The Paris-based press freedom watch group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres-RSF) marked Monday, May 3, World Press Freedom Day, by releasing its 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The Index ranks 180 countries according to the state of press freedom in their respective jurisdictions. The Philippines ranked 138th, down from 136th place in 2020. Its ranking has been steadily falling since 2017.
RSF blamed the continuing decline on the Duterte regime’s attacks on the media, among them the “grotesque” harassment of the online news site Rappler, the government-driven campaign to shut down ABS-CBN network, and the online and real-time threats against, and “red-tagging” of journalists and regime critics. In addition, said the report, “Duterte troll armies also launched cyber-attacks on alternative news websites and the site of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines in order to block them.”
The intent is to prevent relevant and meaningful information from reaching the disinformed millions and for the dominance in the public sphere of the regime version of events and issues.
But there are also internal factors in the press that can, and often do affect how it reports what is happening — and, therefore, whether the media audiences emerge better informed or even more confused after watching a news program or reading a newspaper.
Despite those challenges that make the tasks of journalism difficult, and the even more problematic and life-threatening environment in which journalists have to function, there were a number of instances in which the independent press spoke truth to power and helped create a more enlightened citizenry.
Rappler and news.abs-cbn.com disputed regime claims about the economy by pointing out that despite its frequent resort to lockdowns (and almost nothing else), the regime has failed to halt the surge in COVID-19 cases. The results are increased unemployment, runaway inflation, and negative growth — and the worst economic recession the country has ever experienced since World War II.
A GMA-7’s Saksi evening newscast challenged regime claims that it had not been remiss in addressing the pandemic’s threat to public health and lives in a three-part series that noted that a year after the first and succeeding lockdowns and President Duterte’s creation of a task force, hospital facilities remain inadequate, and the government continues to flip-flop on quarantines and travel bans.
The series traced the problem to Mr. Duterte’s and Health Secretary Francisco Duque’s refusal in early 2020 to impose a ban on travelers from China, which was the epicenter of the pandemic. It also recalled Mr. Duterte’s declaring that only a vaccine could ease the contagion, but later told Filipinos that there were not enough doses, and “many more will die.”
Some of the recent deaths, however, were not from COVID-19 but from the abuse of power by barangay tanod who in too many instances are no more than local goons in the guise of community watchmen. Accused of violating curfew restrictions and arrested by these hirelings, a Cavite man was forced to do 300 squats. Because of a heart condition, he died of a stroke two days later. Beaten by other barangay thugs for supposedly committing the same offense, a Laguna resident died after two days in which he was in a coma.
Except for the usual hacks that thrive like COVID-19 in the darkest corners of corporate media, much of the press reported both incidents and solicited the comments of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which pointed out that what both men had been subjected to was totally condemnable, a violation of human rights, and a form of torture.
As some commentaries pointed out, these abuses are likely to have been inspired by the coercive, militarist and police-state methods the current regime has been vainly using to control the pandemic. There is as well the “kill them all” mantra that often falls from Mr. Duterte’s mouth when he’s irritated, or is forced to make it seem as if he were addressing this or that problem. In all these instances of sterling press performance, the key factor that made the difference was the individual journalist’s raising the questions at the core of each event or issue. Why did the economy go into recession despite the billions of pesos in the hands of the government? Did millions of workers lose their jobs because government policies failed to curb the surge in COVID-19 cases when the pandemic was still containable? Is punishing curfew hour violators justified when curfews have precisely been imposed supposedly to protect the citizenry from harm?
In such instances as when journalists reported that only a small percentage of the promised aid to the destitute had been distributed, but failed to ask why, the result was continuing disorganization in the management of the system while millions of men, women and children continued to go hungry. And yet the media’s asking for an explanation could have pushed those responsible to be better at their jobs or to at least pretend to be doing something to improve the program, and to forewarn others that the press was watching them and expecting more of government.
One incident a few days before World Press Freedom Day, however, has raised the question of whether there are cases in which the journalists’ responsibility is not to ask certain questions.
“Red-tagged” by the police, the military, and the usual online trolls, Ana Patricia Non, the organizer of the first community pantry in Quezon City, was asked by a TV broadcaster if she has or has ever had “links” with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Outraged over what she called a “dirty” question, Non nevertheless said no. But the broadcaster’s asking that question provoked the condemnation of human rights defenders and some journalists’ groups.
Their disapproval was apparently driven by the question’s legitimizing the Duterte regime narrative that activists, leftists, critics, and dissenters are conspirators against the government who need to prove their innocence of that charge. Added to that, as everyone, especially journalists, should know by now, is those so accused’s being perceived as legitimate targets of violence and even murder.
In coming to the broadcaster’s defense, some media practitioners said that asking such questions has always been part of the way the press does its job. But what the broadcaster’s critics were only saying was that, instead of being merely focused on getting the interesting sound bites that boost ratings, journalists should first of all be aware of the harm both their methods and their reports can do.
Because of the need to cut through the propaganda and lies that have made getting at the truth so problematic and democratic discourse almost impossible, it is also equally necessary that they do not unwittingly validate the regime agenda. Even without the RSF Index’s telling them, responsible journalists know that the regime has been demonstrably hostile to free expression, press freedom and the right to information, and is intent on stopping such citizen initiatives as the community pantry idea of helping the needy feed their hungry families. That shouldn’t be too difficult to comprehend — or is it?
Although a major hindrance to discharging the duty of providing the accurate and reliable information people need, it isn’t just regime harassment and threats that journalists have to worry about in these times of crisis. There is as well some of their fellows’ inability, or refusal, to go beyond their accustomed way of doing things and to be constantly aware of the responsibilities of their calling.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).