By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

THE GOVERNMENT of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should enforce more measures to protect journalists from baseless lawsuits and red-tagging after the Philippines remained a “difficult” country for media, based on the World Press Freedom Index, according to experts.

“While there have been improvements, libel remains a crime and there are attempts to penalize fake news, which we have seen being used by governments across Southeast Asia to clamp down on dissent, freedom of expression and of the press,” Jonathan de Santos, who heads the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said in a Viber message at the weekend.   

The president should  do something about the practice of accusing journalists as  communists, he added.

Carol Claudio, executive assistant of Presidential Communications Office chief Cheloy Velicaria-Garafil, did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

The Philippines placed 132nd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 World Press Freedom Index released on May 3. It was the country’s best ranking in six years.

“The Philippine media are extremely vibrant despite the government’s targeted attacks and constant harassment, since 2016, of journalists and media outlets that are too critical,” Reporters Without Borders said on its website.

The improved ranking is just a numerical gain, Arjan P. Aguirre, who teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University, said, citing the need for the government to do something about violence and killings of journalists.

“The situation in the Philippines remains to be something that is appalling and alarming,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Apart from the spate of killings of journalists these past years, we can still see a pattern of institutional harassment of journalists who are critical of the government’s policies.”

The NUJP has said there had been 60 reported cases of harassment, red-tagging and other cases of censorship against media practitioners in the Philippines as of April 30.

The Philippines remained the seventh worst country in the world where journalist killers get away with murder, the New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists said in November.

The global watchdog said at least 85 Filipino journalists were killed between 1992 and 2022, 14 cases of which were still unsolved.

Jose Dominic F. Calvano IV, spokesman for the Justice department, has said the country’s task force for media security would partner with law enforcement agencies to probe media killings. The task force was formed in 2016 under ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

“Marcos should deliver justice to the slain journalists, stop the practice of red-tagging and make the decriminalization of libel a priority,” Ronalyn V. Olea, secretary-general of the NUJP, said in an e-mail.

Alternative news websites were still being blocked in the country, she said, citing the case of journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who was detained over charges of illegal gun possession.

The Philippines has accepted 200 recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Council, including protecting journalists and investigating extralegal killings.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) has urged the government to bolster efforts to guarantee press freedom.

The Council for People’s Development has said impunity in the Philippines impedes freedom of expression and people’s right to access reliable information.

“While the president himself isn’t hostile to the press, the practice of labeling dissent and critical reporting as being anti-government or subversive or destabilizing has persisted,” Mr. De Santos said.