Duterte says press freedom is ‘vital’ for democracy
MANILA — Press freedom “is vital to a nation’s vibrant democracy,” President Rodrigo Duterte has said, despite accusations that it has been criticized during his administration.
Duterte made the comment to mark Wednesday the fifth anniversary of the Presidential Media Safety Task Force, a body he created to end violence against journalists.
“The task force plays a crucial role in safeguarding the freedom of the press which is vital in a nation’s vibrant democracy,” Duterte said in a recorded message.
“It also helps to ensure that the rights and welfare of the press are well protected and respected,” he added.
The president said he hoped the task force would “continue to fulfill your mandate with the utmost excellence and commitment.”
Video courtesy of RTVM
DUTERTE AND THE MEDIA
Under the Duterte administration, the media have been threatened, with organizations closed and some journalists banned from coverage.
Veteran journalist Maria Ressa was convicted of defamation in 2020. Her news site Rappler had its license suspended and she faced legal action for a variety of reasons, prompted by her scrutiny of Duterte, activists say.
Last week, Ressa shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, for what the committee called defying the wrath of leaders to expose corruption and mismanagement, in an endorsement of free speech .
“It gives us all a boost so that we can become more vigorous in this fight to preserve our independence,” said Ging Reyes, news manager at broadcast network ABS-CBN. “The existential challenge is still there.”
A House of Representatives committee dominated by Duterte allies shut down the broadcast operations of ABS-CBN Corp. Last year.
Since its closure, the 66-year-old broadcaster, which Duterte publicly chastised for not airing some of its paid campaign ads in 2016, has laid off thousands of staff, including about 400 from the news division.
“For me, any closure of a media outlet, of a broadcasting station, is really an affront to freedom of the press,” Reyes said.
The government denies harassing the media and says any problems the organizations face are legal, not political. He says he believes in freedom of speech.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque hailed Ressa’s Nobel Prize, saying Monday that “freedom of the press is alive” in the Philippines.
The Philippines saw its ranking in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index drop two notches to 138 out of 180 countries.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in the world on its Impunity Index, which tracks the deaths of members of the media whose killers are freed.
While the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) says it doesn’t expect the government’s combative attitude toward the contradictory press to change, it hopes Ressa’s Nobel Prize win “will inspire us to overcome fear”.
NUJP National President Jonathan de Santos said the work is becoming more crucial as the country heads towards elections in 2022 to choose a successor to Duterte, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
The stakes are high for Duterte. Analysts said he would want to make sure an ally wins so he can shield himself from legal action at home or abroad.
Duterte faces an International Criminal Court investigation into thousands of drug war-related killings. The government denies any wrongdoing and says it will not cooperate with the ICC.
“We don’t expect the threats to go away, but the Nobel Prize inspires us to keep going,” de Santos told Reuters.
Joel Sy Egco, who heads the presidential media safety task force, touted the government’s efforts to uphold the right to information by backing a freedom of information bill and establishing the group that he directs to “protect the lives, liberty and safety of media workers”.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, a major newspaper known for scrutinizing Duterte’s government, said Ressa’s victory had a “halo effect” for reporters.
“We believe this will inspire Filipino journalists to remain courageous, knowing the world will be watching because of the Nobel effect,” the newspaper said in response to questions from Reuters.
“It’s hard to say this will make the administration less combative, especially those who have a vested interest in staying in power because of an international criminal investigation and who see independent media as an enemy.”
— With reports from Reuters