GOVERNMENT rules amid a Luzon-wide lockdown meant to contain the coronavirus pandemic have restricted press freedom and free expression, according to a media watchdog.

Authorities found ways to “weaponize” directives against targeted groups including journalists and activists, Freedom for Media, Freedom for All (FMFA) said in a report to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on March 3.

“Governments around the world have been quick to include restrictions on expressive freedoms in the array of official responses to control the spread of COVID-19,” according to the report.

“And yet, open communication has been among the mechanisms used to enhance the effect of government action,” it added.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down the main Philippine island of Luzon on March 17, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain the outbreak. He later extended this until May 15 for Metro Manila, among other areas.

The media watchdog said requiring media accreditation for exemption from the lockdown was “an add-on mechanism of bureaucratic control.”

Media have submitted to the accreditation despite the limited space for events and briefings it entailed, FMFA said.

Government accreditation is generally understood by the Philippine press as a limitation to freedom, access to sources and the people’s right to know, it said.

While some government agencies have been proactive in releasing information about the health crisis, response to Freedom of Information requests has generally been delayed, it added.

FMFA said more than 60 people have been charged for violating a law that gave Mr. Duterte special powers to deal with the coronavirus disease 2019. The law also penalizes people who spread fake news and information.

“The provision clearly opens up opportunities for any officer, with little understanding of the constitutional provision, to determine report or social media post to be ‘fake news,’” the watchdog said.

“This provision adds to the danger of random charges based only on unfounded complaints from officials who feel they have been the object of criticism,” it added.

FMFA is composed of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, MindaNews, Philippine Press Institute and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas