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For 15 Years, Philippines Remains One Of Most Deadly Countries For Journalists

  •   10 min reads
For 15 Years, Philippines Remains One Of Most Deadly Countries For Journalists
by Ina Alleco R. Silverio

From death threats to cold-blooded killings, journalists in the Philippines are not dying from war or disaster coverage, but are being killed for speaking out against social ills. For the 15th year in a row, the Philippines was included in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index, an annual report exposing the countries where journalists are being killed with impunity because of their reporting.

The report is published every year to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on November 2. The CPJ has been compiling data on countries with the worst records of prosecuting murderers of journalists since 2008 as part of the international campaign to raise awareness about media killings. Since the release of the first report, the Philippines has been included.

The latest report stated: “In the Philippines—which ranked seventh on the index—the election of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. brought hope of a shift away from outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign of intimidation and harassment of the press. However, the murders of two radio commentators—Percival Mabasa, a vocal critic of Duterte and Marcos Jr., and Renato Blanco, who reported on local politics and corruption—since Marcos Jr. took office in late June raised fears that the culture of violence and impunity will endure.”

Other countries included in the list are Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Myanmar, Brazil, Pakistan, and India.

The CPJ has reported that no one has been held to account for nearly 80 percent of 263 journalist murders all over the world in the last 10 years. The group seeks justice for these slain journalists and calls for “full and timely investigations” and the convictions of those who carry out and order the murders.

Activists for human rights.

A dangerous profession

The most progressive organization of journalists and media workers in the Philippines also declared journalism remains a dangerous profession in the country. According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), 197 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986 when democracy was supposedly restored after the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.

“The killing of journalists typically occurs in areas far from Metro Manila, the National Capital Region. Victims are frequently radio broadcasters or commentators known for their critical commentary on local politics and corruption,” NUJP said.

The Philippine economy remains in chaos because of unsound policies being implemented at different levels of government. Unemployment and inflation levels continued to rise alongside the prices of basic good and commodities. On the hand, drastic cuts are being made to the national budget allocations for social services such as public health and housing.

Through all this, the more progressive and analytical members of the Philippine press are calling out government corruption as the cause for the worsening social situation. Their commentaries did not sit well at all with those in power.

On September 18, radio broadcaster Renato Blanco was stabbed to death in Negros Oriental in central Philippines. He was a radio reporter at Power 102.1 DYRY RFM, and the suspect in the stabbing is Charles Amada, a member of a political clan that has been a target of Blanco’s critical radio commentaries. Amada and his relatives, Blanco alleged, were involved in acts of corruption, including an overpricing scheme that resulted in local electricity outages.

Blanco also reported on illegal quarrying and overpricing of medical supplies purchased during the pandemic in the region. He also spoke out against the alleged electoral fraud during the May 22 elections that caused thousands to take to the streets to protest against the results.

The following month, veteran broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa was shot in cold blood while sitting inside his car in Las Piñas City south of Manila on the evening of October 3. Mabasa was host of the radio program Lapid Fire at the DWBL 1242 station.

According to reports, he was on his way to the station when he was gunned down by two unidentified suspects. He took critical stances on various economic and political policies of the former Duterte government and the current administration.

Various international advocacy groups for freedom of the press have condemned both killings and continuing incidents of harassment against Filipino journalists.

“We are alarmed by the brutal killing of veteran radio journalist Percy Lapid, who is the second journalist who has been killed in the Philippines within the span of a month”, said Amy Brouillette, the Director of Advocacy of the International Press Institute (IFI).

“Authorities must conduct a swift and thorough investigation and ensure that the perpetrators of this crime face justice. But this is also a clear indication that the new Marcos administration needs to take swift action to address the escalation of violence toward the country’s journalists.”

Activists against killings of journalists

Death threats and red-tagging

With the proliferation of the so-called internet troll farms believed to be on the payroll of the government and its communications agencies, Filipino journalists suffered constant harassment online as supporters of the present and previous administrations cursed and issued threats against journalists’ personal safety.

Veteran broadcasters Ed Lingao, and Lourd de Veyra were at the receiving end of death threats online on October 4, a day after Lapid was killed. On October 11, Lingao posted on his Facebook page a screenshot of a threat made by a certain Twitter user Seth Corteza ng Metrosun. In the tweet, Corteza said Lingao and de Veyra would be the next targets after Lapid.

Both journalists have issued a statement saying that regardless of whether the threat was real or not, the authorities should address it considering the climate of impunity in the country and the continuous attacks against members of the media. On social media, the two have been targets of hate speech and threats since 2016.

While the killings are the worst attacks against journalists in the country, other forms of violations against press freedom have been increasing in number. Under the six-month-old Marcos administration, members of the media have been facing a rise in cases of cyber libel and libel cases, surveillance and harassment, and online harassment.

On September 4, Southern Tagalog region-based broadcaster Darcie de Galicia of Radio City 97.5 FM reported he and Noel Alamar of ABS-CBN Teleradyo are facing 941 counts of cyber libel charges. The charges have been laid down by Quezon Governor Helen Tan and her husband Ronel Tan, the director of the Region IV-A office of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

On October 9, a reporter for tabloid newspaper Hataw and Presidential Palace Malacanang Press Corps member Rose Novenario received a chat message mentioning journalist Percy Mabasa’s death. According to reports from the NUJP, the message was from an empty Facebook account, and as such Novenario considered it a grave threat and reported it to authorities. Earlier in August, the Office of the Press Secretary unjustly denied Novenario accreditation for unsubstantiated accusations of “conduct unbecoming.”

The NUJP is calling for the protection of Northern Dispatch journalist Khim Abalos. After reporting a farmer-led mobilization for peasant rights, Abalos received an anonymous text: “Wala kayong kadala-dala. Mga na-brainwash ng kaliwang rebelde. Sumunod kayo sa gobyerno mga terorista kayo rally lang alam. Wag kang manggulo kung gusto mong mabuhay.” (“You really never learn, you people brainwashed by leftist rebels. Obey the government, you are all terrorists who know nothing but holding rallies. Stop making trouble if you want to live.”)

Abalos has been getting threats since 2019. He was even charged with a cyber libel case by a regional police chief.

Since July 1, the NUJP has documented 17 cases of press freedom violations: two media killings, four cyber libel incidents (including the reported 941 counts against de Galicia and Alamar), two arrests over cyber libel, one libel charge, one surveillance and harassment, two red-tagging, one denial of coverage, one physical assault, one death threat, and two cases of online harassment.

Alternative media outlet Bulatlat (Investigate) and its managing editor Ronalyn Olea has been red-tagged, the practice of malicious blacklisting, by a former spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) which regularly conducts witch-hunting activities. Olea is also the secretary-general of the NUJP.

The most systematic series of red-tagging attacks, however, are being done by a supposed institution of the Philippine media. Practically serving the function as media attack dog of the government, the private media network Sonshine Media Network International or SMNI continues to release reports and commentaries accusing various journalists of being “operatives” of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDFP).

The SMNI media network has recently red-tagged award-winning documentary makers and reporters Atom Araullo, Inday Espina-Varona and Vergel Santos. In an October 20 post, alleged rebel returnee Jeffrey Celiz in an interview on SMNI said the three journalists and various other activists were communists.

This, observers said, was in retaliation for commentaries made by Araullo and Vergel against SMNI chairman Apollo Quiboloy. A close ally to former president Duterte and also to the incumbent president, Quiboloy is a self-declared “prophet of God.”

Quiboloy is wanted in the U.S. for his alleged participation in a labor trafficking scheme that brought his church members to the U.S. using fraudulently obtained visas. He is accused by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of forcing members to solicit donations for a bogus charity.

These donations, the FBI said on its website, were used to “finance church operations and the lavish lifestyles of its leaders. Members who proved successful at soliciting for the church allegedly were forced to enter into sham marriages or obtain fraudulent student visas to continue soliciting in the US year-round.”

Quiboloy was indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion and sex trafficking of children; sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion; conspiracy; and bulk cash smuggling, and on November 10, 2021, a federal warrant was issued for his arrest.

Activists for press freedom.

No one is safe

In a press conference, human rights groups and their lawyers condemned the media attacks and said red-tagging is a weapon the government uses to intimidate critics. They said red tagging has put many lives at risk and is proof the country’s democratic space is rapidly shrinking.

“This is the reality of what is happening on the ground. Red-tagging leads to physical harm and we have seen it done to some of our members. We have lost five lawyers for the past 15 years who were red-tagged before they were killed,” said Atty. Josa Deinla, a member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).

The rights group Karapatan for its part said red-tagging of journalists and human rights defenders violates the exercise of press freedom and freedom of expression in the country. The group called on international human rights bodies such as the office of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression to look into the wave of disinformation and red-tagging. The Rapporteur is scheduled to make an official visit in 2023.

“We likewise call on the companies of social media platforms such as Meta, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter to address the deluge of online disinformation and threats against the journalists and activists,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general.

As of this writing, the human rights community in the Philippines is denouncing the killing of Benharl Capote Kahil. Kahil was an award-winning cartoonist, teacher and special program in the arts coordinator of the Lebak Legislated National High School. He was shot dead November 5 while on his way home on his motorcycle. Those who knew him said Kahil was most likely killed because of his social commentary and advocacy against disinformation which he expressed through his visual arts.

Human rights review

On November 14, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will review the situation in the Philippines at its regular Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to be held in Geneva, Switzerland. This will be the fourth UPR, and Filipino people’s organizations and human rights groups will participate in the process as they have since 2008.

The UPR is a mechanism of the UNHRC that reviews the human rights records of member states every 4.5 years. This process serves as a venue for each member state to declare what actions they have taken to fulfill their human rights obligations.

Palabay said Karapatan’s delegation will confirm and validate firsthand to the international community that the Philippine government has reneged on its commitment “to respect and uphold the rights of the Filipino people”, and that it “perpetuated and institutionalized impunity for violations.”

Palabay said their delegation will consist of lawyers, church workers, environmentalists, medical professionals, representatives of indigenous peoples, journalists, activists, and families of victims of extrajudicial killings and unjust arrests.

“We are not letting up on the quest to hold the Philippine government accountable for its transgressions on people’s rights, past and present,” she said.

A dangerous country

Given that the Philippine government’s police and military forces continue to abuse their authority over civilians and to ignore laws upholding civil and human rights, it is not at all surprising that journalists in the country are reporting more incidents of violations. Filipino journalists take their responsibility to report the news as they happened seriously, regardless of who were involved.

Tragically, however, despite the pronouncements of government spokespersons that no human rights violations are taking place in the Philippines and incidents of journalists being killed were isolated, the fact remains that press freedom in the country is under siege.

Reporters and radio broadcasters are being threatened and killed with impunity.  The Philippines, from whatever vantage point, is a country dangerous for those who want to expose the truth about social realities.


Ina Alleco R. Silverio, Maritime Fairtrade's Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.

Source: Maritime Fairtrade (https://maritimefairtrade.org)
All photos credit: Karapatan and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines

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