Philippines | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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High-level corruption scandals inhibited governance in 2008 and generated significant public opposition to the administration. The number of extrajudicial killings declined during the year, and a new army chief with a pledged commitment to human rights was appointed in June. However, a breakdown of peace negotiations between the government and Muslim insurgents plunged the southern provinces into the worst violence since 2003, with more than 600,000 people displaced from their homes by year’s end.

The Philippines came under U.S. control in 1898, after centuries of Spanish rule, and won independence in 1946. Once one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations, the Philippines has been plagued by insurgencies, economic mismanagement, and widespread corruption since the 1960s. In 1986, a popular protest movement ended the 14-year dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos and replaced him with Corazon Aquino, whom the regime had cheated out of an electoral victory weeks earlier.

Aquino’s administration ultimately failed to implement substantial reforms and was unable to dislodge entrenched social and economic elites. Fidel Ramos, a key figure in the 1986 protests, won the 1992 presidential election. The country was relatively stable and experienced significant if uneven economic growth under his administration. Ramos’s vice president, Joseph Estrada, won the 1998 presidential election by promising concrete socioeconomic reform, but his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption almost from the outset. Massive street protests forced him from office in 2001 after a formal impeachment process failed.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), Estrada’s vice president, assumed the presidency upon his departure, and her political coalition soon won 8 of 13 contested Senate seats and a majority in the House of Representatives in the May 2001 legislative elections. She nevertheless faced questions about the legitimacy of her unelected administration. In the 2004 presidential election, GMA initially seemed to have defeated her challenger by some 1.1 million votes. However, claims of massive electoral fraud quickly circulated. Demonstrations followed, and some members of the administration verified the accusations.

In June 2005, an audiotape of a conversation between the president and election officials surfaced, supporting the previous year’s vote-rigging allegations. Many cabinet officials resigned to join a new opposition movement, an ultimately unsuccessful impeachment bid was launched, and frequent protests called for the president’s resignation.

The administration mounted several efforts to undercut the opposition movement in 2005, using gag orders, punitive prosecutions, and the announcement of Executive Order 464, which prevented high-level public officials and military officers from testifying before Congress without presidential approval. An alleged coup attempt by a supposed right-left alliance prompted GMA to declare a week-long state of emergency in February 2006. Security forces raided press offices, arrested opposition officials without warrants, and brutally suppressed public protests. The congressional opposition responded with a second unsuccessful impeachment bid that June.

The Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings, also known as the Melo Commission, was established in August 2006 in response to a spate of assassinations earlier that year and to address the larger issue of extrajudicial killings since GMA took office in 2001. A February 2007 report by the commission acknowledged military involvement, but the panel was not empowered to pursue the matter with criminal investigations or prosecutions. A November report by a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions found that a significant number of recent extrajudicial executions of leftist activists were “the result of deliberate targeting by the military as part of counterinsurgency operations against the communist rebels.” The abuses were believed to be encouraged by a government mandate to crush the communist insurgency by 2010, blurred lines between legitimate leftist parties and illegal groups affiliated with the rebel New People’s Army (NPA), the president’s dependence on high-level military support to retain power, and a persistent culture of impunity.

In the May 2007 legislative elections, the pro-presidential Team Unity (TU) coalition increased its majority in the House of Representatives, ensuring that future impeachment bids would be unlikely to succeed. The Genuine Opposition (GO) coalition increased its majority in the Senate.

GMA was subsequently implicated in a major corruption scandal involving a national broadband contract with the Chinese company ZTE that had been approved by the Philippine and Chinese governments in April 2007. In September, the Supreme Court put a restraining order on the contract. Pro-GMA forces later launched a third impeachment attempt, apparently as a preventative measure linked to a constitutional provision that bars more than one impeachment bid per year. Meanwhile, GMA pardoned former president Estrada in October, a month after the Sandiganbayan, the country’s antigraft court, sentenced him to life imprisonment; his conviction had been the first of a former Philippine president.

In November, former navy lieutenant and current senator Antonio Trillanes and Brigadier General Danilo Lim led roughly 20 soldiers in a failed coup attempt. A former vice president and a Roman Catholic bishop joined the men in a live television broadcast to call for GMA’s removal from office on the grounds of electoral fraud and corruption.

Political fallout from the ZTE scandal continued in early 2008, with a break in the long-standing alliance between GMA and House speaker Jose de Venecia. When de Venecia failed to denounce his son, a major bidder in the ZTE deal, for accusing the president’s husband of bribery related to the scandal, GMA’s sons (both members of the House) led a successful effort to remove de Venecia from his position in February. As public opposition to the administration mounted, GMA sought to retain the critical support of the Roman Catholic Church by lifting Executive Order 464 in March. For the rest of the year, however, administration allies managed to avoid testifying by invoking executive privilege.

Yet another failed impeachment bid was launched against the president in October, and in a suspicious political maneuver in the Senate in November, likely 2010 presidential candidate Manny Villar was ousted from the top position in the chamber and replaced by Juan Ponce Enrile, a staunch GMA supporter.

As the political turmoil in Manila continued in 2008, peace negotiations between the government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern provinces broke down completely. The talks, which aimed to end a Muslim insurgency that has plagued the region since the early 1970s, had made some progress in 2007, focusing on the creation of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE)—a self-governing expansion of the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The main sticking points involved the number of barangays (small administrative units) to be included in the BJE and the need to approve the new entity through a referendum in the affected districts. In July, the MILF agreed to sign an initial agreement on August 5, defining the BJE as the ARMM plus 712 barangays, with a formal vote on inclusion to be held one year later and a formal peace agreement to be signed in November. However, local officials in the barangays set for inclusion joined opposition leaders in calling the agreement unconstitutional, and on August 4, the Supreme Court unanimously imposed a restraining order on the deal.

While the MILF leadership expressed interest in continuing talks, 800 MILF fighters responded to the ruling by occupying five towns and nine villages in provinces bordering the ARMM. When they failed to withdraw in response to a government warning, AFP troops were sent in, and clashes erupted. The government officially called off the peace agreement on August 21, and the negotiating panel was dissolved in September. The conflict reached the highest levels of violence since 2003, with more than 600,000 Filipinos displaced by year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Republic of the Philippines is not an electoral democracy. The country’s democratic status has been degraded by the high level of violence ahead of the 2007 legislative elections; reports of cheating and intimidation during that voting, as well as electoral fraud in the 2004 polls; the thoroughly discredited electoral commission; and coup attempts in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Political violence is typically tied to local rivalries, but is especially common in the ARMM and has also increasingly targeted leaders of legitimate left-wing parties that are perceived to be associated with leftist guerrillas. One far-left party, Bayan Muna, has endured the murders of 125 members since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) took office in 2001. The fact that no national elections were held in 2008 probably contributed to the year’s overall decline in extrajudicial killings. Regional elections in Mindanao were scheduled for the summer of 2008, but the MILF boycotted the polls to protest continuing infringements on autonomy.

The Philippines has a presidential system of government, with the directly elected president limited to a single six-year term. The current president initially took office in 2001 after military pressure and street protests drove President Joseph Estrada from power. She completed Estrada’s first term and then—despite some legal challenges—won her own full term in 2004. Her opponents have repeatedly called for her to step down, partly due to the constitutionally anomalous length of her time in office. GMA in turn has pushed for the creation of a parliamentary system of government with extended term limits.

The national legislature, the Congress, is bicameral. The 24 members of the Senate are elected on a nationwide ballot and serve six-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every three years. The 250 members of the House of Representatives serve three-year terms, with 212 elected by district and the remainder elected by party list. Legislative coalitions are exceptionally fluid, and members of Congress often change affiliation, effectively rendering political parties meaningless. GMA’s party, the National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas), retains control of the ruling People’s Power Coalition. The main opposition party is the Struggle for a Democratic Philippines (Laban, or LDP). Administration allies have an overwhelming majority in the House, while the opposition holds a slimmer majority in the Senate.

The Philippines’ Commission on Elections (Comelec) is entirely appointed by the president, and with the president’s permission it has the authority to unseat military, police, and government officials. Comelec has been thoroughly discredited since the 2005 audiotape scandal regarding cheating in the 2004 elections. No internal investigation was conducted, and the 2007 legislative elections were overseen by the same tainted officials. Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos resigned in October 2007 after being accused of bribing a government official to approve the national broadband deal with China’s ZTE Corporation.

Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are rife in business and government. Despite recent economic reforms, a few dozen leading families continue to hold an outsized share of land, corporate wealth, and political power. Local “bosses” often control their respective areas, limiting accountability and encouraging abuses of power. High-level corruption abounds as well, however. The Fraport airport affair—a mix of corruption allegations and international arbitration cases—continues to prevent the opening of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 3 and has now spanned three administrations. Meanwhile, the ZTE contract scandal has entangled the president, her husband Mike Arroyo, then economic planning secretary Romulo Neri, former speaker of the House Jose de Venecia, and then Comelec chairman Abalos. In February 2008, Neri’s technical adviser, Rodolfo Lozada, testified that the government had inflated the cost of the ZTE deal by $100 million, and that the president herself ordered Neri to ignore Abalos’s bribe.

A culture of impunity, stemming in part from a case backlog in the judicial system, hampers the fight against corruption. Cases take an average of six to seven years to be resolved in the Sandiganbayan anticorruption court. GMA’s October 2007 pardon of Estrada—widely perceived as a bid to set a favorable precedent for her own treatment on leaving office—reversed what could have been a major step forward for anticorruption efforts in the Philippines. Nevertheless, a greater number of cases have been filed in recent years against high-profile suspects who were previously seen as untouchable, and a growing number of umbrella organizations have emerged to combat corruption. The country’s official anticorruption agencies, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC), have mixed records. Many maintain that the former has been compromised under the current administration, as convictions have declined, while the PAGC lacks enforcement capabilities. The March 2008 withdrawal of Executive Order 464, which had prevented government and security officials from attending congressional inquiries without presidential permission since 2005, was a positive development, but administration allies continued to avoid testifying during the year by invoking “executive privilege” in matters perceived to be tied to national interest. The Philippines ranked 141 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution provides for freedoms of expression and the press. The private media are vibrant and outspoken, although newspaper reports often consist more of innuendo and sensationalism than substantive investigative reporting. The country’s many state-owned television and radio stations cover controversial topics and are willing to criticize the government, but they too lack strict journalistic ethics. A study by the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility noted an improved performance by major news organizations in covering the 2007 elections relative to 2004, but it also found “unabashed bias” on the part of government-run television networks. While the censorship board has broad powers to edit or ban content, government censorship is generally not a serious problem. The internet is widely available and uncensored.

Potential legal obstacles to press freedom were raised in 2007, including Executive Order 608, which established a National Security Clearance System to protect classified information, and the new Human Security Act (HSA), which would allow journalists to be wiretapped based on mere suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Libel is a criminal offense, and libel suits have been used frequently in recent years to quiet criticism of public officials. Abalos threatened to file libel charges against Lozada following his testimony in 2008, but had not done so by year’s end.

The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2008, as opposed to three in 2007; the Committee to Protect Journalists has counted a total of 34 journalists killed since 1992 (with a 91 percent impunity rate). Several cases have involved journalists known for exposing corruption scandals or being critical of the government, army, or police. The government in 2006 established a police task force to deal with attacks on journalists, but police are believed to be complicit in many such crimes. In October 2008, murder charges were finally filed against the alleged organizers behind the controversial 2005 killing of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution and generally respected in practice. While church and state are separate, the country is mainly Christian, with a Roman Catholic majority. The minority Muslim population is concentrated on the southern island of Mindanao and, according to the most recent census, represents roughly 5 to 9 percent of the total population. Muslim provinces are among the most impoverished. Perceptions of relative socioeconomic deprivation and political disenfranchisement, and resentment toward Christian settlement in traditionally Muslim areas, have played a central role in the Muslim separatist movement. In response to the outbreak of violence in late 2008, Christian vigilante groups that had been dormant since the 1970s reportedly prevented a number of displaced Muslims from returning to their homes. Christian settlers in the areas set for inclusion in the planned BJE had expressed fervid opposition to the idea in July and early August.

Academic freedom is generally respected in the Philippines, and professors and other teachers can lecture and publish freely.

Citizen activism is robust, and demonstrations are common. Permits are required for rallies, but this rule was often ignored until the government adopted a stricter policy in September 2005, in the wake of a protest-backed impeachment attempt in July. The Supreme Court ruled against the new policy in April 2006, calling for the designation of certain areas where permits would not be required. Most antigovernment rallies continue to be dispersed. In February 2008, on the anniversary of the 1986 protests that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos, Filipinos nationwide mounted the largest demonstrations since 2005 to call for GMA’s resignation in light of the recent corruption scandals.

The Philippines has many active human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups, as well as lawyers’ and business associations. Various labor and farmers’ organizations that are dedicated to ending extrajudicial killings and helping families of the disappeared face significant threats in their work, and their offices are occasionally raided. Trade unions are independent, and they may align with international groups. However, in order to register, a union must represent at least 20 percent of a given bargaining unit. Moreover, large firms are stepping up the use of contract workers, who are prohibited from joining unions. Only about 5 percent of the labor force is unionized, including some 20 percent of public employees. Collective bargaining is common, and strikes may be called, though unions must provide notice and obtain majority approval from their members. Violence against labor leaders has increased as part of the spike in extrajudicial killings in recent years, and military threats to union leaders continue to be documented.

Judicial independence has traditionally been strong, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court, but it remained vulnerable in 2008. The court issued two key decisions during the year, one for and one against the government. After the Senate found Neri in contempt in January for refusing to testify in the ZTE case, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in March, upholding his claim of executive privilege given the national interest in good relations with China. However, the Supreme Court’s narrow August decision to strike down the tentative territorial agreement between the government and the MILF was a clear vote against GMA. Prior to 2008, the court had largely ruled against the administration in critical cases. In 2007 it spearheaded efforts to resolve the issue of extrajudicial killings and similar abuses, promulgating the writ of amparo (protection) to prevent the AFP from delaying cases by denying that it has a given person in custody.

Human rights lawyers generally describe the newly established writ as a success. It was instrumental in a 2007 case involving two abducted farmers; in 2008, an appeals court ruled that the military was culpable, finding that military investigators had failed to adequately probe the complaint. However, a separate inquiry by the appeals court into the April 2007 abduction of Jonas Burgos—a well-known trainer of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines—ended in June 2008 without producing any firm judgment.

Rule of law in the country is generally weak. A backlog of more than 800,000 cases in the court system contributes to impunity, and low pay encourages rampant corruption. The judiciary receives less than 1 percent of the national budget, and judges and lawyers often depend on local powers for basic resources and salaries, leading to compromised verdicts. At least 12 judges have been killed since 1999, but there have been no convictions for the attacks. No assassinations of judges were reported in 2008.

The 2007 HSA gives security forces the authority to detain suspects without a warrant or charges for up to three days and sets penalties of up to 40 years in prison for terrorism offenses. Critics have argued that the act’s broad definition of terrorism would allow the president to use it against her political adversaries. Other opponents said the law’s “compromise” provisions would limit its effectiveness, objecting in particular to rules that would grant 500,000 pesos ($11,000) in damages for each day of wrongful detention or asset seizure and similarly significant fines for police officers who wrongfully detain suspects.

Reports of arbitrary and unlawful detention under harsh conditions, disappearances, kidnappings, and abuse of suspects continued in 2008. Mounting evidence has confirmed the AFP’s responsibility for many of the numerous killings of leftist journalists, labor leaders, and senior members of legal left-wing political parties in recent years. The killings have been most prevalent in areas where the NPA is perceived to be strong, and AFP members maintain that they are the result of purges within the communist movement. The lack of effective witness protection has been a key obstacle to investigations. About 90 percent of extrajudicial killing and abduction cases have no willing witnesses. Especially problematic is the fact that the Department of Justice oversees both the witness-protection program and the entity that serves as counsel to the military. Similarly, the Philippine National Police, tasked with investigating journalist murders, falls under the jurisdiction of the AFP. No member of the military has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since President Arroyo entered office.

In June 2008, Lieutenant General Alexander Yano was appointed as the new chief of the armed forces. He demonstrated an early commitment to human rights, including the “human rights of the enemy,” marking a significant shift in attitude that was believed to have contributed to a decline in extrajudicial killings in mid-2008. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings congratulated the government in June for a two-thirds decline in such deaths since the May 2007 elections. Human rights groups noted an increase in deaths later in the year, however.

The Muslim separatist conflict has caused severe hardship for many of the 15 million inhabitants of Mindanao and nearby islands and has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths since it erupted in 1972. Both government and rebel forces have committed summary killings and other human rights abuses. MILF guerrillas have attacked many Christian villages, and the smaller ASG has kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded some civilians. Islamist militants are suspected in a string of bombings on Mindanao in recent years. The escalation of violence in the south in late 2008 displaced more than 600,000 people by year’s end. Meanwhile, the communist NPA continues to engage in some executions, torture, and kidnappings in the countryside, especially in central and southern Luzon. In January 2008, the group carried out a significant attack on a mining company.

Citizens may travel freely, and there are no restrictions on employment or place of residence. The poor security situation inhibits individuals’ ability to operate businesses. Ten percent of the population works abroad, and the economy is heavily dependent on remittances.

Women have made many social and economic gains in recent years. The UN Development Programme notes that the Philippines is one of the few countries in Asia to significantly close the gender gap in the areas of health and education. Although more women than men now enter high school and university, women face some discrimination in private-sector employment, and women in Mindanao enjoy considerably fewer rights.

The trafficking of women and girls abroad and internally for forced labor and prostitution remains a major problem, despite antitrafficking efforts by the government and civil society. The fact that many women trafficked for illicit labor are heavily indebted by the time they begin working exacerbates the problem. There are reports of bonded labor, especially of children, in black-market trades such as prostitution and drug trafficking. The NPA, the MILF, and the ASG have been accused of using child soldiers.