Freedom of the Press
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While news reports are often rooted in sensationalism and innuendo, the media in the Philippines have historically ranked among the freest, most vibrant, and most outspoken in Southeast Asia. However, journalists in 2008 continued to face deadly violence and the use of defamation suits to silence criticism of public officials. In addition, the government continued to issue vague directives prohibiting media coverage of certain troublesome events.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, expression, and peaceful assembly. There are no restrictive licensing requirements for newspapers or journalists, and few legal limitations such as privacy or obscenity laws. However, new national security legislation introduced in 2007 may limit journalists’ traditional rights and access to sources. Furthermore, in April 2007, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued Executive Order 608, creating a National Security Clearance System to “protect and ensure the integrity and sanctity” of classified information against “enemies of the state.” The order, which came shortly before the May legislative elections, calls on the heads of government agencies to implement a vaguely defined security clearance procedure approved by the national security adviser.
The country’s penal code makes libel a criminal offense punishable by prison terms and, in some cases, large fines. The prevalence and severity of libel cases in recent years prompted a broad-based but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the decriminalization of defamation in 2006. Defamation suits continued to receive considerable attention in 2008. In January, radio commentator Julito Ucab was arrested in southern Mindanao for failing to defend himself against a 2004 libel charge stemming from his interview of a woman who accused a government official of sexual assault. In another case, radio journalist Alexander Adonis was held in the Davao Penal Colony in Davao del Norte province until late December despite orders to release him in February. Adonis was convicted of defamation for accusing a former Davao congressional representative and current House speaker of having an extramarital affair. In September, Amado Macasaet, a Malaya newspaper columnist and well-known critic of the Arroyo administration, was arrested along with two other Malaya editors based on a nine-year-old libel complaint filed by the former governor of Rizal province. The charges resurfaced after Macasaet’s 2007 articles on bribery allegations involving a Supreme Court justice who is also the former governor’s sister. Macasaet was previously arrested for alleging that Mike Arroyo—the president’s husband and the most notorious abuser of libel laws—was involved in attempted vote-rigging in the 2004 presidential election. In October, the Court of Appeals denied a motion by Mike Arroyo to dismiss a 2006 case filed against him by numerous journalists for his abuse of libel suits. The mere threat of libel charges is often used in attempts to hush criticism. Following the testimony of former government adviser Rodolfo Lozada against former election commission chairman Benjamin Abalos in February, the latter threatened to file libel charges but ultimately did not do so.
Although a censorship board has the power to edit or ban content for both television and film, government censorship does not typically affect political issues. Both the private media and the country’s many state-owned television and radio stations address the country’s numerous controversial topics, including alleged election fraud, ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns, and high-level corruption cases. Media coverage in the run-up to the May 2007 legislative elections was perceived to be generally unbiased, although there were a few cases in which the media were prevented from conducting interviews with senior opposition members. A series of developments in 2008 reflected ongoing tensions between the media and the government regarding reporting on contentious national events. In late January, three dozen journalists and several organizations came together to file a civil suit against the government for prohibiting media coverage of a November 2007 coup attempt and the arrest of over 30 journalists. The suit was dismissed by a judge in July. As part of the fallout from the media’s efforts to cover the coup, the Department of Justice issued a highly controversial advisory in mid-January that warned all media practitioners of criminal liabilities for “disobeying lawful orders from duly authorized government officers and personnel during emergencies.” In late February, the Supreme Court struck down a warning against airing wiretapped conversations between the president and an elections commissioner from 2005, and in March, the authorities prohibited stations from broadcasting aerial views of massive antigovernment demonstrations.
Filipino journalists faced danger in the course of their work throughout the year. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility reported that six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2008, after a slight decline in violence yielded a death toll of three journalists the previous year. The Philippines continues to rank as one of the most dangerous places in the world for members of the press. Exposing corruption scandals or criticizing the government, army, or police can prove lethal, with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reporting that 34 journalists have been killed since 1992 and citing a 90 percent impunity rate. Two murder victims in 2008 were radio broadcasters: Dennis Cuesta, a program director in General Santos City who was shot in August after receiving death threats for his coverage of a high-profile land dispute, and Martin Roxas, a program director on Panay Island who was also shot in August after reporting on a local political dispute and alleging the misappropriation of funds. Radio broadcasters outside major urban centers—known for sensational political reporting intended to attract high ratings—are the most common targets. At least four other journalists were slain during the year under unclear circumstances, while others received death threats or escaped injury in attacks and harassment.
The nature of advertising and the prevalence of “block timing”—buying airtime for political or partisan purposes—in radio broadcasting contribute to sensational reporting, while local political rivalries, corruption, and family vendettas often make the motives and perpetrators behind journalist murders difficult to identify. Only three convictions for the murder of journalists have ever been secured, and because the crimes are often carried out by hired gunmen, no mastermind of such a slaying has ever been held accountable. In a significant development in October 2008, murder charges were filed against two agriculture officials who were the alleged masterminds of the 2005 killing of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat. After arrest warrants were issued, however, the two filed motions against the charges and the case remained pending at year’s end. The government has made some effort to address the impunity issue, including the 2006 establishment of Task Force Usig, a special police unit, and the Melo Commission to Investigate Media and Activist Killings. However, the official findings of the former are disputed by local human rights groups, while the latter lacked any sort of enforcement capacity. In February 2008, Supreme Court justice Reynato Puno demonstrated judicial support for ending impunity for journalist murders by delivering the keynote address at a CPJ conference, and in March the Supreme Court granted the first writ of amparo ordering protection of a journalist targeted in a murder plot. Introduced in September 2007, the writ of amparo is a new tool that the government and judiciary hope will help alleviate the massive spike in extrajudicial and journalist killings in recent years.Most print and electronic media outlets are privately owned, and while some television and radio stations are government owned, they too present a wide variety of views. Since 1986, there has been a general trend toward concentration of ownership, with two broadcast networks controlled by wealthy families dominating audiences and advertising. Often criticized for lacking journalistic ethics, media outlets tend to reflect the political or economic orientations of their owners and patrons, and special interests reportedly use inducements to solicit favorable coverage. Approximately 14.6 percent of the population made use of the internet in 2008, and the government did not restrict access.