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Media groups cite ‘chilling effect’ of website ban

A PHILIPPINE government order to block websites with alleged links to the Maoist movement could force self-censorship and push them to toe the government’s line, media organizations said on Thursday.

“This order by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has a chilling effect,” Ronalyn V. Olea, managing editor at news website Bulatlat.com told the ABS-CBN News Channel.

Anyone who covers the other side that is considered an enemy of the state might also be considered one, she added.

The National Telecommunications Commission on June 8 ordered local internet service providers to block websites that allegedly support terrorists and terrorist organizations.

NTC Commissioner Gamaliel A. Cordoba issued the order upon the request of Hermogenes C. Esperon, Jr., the national security adviser of President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Mr. Esperon on June 6 asked the NTC to order internet service providers to block access to 26 websites that it accused of supporting the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), New People’s Army (NPA), and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

The Anti-Terrorism Council has labeled these terrorist groups.

The websites of alternative media Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, which have been reporting on grassroots situations, were among those listed by Mr. Esperon in his letter.

Also blocked were the websites of fisherfolk group Pamalakaya and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, which are among Mr. Duterte’s fiercest critics.

The websites of Pamalakaya, Bulatlat, and Bayan were still inaccessible as of press time.

“This could be the start,” Ms. Olea said. “There is this level of anxiety because anyone red-tagged here in the Philippines could face other dangers, including harassment, surveillance and extrajudicial killing.”

Bulatlat did not get a notice from the government before it was blocked, she said. “We were not given any notice so there was no due process. We have the right to at least be notified of any government action.”

Ms. Olea said state forces usually start their attacks on the press with alternative media. “The cyber-attacks also started with Bulatlat and then later on, it also targeted other media outfits.”

“So we call on our colleagues, we thank our colleagues for standing up for press freedom because this is not only an issue for Bulatlat.”

Some Philippine news websites experienced cyber-attacks last year, according to a report by Sweden-based digital forensic group Quirium Media.

It traced the attacks on Bulatlat and Altermidya to computer networks of the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) and the Philippine Army.

A unit of the Department of Science and Technology later confirmed that the source of the attacks was the army.

The decision to block websites should not fall on the National Security Council and NTC, Jonathan de Santos, who heads the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, told the same news channel. “It should not just fall on a small group of people.”

This is more within the purview of the courts, he pointed out. “The incident could start with Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, but it could easily spread to other news sites.”

Mr. De Santos separately told ABS-CBN Teleradyo the blocking of critical websites was arbitrary. “Their basis for blocking them — the alleged affiliation with CPP-NPA-NDF — is very vague.”

“Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly are not designated [as terrorist groups],” he said. “The alleged connection, if any, is far-fetched.”

He said covering revolutionary and progressive groups does not necessarily mean supporting their cause.

Mr. De Santos said critics of the Anti-Terrorism Act who questioned its validity at the Supreme Court had raised concerns that journalists who interview rebels might get accused of being supporters.

“Journalists have to look at all points of view, and giving that point of view space or air time doesn’t mean support for it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re encouraging people to join… It’s part of the job, you have to get their side as well.” — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza