a time to bend and shrink,” FOCAP said in a statement, emphasizing that the government in Manila, like others across the globe, “sought to paint the free press as enemies of the state” in order to stop them from reporting.
“Today’s tools for media repression may be different, but FOCAP as always remains committed to speaking truth to power fearlessly and without compromises,” said the group.
Its members are Filipinos and foreigners who work for major international news agencies represented in the Philippines.
“More than ever, it is a time to close ranks because truth is the bedrock of everything we hold dear as a country and as a people,” FOCAP said. “When we lose our freedom to report the truth, everyone loses. We lose our dignity. We lose our soul.”
Under Duterte, free speech and a free press in the Philippines have never been more under siege since during the dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos, more than three decades ago, according to NUJP.
“Never has any president, Marcos included, openly spearheaded the attacks and vilification of media. We have also seen how he and his minions wield the lie as a weapon against the profession of truth,” the union said in a statement.
Since 1992, at least 80 journalists have been killed in the Philippines, with 66 of the victims murdered with impunity, according to latest data from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
And there is fear that under the current administration, media practitioners are more vulnerable because of their unrelenting coverage of the war illegal drugs, which has been described as a human rights disaster that has left thousands dead so far.
The independent Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility reported that local media monitors had recorded a total of 128 attacks and threats on media since Duterte assumed office on June 30, 2016 to April 30 this year. These included 12 murders of journalists and eight attempted slayings.
Recently, Duterte’s office linked media entities Rappler, Vera Files and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) to an alleged plot to topple the president’s administration.
Rappler, an online news organization which has been closely following the drug war, has been threatened with closure, and its key officers charged with various crimes, including tax evasion. Vera Files and PCIJ, for their parts, have angered Duterte for their reports fact checking Duterte’s claim as well as his family’s undisclosed wealth.
This week, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo acknowledged that the government lacked sufficient evidence to charge anyone with the alleged plot, saying the information had come from an unverified source.
Late Friday, Martin Andanar, with the presidential communications office, issued a statement telling the public that the government would uphold press freedom in the Philippines.
“We will continue our campaign against disinformation and fake news since this is one that destroys the freedom of the press,” said Andanar, who heads the Presidential Communications Operations Office.
He said President Duterte respected press freedom in the Philippines despite various allegations and attacks against him.
“We assure you that President Duterte’s administration will continue to respect the press freedom,” Andanar said.