Democracy cannot exist without the freedom of the press. A free and independent media serves as a “watchdog” that can report government wrongdoing and hold individuals and groups accountable. A free press may also provide an avenue for ordinary citizens to express themselves and expand their range of information, leading to a more knowledgeable population. When the free press of a nation is under attack, a population tends towards self-censorship, narrowing the scope for informed democratic debate.
The freedom and independence of the press are under siege in the Philippines, degrading the strength of the Filipino democracy. This war on the media commenced under President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 when Duterte declared war on drugs. Duterte’s methods of waging this war have come under immense scrutiny from the media, causing a rift between his regime and the free press and widespread human rights violations across the nation.
Duterte is unquestionably a populist, with his regime displaying traits of autocracy. In Duterte’s rise to power, rather than gaining the public’s trust, he depended on outlandish anti-establishment actions and incendiary words to mobilize a political base. Duterte’s regime has goals of establishing order and repressing government dissension. His keystone policies are his Drug War and his 2020 Anti-terrorist Act (ATA), following a rise in domestic and international terrorist organizations across the Philippines.
Terrorist Groups and Drug Organizations must not be allowed to exist in any society, democracy or not. Nevertheless, Duterte’s handling of these groups was disastrous by violating nearly every moral a liberal democracy vows to uphold. Reports of residents with no direct link to drugs being killed and tortured are widespread, with organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimating that the Covid lockdowns saw killings increase by more than 50%. The most hallowing statistics show that hundreds of minors have perished due to either being purposefully targeted or being shot accidentally during anti-drug operations. Police have referred to these instances as “collateral damage,” yet nongovernmental organizations working for children’s rights in the Philippines estimate the killing of 101 children between July 2016 and December 2018.
The Anti-Terrorist Act (ATA) violated democratic norms by legalizing policing forces in the Philippines to apprehend suspects without an arrest warrant for 14 days. Additionally, the law permits the transferring of persons apprehended in the Philippines to countries that routinely commit torture. HRW argues that article three of the ATA holds a very loose definition for who is to be persecuted with the ATA and that this vagueness could allow the Filipino government to transform less severe offenses, such as vandalism, or legitimate acts of protest, into crimes punishable by a mandatory 40-year sentence. HRW gives the example of a political protestor setting fire to an image while calling for the president to step down (committing arson or damage of property), suggesting that under the ATA, such a protestor could be sentenced to 40 years in prison if found guilty.
The Philipines may be a Democracy with a three-branch system, but no nation can be democratic when the government murders and terrorizes its subjects without proper justification.
This rise of insecurity within the Philippines has led to a movement of widespread condemnation. A leader of this protest is Maria Ressa, the nation’s most prominent journalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa founded Rappler, an independent media outlet that has frequently spoken against the actions of Duterte’s government. Having condemned Duterte’s war on drugs and the ATA, Ressa was attacked in October of 2021 when a Manila court found Ressa guilty of cyber libel- a charge related to posting or promoting “fake news.” Ressa received an undetermined sentence with a maximum jail term of six years.
Duterte’s government has also gone after ABS-CBN, the most prominent media network in the country. In May 2020, ABS-CBN was nearly forcefully shut down by Duterte’s administration because Duterte determined that the “powers that be” wanted to overthrow his regime. The dissolution of ABS-CBN is comparable to the current POTUS removing CNN from the map. Like Rappler, ABS-CSN has long challenged the government’s misguided policies through in-depth stories, analysis, and attestations. Despite the consequences, both ABS-CBN and Rappler continue to be leaders in providing the information people need.
The Philipines has long had a strained relationship with journalists. In 2016, Duterte infamously stated that journalists were “not exempt from assassination.” The Philippines is perhaps the most dangerous country for reporters, with instances such as the 2009 Maguindanao massacre setting this precedent. The massacre led to the death of 32 Journalists- one of the world’s bloodiest attacks on the press- so an incumbent could defeat a rival in a local gubernatorial election.
Since 2021, UNESCO has reported the deaths of five males in the Philippines. All five of these men were journalists, political commentators, or radio show hosts who condemned Duterte’s actions. Their names are Federico Gempesaw, Jaynard Angeles, Jesus Malabanan, Orlando Dinoy, and Renante Cortes.
Duterte is attempting to expand his war on drugs and the definition of terrorism so he may bolster police powers of surveillance, arrest, and detention. Duterte has also used this bill to suppress free speech and harass those who challenge him. Fortunately, certain aspects of the Filipino democracy have remained, as Duterte’s opposition still commands a legislative majority and influence in the judiciary. Presidential terms are also limited to only one six-year term, a unique yet fortunate rule forcing Duterte to leave office on June 30th, 2022. We can only hope that Duterte’s successor, Bongbong Marcos, will be more equitable and ethical in maintaining the norms of liberal democracy.
Hi David! First of all, I really enjoyed reading your post. I feel that it is very well written and you did a great job showcasing how Duterte’s actions caused democracy in the Philippines to significantly backslide. I’m currently doing a case study on the Philippines, and I was kind of flabbergasted at how much Duterte was able to get away with when he was president. Although I don’t in any way condone his actions, it was a smart move for him to appoint his loyalists in government positions, effectively cutting out any chance of accountability or opposition. I think that’s partially why he went so hard after free media, because they were the only ones who could and would really criticize him publicly. As far as Bongbong’s new administration, I feel that it could go either way. I think there are a lot of people watching to see if he and Sara follow their parent’s autocratic legacies or if they work towards getting democracy back on track. From what I can see so far, it still doesn’t look great for free media. In my opinion, Bongbong seems very concerned with re-writing his family’s public image, and has even said that journalists have a vendetta against him. It will be interesting to see what kind of policies his administration puts forward, especially in terms of free press, and how they handle the previous administration’s policies like the Anti-Terrorist Act.