Art By Mikael Hilapo
Art By Mikael Hilapo.

There is nothing to celebrate for World Press Freedom Day

For World Press Freedom Day, journalists ask only for one thing: protection.

By Benildean Press Corps | Friday, 3 May 2024

President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s interview with Sarah Ferguson, presenter of ABC’s “7.30” news program, on Mar. 4 made rounds over the internet, with Ferguson being praised for her directness and courage in questioning Marcos Jr. over his family’s history of plunder. From her praises, criticism rose of Filipino journalists, with others demanding the same fierceness from them. However, it is impossible to overlook that when journalists in the Philippines do speak up, they are immediately showered with a barrage of bullets.


Today, one should remember that World Press Freedom Day is not a celebration. It is a reminder for the government to protect its journalists and to uphold justice in their murders. After all, how could it be celebrated when Filipino media workers continue to be harrassed and red-tagged? 


Paint over a cracking foundation

Out of 180 countries, the Philippines ranked 132nd in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, a higher spot compared to its last standing in 2022 at 147th. This improvement was directly overshadowed by the country’s 46.21 rating, marking its status “difficult” for journalists. This contrast in data only goes to show that numbers do not always reflect reality.


In fact, the Philippines has made a consistent appearance in the Global Impunity Index for the past 16 years, as of 2023. The index was made by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as a means to tally the unsolved murders of journalists per country. As of November 2023, six more journalists have been killed, adding to the 14 unsolved murders of the previous year. In relation to this, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) reported at least 23 media workers murdered during ex-president Rodrigo Duterte’s regime alone.


Perhaps this mirrors Duterte’s disdain towards journalists. In a press conference in Davao in 2016, he stated that, “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a b*tch.” He then went on to elaborate that one would not be killed if they “don’t do anything wrong.” However, what does wrongness mean in this context? To speak out on injustice? To criticize a corrupt system whose initial purpose was to serve the people?


This was not the first time journalists have been beaten into submission. Iron-fisted rulings like this have happened before, notably during the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s time in office. With how the sociopolitical climate is going, it looks like his son is following in his footsteps—but this time with a more hands-off approach.


A mountain of cold cases

According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), 75 press freedom violations were recorded during the first 10 months of Marcos Jr.'s presidency, Presently, four journalists have died, with the most recent one being the murder of Juan Jumalon. The radio journalist was shot on-air in November 2023, and as of April 2024, only two out of the three suspects behind his murder have been apprehended.


Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa, Renato Blanco, and Cresciano “Cris” Bundoquin have all been similarly targeted because of their work in the field. Although the gunmen of each of these cases have been identified and taken under police custody, the alleged masterminds have yet to be brought to justice


Mr. Jonathan de Santos, NUJP Chairperson, also noted this pattern, saying, “Often a prosecution in these cases is focused on the actual gunmen, the actual killers.” One cannot fully get rid of weeds just by pulling at the blades—they must also dig for the roots. It is not enough to arrest only the men behind the trigger. 


In order to truly bring justice for the victims, the perpetrators who ordered the act must also be brought behind bars.


Even so, these convictions are rare themselves, with the CMFR reporting only an 11% chance of cases like these leading to concrete suspects. Such is evident in the case of Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega—a staunch critic of former Palawan provincial governor, Joel Reyes—who was gunned down in 2011. Reyes, the alleged brains behind Ortega’s murder, continues to evade arrest as of March 2024. The case has dragged on for 13 years, yet even with complete evidence and immense public interest, Ortega’s family has been denied a fair trial.


Michaella Ortega, his daughter, spoke on her father’s work in an interview with CPJ in March 2024. She stated that the ideals her father vehemently fought for are still relevant today—particularly that of anti-corruption.


“It’s not only these issues [that] are still relevant today, but that people like him are dwindling. These are the very voices that you need in times like this, but loud and brave voices are getting snuffed out. It’s very, very difficult to speak out anymore,” she said.


And then there were some

The media landscape was left broken and abused after Duterte’s era, and Marcos Jr. has made no indication of helping repair it. Though in 2022, he has previously vowed to support and protect journalists, his words mean nothing until the government actively takes measures to ensure that no other media worker will lose their life over their duties.


Melinda Quintos de Jesus, CMFR Executive Director, stated that the present media “still operates in a ‘culture of fear’ instituted by his predecessor … There are no new critical voices raised to question, to probe, to check statements, to question actions and policies.”


Truly, just because the bare minimum of improvements could be seen (so far) under Marcos Jr.’s reign does not mean that the situation has drastically improved. Carmela Fonbuena, the Executive Director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), wrote in an article in February 2023 that “It is now apparent that Duterte's administration was so bad that it is very easy for Marcos to look better.”


A lot of work still needs to be done. Frenchie Mae Cumpio has been held in prison starting February 2020 under the basis of fabricated evidence, and she has yet to be freed. The 80 or so suspects behind the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre who remain at large have yet to be arrested. The families of the aforementioned victims—and the families of journalists who fall under the 89% of unconvicted murders—have yet to bring peace over their loved one’s passing. 


As the President of the Mindanao Independent Press Council (MIPC), Editha Cadauya, put it: “... It remains a fact that this barbarity has no place in a just and civilized society.”


Journalists should not have to fight tooth and nail just to obtain the basic need of security. We continue to demand accountability, transparency, and justice. We will never be truly free until the killings and the red-tagging have stopped. We will never be truly free until our words have been heard, read, and acted upon. 


Until then, World Press Freedom Day continues to be a dream, rather than a reality.

Last updated: Friday, 3 May 2024
Tags: Editorial