The US Department of State’s 2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, which cited US non-profit Freedom House, said “impunity remains the norm for violent crimes against activists and journalists” in the Philippines.

The report cited significant human rights issues including credible reports of “serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the use of criminal libel laws to punish journalists; high-level and widespread government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic human rights organizations; and threats and violence against labor activists.”

“Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from individual politicians, government authorities, and powerful private persons critical of their reporting,” it noted.

The report also noted that the government “sometimes respected” the right to freedom of expression provided by the 1987 Constitution including for members of the press and other media but “threats and actions by government, allied groups, and powerful individuals against journalists, media organizations, government critics, and others continued.”

“On the surface, individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest.

Observers and NGOs, however, stated that President Duterte’s public tirades against individuals, organizations, and international bodies who criticized his policies continued to have a chilling effect on free speech and expression,” it said, citing a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey released in March showing six out of 10 Filipinos agreeing that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical” of the administration “even if it is the truth.”

The report also listed several incidents of violence and harassment against local and national journalists including President Rodrigo Duterte’s verbal attacks against female journalists, particularly Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, the “unlawful arrest” of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and six others in December 2020 for reportedly illegal possession of firearms, retired general Antonio Parlade Jr.’s remarks against journalist Tetch Torres-Tupas over a story on Aeta farmers charged with alleged violations of the Anti-Terrorism Act and filing a petition against the controversial law in February 2021, the shooting of radio commentator Renante Cortes in Cebu in July 2021 which police alleged was due to his “hard-hitting commentaries,” and the closure of ABS-CBN in May 2020 following the non-renewal of its broadcast franchise and a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission halting its operations.

The report cited France-based Reporters Without Borders’ “Press Freedom Predators” list which included Duterte, noting “local media quickly became collateral victims of his brutal methods, which tolerate no criticism or even nuanced coverage of his policies.”

In a report by The Philippine Star, the government said that the Philippines’ lower ranking in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index which slipped two notches to 138th out of 180 countries is “negligible and that the press situation in the Philippines is still better than other countries in the region.’

Election-related violence and increasing attacks on members of the Philippine press

The US report, citing figures from the Philippine National Police (PNP), said there were 60 reported incidents of election-related violence resulting in 23 deaths in the month leading to the 2019 mid-term elections despite election officials describing the polls as “relatively peaceful.”

“President Duterte’s release of his ‘narco-list’ ahead of the 2019 mid-terms as a tool to defeat opposition candidates was of uncertain effect, as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) confirmed that 25 of 46 politicians on it won in the mid-term polls,” the report said.

Despite labeling the 2019 mid-term polls as “well-organized and generally free and fair, international and national observers noted rampant vote-buying while political dynasties still held a tight grip on elective offices.”

In March, media watchdog Center for Freedom and Responsibility warned about the increasing attacks on the members of the Philippine press ahead of the May 2022 national elections.

“The interaction between the media and the government, as well as with candidates, stems from what was experienced in the last six years where the Duterte administration has “always been hostile unless you are friendly media,” Center for Freedom and Responsibility Executive Director Melinda Quintos-de Jesus told ANC’s Rundown.

“That level of hostility will provoke more incidents as we move nearer elections. That level, the starting level when the gun says ‘go it’s the campaign,’ if you have a level of hostility already shown,” she added, noting the “National Task Force to End Local Communist Task Force (NTF-ELCAC) has not stopped red-tagging journalist, which in turn would make people identify them as their enemies.”

Earlier, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reported the killing of two journalists since the start of the filing of candidacies last October 2021 while three journalists have been barred from coverage at the start of the campaign period.

“At least nine news organizations also continue to experience DDoS attacks that make their websites—and news reports — inaccessible to the public. Online harassment and red-tagging also continue,” the PCIJ’s March 15 report said.

“The danger is higher. The danger of that action becoming violent is certainly a reality more than it has been just because social media has always been chosen by this administration as part of propaganda to attack those they are not pleased with,” Quintos-de Jesus said.

“We must at least allow the media to do the job they are assigned to do because that is how the system has been designed to work.”

Recently, Rappler asked the camp of presidential aspirant Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to “stop harassing journalists” after its reporter Lian Buan who covers the former was subjected to both on-the-ground and online harassment.

The incident, which was recorded on video, happened last April 13 during Marcos’ campaign sortie at IBP Road, Quezon City where security personnel surrounded and blocked Buan from approaching the presidential bet for an ambush interview after the rally.

Hours before the incident, Rappler noted that Buan was also subjected to online harassment after Twitter user @shiningtwicexo red-tagged Buan as “one of the high-ranking officials of the CPP-NPA-NDF” due to her membership in the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), where she is a director.

“Barbarism has no place in any democratic exercise such as campaign sorties of a candidate seeking the highest position of the land,” Rappler said in a statement.

“We protest and condemn in the strongest possible terms the unspeakable behavior of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s male security personnel and media relations officer Krizza Mendizabal on April 13.”