From Duterte to Marcos – will media freedom improve?

Political action is needed to strengthen respect for the free press and freedom of expression and reverse the slide

The end of the six-year term of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday June 30, 2022 officially brings to a close the most hostile and contemptuous government to the country’s press, civil society, and human rights sector since the mid-1980s. Not since the Philippines in 1986 deposed and emerged from the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. had Filipinos dealt with a president so openly dismissive of human rights and due process. Duterte enabled with his own violent language and official actions (or inaction) events that intimidated, threatened, and ultimately saw the pulling from the airwaves of the country’s biggest and most influential broadcasting network, ABS-CBN, and arguably fomented an environment that saw the deaths of at least four journalists, and the illegal arrests of dozens.

Among the final indicators of this toxic atmosphere: At least one journalist, Frenchie Mae Cumpio, remains in jail more than two years after rights advocates say she was illegally arrested and illogically framed as a terrorist. An Anti-Terror Law with vague and overbroad provisions, and currently being challenged before the Supreme Court for its constitutionality, is in place, giving officials a Damocles Sword hanging over civil society. And independent media like Rappler, founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa, operates most tenuously, overwhelmed by frivolous libel cases and challenges to its very right to exist over clearly politically motivated challenges to its alleged “foreign ownership”.

The final two weeks of the Duterte administration saw an acute spike in the government’s hostility to media and the free press. Among the flurry of last-minute harassment: Red-tagging (communist baiting) of journalists, two independent news sites – Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly – being arbitrarily blocked, renewed attacks on Rappler, a National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) order that would hamstring and compromise all broadcasting operations by providing overreaching regulation into content and private media cooperation. (The NTC wants power to approve content-licensing deals between private content developers and broadcast networks that alone have hard-fought and politically tenuous congressional franchises to operate limited spectrum.)

As the Duterte Administration ends, so begins that of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – the son of the late dictator, and an ally of Duterte. In fact, not only is Marcos president, Duterte’s daughter, Sara, is now Marcos Jr’s vice president.

That is not to say that the past and recent actions of Duterte can be ascribed to Marcos. Mr. Marcos only but started his term on June 30, 2022. But it is Mr. Marcos who inherits the environment, policies, precedents, and regimes set by Mr. Duterte. It is crucial and imperative for democracy and human rights in the Philippines that Mr. Marcos take action to reverse the slide, recover and reinvigorate that same environment, and indeed demonstrate clear respect for the Philippine Constitution and the free press and freedom expression therein enshrined.

In his inaugural speech on June 30, President Marcos did acknowledge the importance of being tolerant and respectful of differing, critical, even hostile, views. He said: “We shall seek, not scorn, dialogue, listen respectfully to contrary views, be open to suggestions coming from hard-thinking and unsparing judgment… In that lies the power to get it done: always be open to differing views but ever united in our chosen goal… That is how agile and resilient republics are made.”

One would wish that his leadership as President would be counter to his behavior as candidate in the last elections. That campaign was marked by actively and brazenly denying professional media access to his program and thoughts, while his campaign team exhibited palpable distrust and hostility towards independent journalists. As candidate, he also openly rejected any interviewer he deemed “anti-Marcos”. Meanwhile, his campaign was tainted by a revisionist streak when it came to the bloody and corrupt history of his parents, while Filipino voters were flooded on social media by even more bizarre disinformation on the family’s ill-gotten wealth.

Now that he is officially president, the challenge – and question – is whether the new leader would give life and integrity to the words spoken at his own inauguration. He has the opportunity and responsibility to engender an environment that not only protects, but values, the role of journalists in strengthening democracy and improving lives. As Ms. Ressa said this week: the free press is not an enemy, it is a partner. It fights for accountability and transparency, gives voice to the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten, and allows government itself to fight corruption and thereby help seed efficiency and efficacy in public service