Ten years ago, on November 23, 2009, 58 people—32 of them journalists—were brutally killed in the sleepy and impoverished town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province in the Philippines. Called the Ampatuan Massacre, the horrific carnage sent shockwaves across the globe: it was dubbed as the world’s single deadliest attack against journalists, propelling the Philippines to the likes of war-torn Iraq and Somalia, two of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.
Ten years later, nothing much has changed. Still no verdict for the masterminds of the Ampatuan massacre. Journalist killings remain while impunity continues to reign: the Philippines ranked fifth in Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2019 Global Impunity Index, the list of countries where journalists are slain and killers go unpunished. Under the Duterte administration, 14 journalists have been killed in the line of duty and not a single mastermind has ever been caught, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
In fact, the situation has gotten worse. Today, we see attacks against the media which have never been seen since democracy was restored in 1986: journalists are branded as terrorists and enemies of the state; media institutions are slapped with trumped-up charges; and journalism is openly discredited by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte and his army of trolls.
Duterte, a populist leader catapulted to power for his promise of change, is very vocal about his disdain towards the press, especially those critical against him such as the Inquirer, Rappler, and ABS-CBN. He threatened to have ABS-CBN’s broadcast franchise revoked, while the internal revenue bureau has pursued tax evasion charges against Rappler, and Inquirer. The justice department, meanwhile, has charged Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa, with cyberlibel over an article that had been sleeping inside the news agency’s servers for five years.
He openly discredits the press by calling it corrupt and paid hacks, thus they deserve to die. In an interview before he assumed office in 2016, Duterte said: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, you son of a b*tch.”
This statement set the tone of Duterte’s relationship with the press. For the past three years, attacks against journalists have evolved. Aside from the usual insults and profanities, the Duterte administration has stepped up its campaign against critical journalists and activists through the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac). With its so-called “whole-of-nation approach,” the NTF-Elcac involves various government agencies to eradicate the communist insurgency at all levels of governance.
But according to Filipino human rights group Karapatan, such campaign emboldens state forces to falsely accuse journalists and activists as communists and enemies of the state. In fact, it has practically allowed ranking government officials to recklessly tag journalist groups like the NUJP as communist fronts or rebels, without providing an iota of evidence.
In an interview with One News show The Chiefs aired November 4, Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy accused the NUJP of being a terrorist group for simply being critical of the government.
“Are they or are they not part of the CPP-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army)? They are,” Badoy said, without providing any proof.
The NUJP, in response, said that Badoy’s statement is “essentially an open call for state forces to threaten, harass, arrest, detain and kill journalists for doing their job.”
Such was not the first time to happen. In Cagayan de Oro City, shady individuals tagged Mindanao Goldstar Daily associate editor Cong Corrales as member of the NPA and even put a P1-million bounty on his head. Months before, in June, Davao Today columnist Margarita Valle was erroneously arrested by the police and held her incommunicado for nine hours despite her insisting they got the wrong person.
Misinformation, troll armies
But red-tagging and harassment are not only the critical issues Filipino journalists face under the current regime. Misinformation—or the deliberate spreading of false information to fool the public—has reached epic proportions in the past three years.
Blogger and former Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, the Duterte administration’s most famous propagandist-cum-apologist, has repeatedly shared false news and information, including claims that a girl was murdered by her grandfather high on illegal drugs, and that students who rallied against the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 2016 were forced by their school administration to go out on the streets. These were disproven by vigilant netizens, noting that the first happened in Brazil and the latter was belied by the student themselves.
Armies of trolls have also attacked, doxed, and harassed groups and individuals critical of the administration. Journalist and activist Inday Espina-Varona’s Facebook account got suspended because of her widely-shared commentaries against the Marcos family, while the website of progressive alternative media outfit Bulatlat got attacked for their critical reporting of social issues.
The 10th anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre was the appropriate time to be outraged, the time to be indignant of the lack of justice for the victims and the government’s continuing attempt to muzzle the press.
But this is not enough: Media should reflect and re-examine its role in this dark period of Philippine democracy. Media should continue speaking truth to power by going beyond what sources said, by asking the right questions, and by reporting the real state of the Philippine nation. Media should continue being critical and avoid propagating false information by promptly verifying reports and information found on social media. Media should continue shining light on the dark corners of the society and stand their ground amid the attacks against the press.
this, we keep the memories of the 32 journalist-victims of the Ampatuan
massacre alive and continue to protect press freedom and democracy that the
Filipino people paid for with blood and tears.
 NUJP Media Safety Office, as of November 23, 2019.