Stop attacks against press freedom and free expression

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Karapatan renews its call for a stop to continuing threats and attacks against the right to press freedom and free expression.

The right to free expression is enshrined in the Philippine Bill of Rights as well as in Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And yet, threats and attacks against these rights continue, with 60 reported press freedom violations documented by the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took over as president. This includes two media killings, the most notorious of which were the brutal slayings of hard-hitting broadcaster and vlogger Percy Lapid on October 3, 2022 and of editorial cartoonist and satirist Benharl Kahil on November 5, 2022.

The weaponization of laws against critical media practitioners as well as activists, which intensified under the Duterte regime, is a continuing trend under the current administration. On December 14, 2022, Baguio-based Rappler correspondent Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyberlibel for a case filed by former Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol. Earlier, Cordillera Peoples Alliance secretary general Sarah Dekdeken was likewise convicted of cyberlibel on December 1, 2022 after she denounced then Cordillera Police Regional Office Director Brig. Gen. Rwin Pagkalinawan in a press conference of ordering the demolition of the Anti-Chico Dams Struggle Monument in Tinglayan, Kalinga following complaints by local residents. Meanwhile, the conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr. for a retroactive case of cyberlibel has been upheld by the Court of Appeals.

The most notorious case so far involved Quezon-based broadcast journalists Darcie de Galicia and Noel Alamar of ABS-CBN Teleradyo who face up to 941 counts of cyberlibel filed by Quezon Governor Helen Tan and her husband, DPWH Region IV-A director Ronel Tan over an interview the journalists made during their online broadcast.

The antiquated laws in the Revised Penal Code that criminalize libel and oral defamation constitute prior restraint and censorship of free speech and expression. Instead of heeding widespread calls to decriminalize libel, State authorities have even strengthened these measures through a “cybercrime” law prescribing harsher punishments for criminal libel and granting authorities massive powers to shut down websites and monitor online information. Worse, Section 9 of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 has invented the new crime of “inciting to terrorism,” which prohibits speech, proclamations, writings, emblems and banners without providing a clear definition of what constitutes terrorist acts. This renders not only media practitioners but all activists and ordinary citizens vulnerable to bogus charges and wrongful arrests and creates a chilling effect on the media and on political activism as a whole.

Independent and progressive media outfits, or those associated with the opposition have been red-tagged, judicially harassed, and in some cases, have had their websites taken down or the renewal of their franchises denied, as in the case of ABS-CBN, and Rappler whose certificate of incorporation has been revoked. Barely a month before Marcos Jr.’s inauguration as president, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), at the instigation of then National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., blocked the websites of Bulatlat and 25 others for alleged links to terrorist organizations. While a Quezon City court has granted online media outlet Bulatlat’s plea for a preliminary injunction, the websites of Pinoy Weekly and other progressive organizations remain blocked due to the NTC order.

NUJP Secretary General and Bulatlat editor-in-chief Ronalyn Olea has been likewise red-tagged by NTF-ELCAC enabler, TV and online network SMNI. Also among the journalists and media groups who have been red-tagged in 2022 are Bulatlat’s Associate Editor Danilo Arao, ABS-CBN’s Mike Navallo, Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Dexter Cabalzo, GMA-7’s Atom Araullo, Vergel Santos of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and Inday Espina Varona of Rappler. The NUJP, Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines and Movement Against Disinformation have also been labeled as communist propagandists for advocating press freedom.

To date, two Tacloban-based activists are in jail for championing the cause of freedom of expression–Frenchie Mae Cumpio who edited the progressive online media outlet Eastern Vista, and Alexander Philip “Chakoy” Abinguna, who, as national council member of Karapatan, fearlessly documented and exposed human rights violations in Eastern Visayas, especially during the onslaught of military operations in the region under the Duterte region. They were arrested with three others on February 7, 2020 in a police raid on a staff house in Tacloban City, and slapped with trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Amid ever growing indications that the Marcos Jr. government is perpetuating its predecessor’s fascist tradition of red-tagging media practitioners, activists and other human rights defenders while fostering the weaponization of laws to stifle dissent, Karapatan renews its demand for the decriminalization of oral defamation, libel and cyberlibel laws and the repeal of all other laws that are being weaponized against journalists as well as human rights defenders and other activists. The weaponization of laws to attack the hard-won rights to press freedom and free expression must stop.

Karapatan likewise calls for the unblocking of the websites affected by the NTC’s order, the dropping of all trumped-up charges against Frenchie Mae Cumpio and Chakoy Abinguna and their immediate release, and justice for all journalists slain in the line of duty.