Philippine journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio was arrested before dawn with four local activists on February 7, 2020. The arrests came as a part of a series of raids by the Philippine National Police (PNP) on alleged “communist-terrorist” staff houses in Tacloban.

At the time of the raids, Cumpio was working and staying at the offices of Eastern Vista, a local alternative media outfit. The four others detained were activists in sectoral groups for labor, youth, and women. All were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives and came to be known as the “Tacloban 5.” Cumpio’s incarceration has come to represent the challenges facing young journalists in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration took office in 2016.

Cumpio, 22, has worked in the media the entirety of her young career. It’s hard to overstate the dangers of doing journalism in the Philippines. According to the tally of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), nine media workers have been killed by state forces under the current administration. Journalists in the Philippines regularly face a slew of libel cases in one of the few countries where libel is an actively enforced criminal offense. In May 2020, the government also shut down one of the largest broadcasting companies in the country mainly for its critical content and reporting. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has reported 171 attacks and harassment incidents since Duterte came into power.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Journalist Ronalyn Olea, center, speaks during a rally in metropolitan Manila, Philippines, Monday, February 10, 2020. The Philippine government’s chief lawyer asked the Supreme Court on Monday to shut down the country’s largest TV network, ABS-CBN Corporation, by revoking its operating franchises because of alleged constitutional violations, in a move critics called an attempt to muzzle the media.

Neil Eco, a fellow journalist and college friend of Cumpio, says she was in high spirits when he visited her in prison. Since her detention began, she’d commonly ask her visitors and well-wishers about news of the outside world. Still keeping tabs on society at large, she requests periodicals, journals, and news clippings from anyone willing to provide them. “It’s easy to forget how young she is,” he says.

Set against the backdrop of a vicious political climate, Cumpio’s case is emblematic of the repression of journalists in the Philippines. Her youth and optimism, so contagious and enduring according to her colleagues, makes her struggle for freedom compelling to those beyond her close friends.

Young and restless

Cumpio was raised by a hardworking single mother in the coastal town of Tanauan, Leyte. The area was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 when Cumpio was still in high school. As the town recovered from the disaster, she threw herself into her studies and graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class. Before the ceremonies, she had already been accepted into the Biology program at the Tacloban campus of the University of the Philippines. Her sights, however, were dead set on joining the university’s student publication, UP Vista.

By her sophomore year she was already giving orientations and training to freshman staff, which is how she and Eco, a year younger than her, met. “She was very intimidating at first. She was strict in teaching us how the publication works and what it stands for. Later on I got to know her better on assignments. She likes to laugh and has a very sarcastic sense of humor,” Eco says.

Eco was taken and sent to many places by Cumpio on assignment. He remembers visiting with Cumpio a nearby urban poor community set to be demolished by the authorities. There he learned how to report on the voices of the marginalized, on those often erased from the predominant narrative. The area was barely half an hour away, and there he saw how oppression can be left unnoticed even in your immediate environments.

Eco says, “When she’s working, she can be very serious. I remember seeing that as she conducted interviews and researched with people often from working class backgrounds. She can be intense.”


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Neil Eco

Frenchie Mae Cumpio

Cumpio was made Editor of UP Vista by her third year and final year in the university. She didn’t complete her studies, opting instead to run the local alternative media group Eastern Vista as its executive director. She also anchored Eastern Vista’s radio show which aired on Aksyon Radyo (Action Radio) – Tacloban DYVL. Using these platforms, she continued her crusade of exposing abuses by police and the military, local corruption, and the increasing authoritarian streak of the Duterte administration.

Towards the end of 2019, Cumpio had made public that she had noticed physical surveillance on her and received death threats also labeling her a “communist-terrorist.”

Eco visited Cumpio at the Tacloban provincial jail the last time before the pandemic. All of the incarcerated were literally behind bars and wearing prison uniforms. Eco stutters when asked about the sight of the imprisonment “Why would this happen in the first place? It’s enraging. The allegations are false.”

Long road to freedom

The News Lens spoke with Judah Krista, a liaison to Cumpio’s lawyers who prefer to remain anonymous for security reasons. In pre-trial proceedings, the prosecution presented just 8 out 19 witnesses (all cops) who alleged that Cumpio and the four others are “high-ranking officials” of the communist party in a bid to justify their detention.

Krista noted that the witnesses testified inconsistently with locations, persons of interest and unverified aliases all muddling the truth. Moreover, she says that the police have used the pandemic as an excuse to prolong the intervals between the statements of each witness. She describes the entirety of it as “favorable content, delayed processes,” which ultimately means that the truth will be determined later rather than sooner.

Jonathan De Santos, Chairperson of the National Union of Journalists (NUJP), believes there are clearly politics at play in prolonging Cumpio’s incarceration as the charges she faces disallow bail.

De Santos told The News Lens, “Her continued detention on improbable charges shows not only that the government considers critical media as ‘enemies of the state,’ but also that the justice system in the Philippines is so slow. Even if she is, as we hope, eventually cleared and released, she will already have spent more than a year behind bars.”

Despite the grim assessment, he cautions against losing hope. For him, one of the best ways other media workers can help out is to not lose sight of the story playing out in the country, of which Cumpio’s ordeal is an unavoidable section.

“Although the media in the Philippines enjoys a degree of freedom, that journalists like Frenchie and others who do stories on underreported issues and sectors can be the targets of surveillance and harassment and even arrest on dubious charges shows that that freedom is under constant threat,” De Santos explains. “As the government moves against Rappler and ABS-CBN have also shown, moves to silence the press can be cloaked in the regularity of regulatory processes and law enforcement.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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