This article is part of a broader week-long series on free speech. Check here for other components of the series.

On November 11th, reporter Virgilio Maganes became the 18th victim of the Philippines’ massive crackdown on journalism since President Rodrigo Duterte’s ascent to power in 2016. Maganes was gunned outside his home in a vigilante attack that was condemned by the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, a state body investigating crimes against the media. However, perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, revealing a somber pattern of journalist killings that is all too common in the Philippines. 

The Purpose of Journalism

The decaying state of Filipino journalism has reflected the country’s descent toward authoritarianism. Globally, a free press has permitted civil society to hold governments accountable through the practice of responsible journalism. In the age of social media, however, avalanches of misinformation and intentional disinformation have undermined reporters’ ability to cover factually accurate news in an unbiased manner. In his efforts to silence dissidents, Duterte has led propaganda campaigns to delegitimize independent news organizations, has tightened restrictions on freedom of the press, and has arrested journalists for anti-government libel.

Duterte’s “strongman tactics” heavily parallel the governing style of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had declared martial law in 1972 to eliminate communist movements. After Marcos was overthrown during the 1986 People Power Revolution, the Philippines emphasized that “no law shall be passed abridging freedom of speech” in Article 3 of the 1987 Constitution. The country has also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that protects these same liberties. But in 2018, the Duterte administration amended Article 3 to indicate that “no law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of [free speech].” This new wording gives government authorities the power to determine what is and isn’t “responsible” journalism.

Image by Prachatai and obtained via Flickr under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

A Chilling Atmosphere

Duterte has denied suppressing free speech and encouraging violence against reporters, claiming his policies have improved their working conditions. Despite establishing the Freedom of Information Program to increase government transparency and enacting the Media Workers Welfare Act to implement higher wages and increased safety for journalists, Duterte has done nothing but torment the media industry. Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines 136th out of 180 states in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, stating that three reporters have been killed so far in 2020. The Duterte administration also shut down the country’s leading independent media platform, ABS-CBN, and has publicly encouraged vigilante attacks against dissidents, such as journalist Maria Ressa who was recently convicted for cyber libel.

The culture of impunity is also perpetuated by local politicians who have recruited mercenaries to eliminate political competition. For instance, the Ampatuan family, influential in the province of Maguindanao, is suspected to have orchestrated a November 2009 attack against those close to governor candidate Esmael Mangudadatu. This attack escalated into a massacre during which 58 people died, including 34 journalists. In 2020, UNESCO cleared all charges against the Ampatuan clan, “saying the Philippine justice system is fair and effective.” UNESCO’s statement has contradicted several reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Philippines-based organization Foundation for Media Alternatives, which have provided evidence of state-sponsored violence against media reporters.

Overriding The Freedom of Press

After 1986, the Philippines has in theory, transitioned to a multiparty democracy, but family dynasties from colonial times have continued to dominate the political landscape, including Duterte’s. The middle class has grown as the country recovered from a recession between 1983 and 1986, but economic growth has stagnated due to oligopolies gaining significant market power that has allowed them to raise prices and hold down wages. Also, the political gridlock resulting from multiparty politics has infuriated Filipinos demanding upward mobility. 

Duterte has swelled the populist tide by pandering to the middle class and weaponizing social media. During electoral campaigns, Duterte vowed to increase civil servants’ wages, develop regional economies, and restore law and order. He has managed to mobilize voters through social media, using this platform to vilify watchdog journalists, family dynasties, and slum residents. Given that the Filipino middle class now holds the most access to digital technology compared to any other class, Duterte easily rode a populist wave to power.

Since winning the 2016 presidential elections with a 39 percent share of the popular vote, Duterte has managed to expand his support base through propaganda. Filipinos have become wary of social instability in the country, and have approved of Duterte’s anti-drug policy that sanctions police killings of slum residents who he has framed as drug addicts. Duterte’s drug war has proven ineffective, as legal authorities have seized only 1 percent of illegal drug supplies nationwide since 2016. Though Duterte has acknowledged corruption in the country’s law enforcement, he has continued to incentivize violence against marginalized people. Duterte remains popular despite his disastrous response to COVID-19, with the Philippines having the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia. He has even gone so far as to accuse frontline health workers and scientists of sedition for demanding government action to support overwhelmed hospitals. Despite this, a nationwide survey revealed his approval ratings rose from 84 percent to 91 percent over the course of the pandemic. 

The Future of Free Speech

Filipino reporters have lived in a climate of fear that predates the Duterte administration. Their bruising task to cover current news has recently been compounded by the recent passing of the Anti-Terrorism Act in August 2020. This new bill sanctions criminal prosecutions against political dissidents considered to threaten national security, allowing state officials to frame journalists who are critical of their policies as terrorists. 

Although international organizations have vehemently denounced Duterte’s repression of the media, the Filipino middle class seems to be the only group that could pressure him out of his reign of terror. As Dutertenomics has yet to translate into significant upward mobility for the middle class, Duterte may risk losing their support further down the road.

Edited by Dana Malapit.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image designed by Olivia Yu