Legal Restrictions, Intimidation Seek to Suppress Criticism

Filipino journalists will spend World Press Freedom Day on May 3 under government attack. New draft regulations issued by the Philippine House of Representatives would allow Congress to ban reporters who “besmirch” the reputation of lawmakers from covering the national legislature. Journalists and some members of Congress have denounced the proposed rule as dangerously ambiguous and stifling. And to many Filipinos this restriction on freedom of expression is an affront to their pride in their country’s free if freewheeling press.

These restrictions are just the latest in a series of attacks on the Philippine press by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government and its supporters, aimed at silencing critical voices. While the government has been especially ferocious against people and organizations demanding accountability for the government’s “drug war,” which has killed more than 12,000 people since July 2016, any criticism of the administration seems subject to reprisal.  

Duterte has made incendiary public statements against journalists, even justifying death threats against them. The main target has been the news website Rappler, which has been highly critical of the administration. Since February, the government has blacklisted Rappler reporters from covering Malacanang Palace, the president’s residence. In March, the government initiated tax evasion and libel prosecutions against Rappler. An ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Rappler’s ownership structure could result in the outlet’s closure.

The government has likewise targeted the owners of the Philippines’ largest and most influential newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Most recently, the government restricted media access to a popular island resort and, last week, sought to bar accredited foreign correspondents from covering the Philippines at an ASEAN event in Singapore.

The increasingly hostile environment for the Philippine press has not gone unnoticed. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders reduced the Philippines’ press freedom global ranking from 127 to 133 out of 180 countries. In addition to government threats and media restrictions, four journalists were murdered last year, making the Philippines the deadliest country for journalists in Asia.  

The assault on media freedom resonates loudly on World Press Freedom Day. Filipino journalists, true to the tradition of political muckraking, corruption exposés, and wartime reporting, have often put their lives on the line, serving the Philippine people and democratic values in the process. It’s important that their efforts are supported – including by the Philippine Congress.