PHILIPPINES: Press Freedom Under Siege as Duterte Unveils Opposition 'Matrix'

PHILIPPINES: Press Freedom Under Siege as Duterte Unveils Opposition 'Matrix'
Credit: AP / TPG

What you need to know

Journalists in the Philippines are speaking out against what they call a newly intensified effort by the Duterte administration to suppress press freedom.

Attacks against press freedom, already commonplace as of late in the Philippines, have been intensifying in recent months. The takedown of websites, extra-judicial killings, arrests of media personalities and blatant “red tagging” of journalists as communist fronts has triggered many in the industry to call for a defense of their rights. At the heart of the matter, they say, is President Rodrigo Duterte’s enabling of the government to undertake such repressive measures.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, representatives from various media outlets gathered in a public forum to call out what they deemed brazen violations of their freedom of speech as well as the unfounded slander perpetrated by the administration.

Raymund Villanueva of independent media outfit KODAO Productions said that the mastermind behind these plots may very well be the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and their respective intelligence groups under direct orders from the Presidential Palace. He noted that website takedowns, for example, would only occur after websites had published anything critical of Duterte.

“Attacks came after we have been red tagged and after human rights related stories were published,” Villanueva said.

Credit: AP / TPG
Protesters rally outside the armed forces headquarters to mark World Press Freedom Day in Manila on May 3, 2019.

The Presidential Palace once again gained the ire of Filipino journalists when just before the start of May, they revealed to the public an alleged plot of the media and lawyers’ groups to take down the government. A one page web diagram was displayed and dubbed the “ouster plot matrix.”

When probed for more information, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo merely brushed off questions by saying the public should believe the President. However, he did give an insight into how intelligence was sorted in the halls of the Palace as he admitted that the matrix came from an anonymous text.

Many, including Villanueva, felt betrayed and insulted by the lack of evidence and due diligence of the Palace to provide adequate sources for such grandiose accusations. He said the matrix serves as another attempt to rationalize any and all forms of crackdown against the free press.

Veteran writer Inday Espina-Varona quipped: “Is this what passes for intelligence now?” Her name was found on the “matrix” yet categorized as an attorney, not a reporter. She surmised that it was probably because she spoke at a forum of lawyers where intelligence agents were most likely monitoring but still got their data wrong. “They pile on the lies to scare people,” she said. “Panelo’s remarks are working against democracy.”

The release of the matrix represents the latest in a string of sensational pronouncements of the regime about the state of media in the country. Worse, like Villanueva said, it could have more disastrous and dangerous consequences for media workers in the country who simply want to report the news and combat disinformation.

Credit: Michael Beltran
Inday Espina-Verona (2nd R) speaks at a World Press Freedom Day panel in Manila on May 3, 2019.

Scarlet letters

Malou Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) hit back at the allegations of the “matrix,” saying, “There are no crimes listed in the matrix. We’ve never incited anything to overthrow the government. These are too many accusations with such big logical leaps and no evidence.”

On the other hand, Nonoy Espina, head of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), explains that red tagging by the administration has building for quite some time. He cited reports from the state-owned Philippine News Agency (PNA) that provide no evidence and only accusations from unverifiable sources that certain members of the media were involved with communist rebels.

This is besides the innumerable “fake news” pages on social media that periodically edit information and jump to conclusions about the activities of reproaching reporters. Espina explained that the dangers of red tagging is not so much in the castigation of one for his or her beliefs, but that its adds fuel to the fire of the armed forces to take drastic action against people who are merely doing their job.

Villanueva chimed in by saying: “The armed forces don’t only want to stifle the truth, they want to look good pretending they’re performing their duties as well.”

Double standard

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have certainly been making the rounds in trying to squeeze out funding from alleged red organizations and even audit the independent media. Last March, on what some senators alleged was a “junket trip,” they asked the European Union to look into and stop funding communist front organizations.

Espina also revealed that they had a hand in the new memorandum of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) introduced last November, which allows them to investigate institutions which they deem to have “terrorist financing.”

Section 9.1 of the SEC’s Memo 15 allows for “information and resource sharing” with other law enforcement agencies to identify any perceived threats among non-profit organizations (NPOs). This is an unprecedented development in the previously protected information of NPOs. It wreaks of guilty until proven innocent instead of the other way around.

Credit: AP / TPG
Protesters rally in Manila on May 3, 2019.

Mangahas also pointed out what he called the double-standard the state has with organizations being foreign funded. Most NGOs and institutions have had some form of funding from abroad, whether routed through projects, training and otherwise. More disturbingly, said Mangahas, “the government is the biggest recipient of foreign funding and aid, billions are coming in from China. Shall we call Duterte an agent of China now? China funding is the only good funding apparently.”

Mangahas was particularly incensed due to the fact that PCIJ had done a report on the presidential family’s wealth and asked for a response twice since October without any reply. “All presidents should conform to the highest standards of transparency. What they are doing now [with funding audits] is a preemptive strike to curtail the independent voice of the press.”

Cyber warfare

A number of alternative media websites have been taken down several times in the past few months. KODAO, Bulatlat, Altermidya, NUJP and Pinoy Weekly consistently publish stories from the margins of the country and do not get as much mainstream media attention.

Espina says these discovered that the attacks on their websites had been done through Distributed Denial of Service, or DDOS, attacks. This means that hackers can remotely overload a website by artificially creating an absurd amount of traffic. He added that the key words identified to incapacitate the NUJP website were “Duterte” and “violence.”

“Imagine six months’ worth of site traffic appearing in a matter of seconds. This causes the servers to overload and shut down,” explained Janess Ellao of Bulatlat. Both Bulatlat and KODAO had to change hosting and put up a number of firewalls. They are now reaching out to other groups whose sites have been targeted. Research group IBON Foundation, which was mentioned specifically by the AFP during their trips to Europe as a communist front, recently had their site taken down as well.

“These cyber-attacks are not confined to media only, it is against anyone and everyone that legitimately exposes the truth about the politics and economics of the Duterte administration,” said Ellao.

The alternative media outfits sought outside help from the Sweden-based Quirium Media Foundation to determine the source of the attacks and discovered that two IT companies operating in Hong Kong and the Philippines, IP Converge and Suniway, were the perpetrators. Last March, the groups filed a civil complaint against the two IT companies.

Media in the crossfire

Since Duterte came into power, the Philippines media watchdog Vera Files has tallied the extrajudicial killings of 12 journalists. All of them had been involved in exposing government fraud and the perils of the state-sponsored drug war.

Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, has been arrested twice and detained once in the span of two months. She has said that the first wave of attacks were the “exponential number of lies spread on social media.” However, this has already escalated into physical and legal assaults which she has characterized as “systematic” along with a “weaponization of the law.”

At the moment, both Ressa and Rappler are facing 11 charges relating to fraud, tax evasion and libel primarily. She calls this approach “death by a thousand cuts.”

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa takes part in the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 10, 2019.

For Ellao, these efforts are all part of the entire counterinsurgency framework under Duterte wherein anything remotely opposed to the regime is automatically construed as an instrument for usurping power and chaos.

She mentions the “whole of nation approach” employed by the state to utilize all forms of government access and faculties to discredit or even harm those who espouse the truth. “The enablers of impunity stand to gain from this and it’s not surprising that they are behind it,” said Ellao.

Former AFP Chief Eduardo Ano had penned the counterinsurgency plan of the administration of previous President Benigno Aquino III. Last November, Ano was appointed as head of the Department of Interior and Local Government. A month later, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 70 implementing the “whole of nation” framework.

Despite this, Filipino journalists remain committed to continuing their duties. Villanueva says KODAO will “keep on publishing stories that matter and expose attacks on the press.”

For Ellao, “freedom of the press is not just for journalists, it’s for the public. We have to carry on and continue writing about the plight of the Filipino and the struggles that it produces. More than ever, we have a wealth of stories that need to see the light of day. Whether or not the state wants it made public.”

Read Next: PHILIPPINES: Rights Groups, Branded as Communists, Fight to Preserve EU Funding

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@TheNewsLens)

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