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. Violence and threats against journalists remain extreme, however, and in 2009 the country came to be considered the world’s most deadly environment for the press following the murder of 29 journalists in a single incident in November. The murders were part of a larger election-related massacre near the town of Ampatuan, in Manguidanao province. A high rate of impunity for such crimes is also a critical concern.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and expression. 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 serve to limit journalists’ traditional rights and access to sources. Also that year, 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 legislative elections, called on the heads of government agencies to implement a vaguely defined security-clearance procedure approved by the national security adviser.
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 have been disputed by local human rights groups, while the latter lacked any sort of enforcement capacity. In 2008, the Supreme Court granted the first writ of amparo ordering protection of a journalist who was targeted in a murder plot. The writ is a new tool that the government and judiciary hope will help alleviate the spike in extrajudicial and journalist killings in recent years. In a positive development, the perpetrator of the 2006 murder of radio journalist Armando Pace was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2009.
The country’s penal code makes libel a criminal offense punishable by a prison term and, in some cases, large fines. Defamation suits continued to receive attention in 2009, though they were not quite as common as in 2008. In September, as he launched his candidacy for the 2010 presidential election, former president Joseph Estrada filed a libel complaint against the Philippine Daily Inquirer for a front-page story that accused his administration of coercing a Chinese-Filipino tycoon into selling his shares of the country’s largest telecommunications firm. The mere threat of libel charges is often enough to hush criticism of officials and public figures. Mike Arroyo, the president’s husband, has posed a particular threat with frequent libel suits.
Although a censorship board has the power to edit or ban content for both television and film, government censorship does not typically affect political material. Both the private media and the country’s many publicly owned television and radio stations address numerous controversial topics, including alleged election fraud, ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns, and high-level corruption cases. Political and controversial developments in 2009—including new presidential candidacies and President Arroyo’s decision to run for Congress after her term ended—were covered widely by local and national media outlets. Especially thorny issues such as Arroyo’s partnership with the Ampatuan clan, a Manguidanao political family deemed responsible for the November massacre, were not off-limits.
However, exposing local-level crime and corruption, or criticizing the government, army, or police, can prove lethal. In addition to the Maguindanao massacre, there were continued death threats, a number of assassination attempts, and several other killings of journalists during 2009. The November massacre occurred when members of the press were invited to accompany the family members of local vice mayor Ismail Mangudadatu on their trip to file his candidacy for governor. A total of 57 people were killed when the group was allegedly ambushed by Ampatuan gunmen. Recognized widely by press freedom groups as the single greatest instance of journalist murders in the world, the journalists were not directly targeted because of their work but, rather, killed as part of the larger political attack against challengers of the dominant local Ampatuan clan. By year’s end, the primary suspect in the massacre had been indicted, but several postponements related to a petition for bail impeded progress in the case. In addition, witnesses and their family members reported receiving repeated threats. A coalition of media watchdog groups called for an independent investigation of the murders and for trials in an independent court, especially in light of the government’s political ties with the Ampatuans.
The massacre brought the total number of journalists confirmed to have been killed in connection with their work in 2009 to 33, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The organization has counted a total of 68 journalists killed in the Philippines since 1992, and reports a 90 percent impunity rate. Radio broadcasters outside major urban centers, known for sensational political reporting intended to attract high ratings, are the most common targets. 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 it difficult to identify the motives for and perpetrators of journalist murders.
As of the end of 2009, only five convictions for the murder of journalists had ever been secured. The crimes are often carried out by hired gunmen, and no mastermind of such a slaying has been fully held accountable. The intimidation of witnesses remains a critical obstacle to securing convictions. Furthermore, local police tend to hesitate before taking action against influential officials who are suspected of crimes against the press. In a significant development in October 2008, murder charges were filed against two agricultural officials who allegedly ordered the 2005 killing of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat. (The hired gunmen had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2006.) In April 2009, a local court denied the two suspects’ motion to dismiss the charges, and in August the Supreme Court moved the case to Manila in response to a request from the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists based on concerns about witness safety and political complications for the local court. The case was still pending at year’s end, and the defendants returned to work at the Department of Agriculture.Most print and electronic media outlets are privately owned, and while some television and radio stations are owned by the government, 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 elicit favorable coverage. About 6.5 percent of the population made use of the internet in 2009, and the government did not restrict access.