President Rodrigo Duterte gave his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week and this is a time look back at how journalists and press freedom fared under Duterte.

Journalists are in the business of words. And in the Philippines, the president, before his term even started, gave journalists a mouthful.

“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” Duterte said.

This became an oft-quoted line when discussing press freedom under Duterte. Why? It became a portent of things to come.

Since Duterte came to office, 20 journalists, son of a bitch or not, were killed. They were:

  1. Apolinario Suan Jr. – killed on June 14, 2016 in Bislig City, Surigao del Sur
  2. Larry Que – killed on Dec. 19, 2016 in Virac, Catanduanes
  3. Mario Contaoi – killed on Jan. 6, 2017 in Magsingal, Ilocos Sur
  4. Marlon Muyco – killed on Feb. 17, 2017 in M’lang, Cotabato
  5. Joaquin Briones – killed on March 13, 2017 in Milagros, Masbate
  6. Rudy Alicaway – killed on Aug. 6, 2017 in Molave, Zamboanga del Sur
  7. Leo Diaz – killed on Aug. 7, 2017 in President Quirino, Sultan Kudarat
  8. Christopher Lozada – killed on Oct. 24, 2017 in Bislig City, Surigao del Sur
  9. Edmund Sestoso – killed on April 30, 2018 in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental
  10. Carlos Matas – killed on May 12, 2018 in Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur
  11. Dennis Denora – killed on June 7, 2018 in Panabo City, Davao del Norte
  12. Joey Llana – killed on July 20, 2018 in Daraga, Albay
  13. Benjie Caballero – killed on Oct. 30, 2018 in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat
  14. Eduardo Dizon – killed on July 10, 2019 in Kidapawan City, Cotabato
  15. Dindo Generoso – killed on Nov. 8, 2019 in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental
  16. Cornelio Pepino – killed on May 5, 2020 in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental
  17. Jobert Bercasio – killed on Sept. 14, 2020 in Sorsogon City
  18. Virgilio Maganes – killed on Nov. 10, 2020 in Villasis, Pangasinan
  19. Ronnie Villamor – killed on Nov. 14, 2020 in Milagros, Masbate
  20. Reynante Cortes – killed on July 22, 2021 in Cebu City

All of the 20 were male. All of them were from the provinces. They were mostly radio broadcasters, while one of them is also a university professor.

The latest happened just a few days before his last SONA. A radio broadcaster and blocktimer was shot in broad daylight outside the radio station.

In some cases, police points to New People’s Army or NPA rebels as the suspects and after doing so, the cases were declared close. The NPA denied the allegations.

In one case, however, soldiers were the ones who were clearly involved, who shot the journalist dead and used the drug war killings narrative of “nanlaban” [fought back] and then accusing the victim as being part of the NPA. He was then covering and following a land dispute story in the area where he was killed.

Other cases were said to have been masterminded by powerful politicians.

The most common among the cases is that no perpetrator has been brought to justice. A culture of impunity persists, especially in cases that are being suspected or accused as state-perpetrated in how they were systematically executed and how they easily eluded capture or prosecution.

Also before being sworn into office, Duterte had this to say:

“Kill journalism in this country. Stop journalism in this country. If you are worth your salt. If not, then I will think lowly of you. That you are cowards.”

There are four things that happened in the country that could tie together what journalists and press freedom had to endure under Duterte.

One is the 2016 presidential elections that came with the surge of trolls and disinformation, a lot being attributed to the president’s online elections machinery of Diehard Duterte Supporters or DDS. The label eventually included not just online trolls after he won, but actual persons he appointed to posts in the government, some with communication and administration functions, while some are plain loyalists.

Duterte’s plaint with ABS-CBN also started during the elections. Duterte accused the broadcast network of swindling him, pocketing his advertising money despite not airing his ads. ABS-CBN has actually refunded some of these amounts and in the process of refunding the remainder throughout the president’s harsh rebuke of the network over the years. Duterte, since his term began, vowed he will block the network’s franchise renewal application. And so that did happen, through the Lower House of Congress where he is said to enjoy the support of a ‘supermajority.’ In 2020, for the first time since martial law in 1972, ABS-CBN went off the air.

Another is the bloody war on drugs under Duterte. Journalists and publications drew the ire of the president in their reporting of the bloody war on drugs or Oplan Tokhang that is also as old as Duterte’s stay in office. Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler, who had followed the war on drugs death toll closely (from police reports, when it ballooned to tens of thousands up to a re-classification that put the number at just 6,000 in 2018) were openly criticized.

The government’s resources and machinery were eventually used against Rappler. Various government agencies (and private individuals) filed various cases, up to 11, against the independent media outfit and its CEO Maria Ressa—from revocation of registration due to questions in foreign funding to libel cases. Ressa received her first subpoena in 2017. She was arrested twice in 2019 and posted bail eight times. Her bail bonds now amounted to more than how much a convicted plunderer and human rights violator ever paid in bail.

The third is Martial law, another move in his idol’s playbook. Duterte enacted Martial Law in Mindanao and put several areas under “state of lawless violence,” putting practically half of the country under de facto martial law. Of the 20 journalists killed during his term, nine of them were from Mindanao. Seven of the nine were killed during Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao.

The fourth is the fall of peace talks. Duterte proceeded to declare his counterparts in the peace talks as terrorists. He proceeded to replace the peace talks with the groups waging more than 50 years of civil war with a counterinsurgency program that does not differentiate armed rebels from legal activists. From there, hundreds of activists or critics were arrested on trumped-up charges, usually non-bailable criminal offenses to keep them in jail for some time, for a long time. Others, including a doctor and local IATF official, were extrajudicially killed.

The first journalist to experience the weaponization of law and also being arrested and jailed is Anne Krueger of alternative media outfit Panghimutad. Their office in Bacolod City was raided on October 30, 2019 along with many others, after which more than 50 were arrested by police. The raids were conducted on the strength of search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert.

This meant that the witnesses who applied for the warrants flew all the way from Negros to Quezon City to testify having seen unlicensed firearms and/or explosives in all the progressive group’s offices and activists’ homes raided that night. The search warrant served to them, according to Krueger, bore the address “yellow house.” Even journalists who took up basic law subjects in preparation for the profession know that the place to be searched must be specifically identified, not short of a complete address. Krueger was in jail for 11 days before being able to post bail and her trial is ongoing.

The second one is Frenchie Mae Cumpio. The office of the media outfit Eastern Vista, where she is the Editor-in-Chief, Eastern Vista, was raided on February 7, 2020 by police after midnight via a search warrant and they were then arrested based on presence of unlicensed firearms that Frenchie’s group said were planted. Cumpio’s trial is ongoing and she remains in jail.

My arrest on December 10, 2020 happened after a 2am raid in the place I was staying. By then, this has happened to around a hundred others. I saw in front of me a police script or a checklist in action: a post-midnight raid, a judge from outside my city issuing the warrant and have issued so many others or specifically again from Villavert (she has issued these warrants the police used for these raids to maybe around a hundred people already), being incapacitated (hands cuffed behind my back and facing the wall to be exact) for some time before the police declared the start of the search, guns and explosives planted and found in the most unlikely places (inside small everyday bags, under the pillow, etc.) and police using the narrative of gun running in obtaining search warrants.

Leaving the condo unit an arrested person before 5am then, I asked myself how the judge will be able to see through all the lies and quickly. The answer now, maybe, is the resoluteness and bravery of my lawyers and colleagues who did not waver in their campaign for my freedom, the fortitude and courage of the trial judge to examine the issuance of the search warrants against me and Rodrigo Esparago, and the community of Filipino journalists and the Filipino people who spoke above all the official lies and who stood up against this injustice. These may be among the ways to triumph against these current evils.

The Philippines is considered one of the freest press in Asia, being also one of the oldest democracies in Asia. But maybe not free and old enough to have done away with criminal libel by now, and now there is criminal online libel. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) tallied 37 libel and cyber libel cases filed under Duterte. There is also the anti-terrorism law that could also impinge on the journalists’ quest for truth, the job of reporting and the people’s right to know, in any or all instances the government would cry “terrorist” at a subject or source of a report or even at the journalists themselves or their media outfits.

The antipode to the “freest press” and “oldest democracy” tags is the situation on the ground—the killings, the attacks (NUJP tallied 230 cases), the legal harassment, and the insufficient pay (if not inhuman, especially in the provinces) among others. Yet, a lot continue to pursue and persevere in the profession, as this is after all, not just a job but a vocation and a service to the people.

If it’s any consolation, UN Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Laureate Mazen Darwish said, “no prison is big enough to contain free speech.”

And we should always remember former NUJP chairperson Nonoy Espina’s message: “Press freedom does not belong to us. It belongs to the people. It is the freedom that we wield in their service to serve their right to know. Like they say, only an informed people is armed with the knowledge to free themselves.”

As we see through the last few months of this administration and thereafter, may freedom and democracy and the Filipino people have the last say.


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