The freedom of the press and media are essential components to democracy and there must be a continuous fight for it in order to protect countries from declining democratically. With free press, it allows for there to be accountability held against the government and additionally, provides information that can be useful to citizens who want to learn more about their government and the politicians representing them.
In the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, press freedom has declined rapidly under his presidency leading to the country being ranked 136th out of 180 countries on the press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF). With the shutdown of a major TV news broadcaster, ABS-CBN, and the targeting of newspapers, such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, because of their forefront coverage of Duterte’s violent drug war, media freedom has been challenged and limited. In addition to this, after being questioned about a crime reporter who was killed in Manila and what can be done in order to protect freedom of the press, Duterte responded stating, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a b**** . . . Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong” and that journalists killed were often corrupt. The Philippines has been claimed as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 70+ journalists have died since 1992.
One of the major cases that has displayed how freedom of the press has been limited and unprotected is through the arrest of Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, an online news outlet she had founded in 2012. Her news outlet had gained a following after its coverage on Duterte and his violent war on drugs and with a story written in 2012, she and a Rappler staffer, Reynaldo Santos Jr., were found guilty of “cyber libel” because of new cyber libel laws that came into effect after the story was written. Furthermore, Ressa has faced charges ranging from cyber libel to tax evasion. Additional legislation such as the 2020 anti-terror bill have also threatened media freedom as section 9 criminalizes any acts of terrorism through a media form. Two other journalists, Latigo News TV website editor, Mario Batuigas, and video blogger and online reporter, Amor Virata, also face trial for being accused of spreading “false information on the COVID-19 crisis” under section 6(6) of the new “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” legislation that grants special powers onto the president.
These politically motivated cases against the press that have been used to restrict and harm those trying to protect the freedom of the press are signs of democratic decline that was also prevalent under former President Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Media has a very powerful impact on public opinion and there are two paths in which it can affect democracy. It can either help protect against undemocratic forces and further strengthen democracy by providing accountability against the government’s actions against its citizens, or it can instead strengthen anti-democratic forces and lead to democratic decline and erosion.
Enikolopov, Petrova, and Zhuravskaya, studied the case of Russia to see if independent media affected voting behavior in Russian elections. They found that it does have an effect and can also lead to reduced support for government parties, increased support for centrist and liberal parties, and reduced turnout. This shows that there is a need for independent media and freedom of the press, especially in the Philippines wherein there the president has seeked to try and control the media because they have gone in opposition of him and his violent drug war. By trying to control media such as ABS-CBN, President Duterte violates the separation of powers and freedom of the press and reduces democratic institutions established in place to keep the government in check.
What Must Be Done
In the Philippines, there should be a continuous fight for freedom of the press as it is a necessary democratic component that allows for there to be checks and balances of the government and accountability to be held. While it is undemocratic to accuse the press and attempt to hinder their work by putting them into jail and shutting down their platforms, there should be this continuous push for freedoms that are guaranteed in the constitution.
Jing Tzsuen Kua
Love the article Marielle! I completely agree with the importance of the free press in the ASEAN region as a whole. Coming from someone who has looked into similar issues in Malaysia and Singapore, I agree that democratic backsliding in this regard is a serious issue!
Great commentary Marielle! I think it’s also interesting how freedom of the press especially ties into the idea of polarization in democracies, along with the backsliding into autocratic norms that come alongside it.