Harry Roque Jr.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque Jr. holds his first press briefing in Malacañan on November 2, 2017. He told the members of the media that he is vowed to fulfill President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's order to do what is best for the country and to tell the truth. (Valerie Escalera/Presidential Photo)

Four media-related events  occurred within days of each other last week.

One was the release by the press freedom watch group Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF — Reporters Without Borders) of a report on the troubled state of press freedom in many countries including the Philippines. RSF ranked the Philippines a low 133rd out of 180 countries.

The other three events are examples of prior restraint that are proving RSF right. RSF released its 2018 World Press Freedom Index on April 25, a week before the celebration of International Press Freedom Day on May 3. The  Department of Tourism (DOT) had earlier  issued its “Media Accreditation Guidelines” for the coverage of the six-month “clean-up” of Boracay island that began April 26.

The DOT accreditation scheme will allow into Boracay during that period only those journalists who meet criteria it hasn’t even had the decency to specify. The scheme has been criticized by journalist and media advocacy groups as unconstitutional for being a form  of prior restraint, with those journalists who’re in the regime hate-list likely to be refused accreditation.

In the heels of the DOT announcement came the FOCAP (Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines) protest over their foreign news agency-affiliated Filipino members’  being prevented from covering  a press conference called by Foreign  Affairs Secretary Allan Peter Cayetano in Singapore, where President Rodrigo Duterte was attending the 32nd ASEAN summit. The journalists were  also barred from another press briefing by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello.

Although they were later allowed into the Cayetano event, they were prevented  from asking questions.  A Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) undersecretary said it was the two officials’ decision  to bar  the FOCAP journalists — which of course doesn’t excuse it.

Meanwhile, the  House of Representatives Press and Public Affairs Bureau (PPAB), “updated” its rules on media coverage, under which reporters may be denied  or lose accreditation for the hazy offense of  “besmirching” the reputation of the House, its officials, or its members.

The last is only one of the possible reasons for the withdrawal or denial of accreditation. But the others are as prone to a wide range of interpretations. The equally ambiguous criteria  include the applicant or accredited reporter’s being found to have made “false claims,” his being “involved in activities that run counter to or violate the policies” of the House, his abusing “the privileges and entitlements extended to House accredited media,” and being “guilty of gross misconduct”. Finally,  accreditation may also be withdrawn or denied if one “commits any other similar act or misdeed.”

FOCAP said it was “deeply alarmed” over “the Philippine government’s strong actions that clearly violate constitutional provisions on freedom of information,” that “these incidents are not isolated,” and  there were “earlier restrictions on press movements during coverage of the war in the southern city of Marawi and those who reported on the closure of the island resort of Boracay.”

The organization also took issue with the House of Representatives rules on media coverage, because they  allow “a wide latitude of interpretation and can be used to clamp down on the critical press.” It therefore  asked the Duterte regime  to “clarify and spell out clear guidelines on media coverage so as to avoid similar incidents in the future.”

What these acts have in common is that they’re attempts to prevent  journalists the regime  doesn’t  like from covering events and issues of public concern. They are therefore forms of prior restraint and in violation of Article III Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution. They are also meant as warnings that the regime will not tolerate further criticism or even  coverage it regards as unfavorable to it and its officials.

They are likely to be regarded by RSF in its 2019 Index as further indications  of the decline of press freedom in the Philippines. The Paris-based press freedom watch group has been publishing the Index annually since 2002. It  evaluates the state of press freedom worldwide on the basis of, among others, government actions, laws  and policies on the press and media, and their impact on media independence. The Philippines’ ranking of 133rd in the 2018 Report is six places down  from 127th in 2017.

RSF mentioned and apparently considered President Rodrigo Duterte’s rants against the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN, and the revocation of Rappler’s registration, among the reasons for the country’s lower ranking, noting that “There have been countless examples of Philippine government harassment of media that voice any kind of criticism of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs.'”

Because the killing of journalists is continuing, with 158 killed since 1986, of which  four were murdered for their work in 2017, RSF described the Philippines as “one of the (Asian) continent’s deadliest countries.” Another journalist,  Edmund Sestoso, barely survived an attack by the usual motorcycle-riding killers last April 30 in Dumaguete City, but later died of his injuries. RSF also knows that 90 percent of the killers of journalists and 99 percent  of the masterminds get away with it, and that the worst attack on journalists in human history took place in this country on November 23, 2009, when 32  were massacred  in Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque argued that despite the drop, 133rd is “still an improvement from where we were at 138th with the entry of the Duterte administration” in 2016. He also denied that Mr. Duterte’s profanity-laced verbal abuse of, and threats against, the media are attacks on press freedom and  have contributed to the country’s lower ranking.

Roque also said that the  Duterte regime has not imprisoned any journalist or sued any of them for libel. But he did not mention the Duterte order to the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate online news site Rappler and that body’s rescinding its registration, or the threat to withdraw the franchise of TV network ABS-CBN, among others.

The reference to suing journalists for libel — still a criminal offense in the Philippines under the 86-year old libel law — is to then President Corazon Aquino’s libel complaint against the late Philippine Star columnist Luis Beltran in 1989, as well as to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband’s suing 46 journalists for the same offense during her nearly ten-year occupancy (2001- 2010) of Malacanang.

Both were  regarded by journalist and media watch groups  as attacks on press freedom, the threat of imprisonment under the libel law that the United Nations has described as “excessive”  being one way of silencing journalists.

It is true that Mr. Duterte has not sued or imprisoned any journalist. But it is also true that he and his cronies and co-conspirators have taken other, even worse steps to undermine press freedom.

A libel suit can be contested in court. It can be reversed after conviction, or the convicted person pardoned. Roque knows this very well. He was the post-conviction lawyer of Davao broadcaster Alex Adonis, whose case he brought before the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 and who was subsequently pardoned after serving two years of a four-year sentence for libel.

The regime-orchestrated attacks on press freedom through intimidation, insults, restrictions on coverage, accreditation rules, threats,  demonization, profanities, and accusations of corruption,  bias and inaccuracy are more difficult to counter, there being no court to protest the injustice of those assaults.

Neither is there any protection against some individuals’ interpreting Mr. Duterte’s tirades against the press as a license to silence journalists through the use of force.  As RSF pointed out,  “verbal violence and physical violence are closely linked”– and against the usual “riding in tandem” assassins there is hardly any defense, as the continuing killing of journalists and the impunity of most of the killers and almost all of the masterminds since 1986 so eloquently prove.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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