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Protecting journalists is a balancing act between dictums and dictators

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte giving a speech in 2016 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Philippines is facing another crackdown on media freedoms. 

On June 15, 2020, a court in the capital Manila, convicted former CNN journalist Maria Ressa and former Rappler writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel for publishing an article that implicated a prominent businessman who was allegedly involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling. 

The article was published before the cyber libel law was enacted, prompting rights activists to label the charges as another attack by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte on press freedom and critical reporting. 

The case has been seen as a test of the country's media freedom. It is also a test of the independence of the judiciary. 

Rappler describes itself as "a social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change." Ressa co-founded the website in 2012, and is its CEO and executive editor. Rappler's coverage of the state's crackdown on illegal narcotics, which has left thousands of suspected petty drug peddlers dead, soon attracted the wrath of Duterte.  

Since 2018, Rappler and Ressa have been charged 11 times, with cases ranging from alleged tax violations to corporate foreign control. Ressa has said that the multiple legal proceedings and arrests are all part of an official attempt to shut Rappler down.  

Other news outlets critical of Duterte are also facing similar pressures. In 2017, Duterte also accused the Philippine Daily Inquirer of tax evasion. Last May, broadcast giant ABS-CBN was forced to shut down after the Philippine congress failed to renew its franchise.  

The scene is reminiscent of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who in 1972 declared martial law, closed down all newspapers and broadcast stations and put dozens of journalists in jail. When the presses and broadcast networks reopened, they were all owned by Marcos kin and cronies and were censored by the presidential palace.  

Duterte is said to be an admirer of Marcos, but he is using a 21st century strategy to control the media. It consists of flooding information spaces with disinformation and fake news while attacking legitimate purveyors of news. 

Many institutions are working to create free and safe environments for journalists and media workers with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development. Unfortunately, leaders both North and South are actively challenging media freedom. Many of the journalists killed in the past decade (e.g. in Mexico) were local journalists targeted for covering conflict, corruption or gang violence in local communities. 

In response to what it described as a "politically motivated persecution" of Ressa and attacks on journalists worldwide, the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom has urged Ottawa to "use its leadership role" to champion the need for international sanctions to protect media rights. It noted that such sanctions were proposed in a report by the first Global Conference for Media Freedom, co-hosted last year by the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom.  

"The government should hold up the Philippines as an example of where such sanctions would apply, while assessing what measures Canada could impose unilaterally to indicate its opposition to Ressa's prosecution," said World Press Freedom Canada President Shawn McCarthy. "If Canada is serious about taking a leadership role in the world, it is not enough for Ottawa to mouth platitudes on the importance of press freedom to democracy without sending a firm signal of our displeasure to offending regimes."

McCarthy also urged Ottawa to raise Ressa's case at the G7 summit in Washington, currently scheduled for September, and at the United Nations. 

Civil society has a responsibility to advocate for greater protection and zero impunity for attacks on journalists. Sadly, the Philippines is just the latest country where power and corruption are ruling the day.

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012). WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. The article originally appeared on the WACC blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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