Dear Home Country: An open letter to the Philippines

Dear Home Country, I commend your proactive actions regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, yet the aggressive nature suggests you let the pandemic become an excuse for a man, yet again, to strip the freedom of the Filipino people, as we saw happen with former President Ferdinand Marcos a generation ago. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before we have another martial law, which according to the United Nations, we are already seeing with the “highly militarized response” to the pandemic. In addition, a few weeks ago we saw the country’s most prominent journalist convicted of trumped up libel charges. This is not a letter to attack the character of President Rodrigo Duterte, but rather bring light and condemn his actions towards the media, journalists and the freedom of speech of fellow Filipino citizens.

It is an understatement for me to say that I am disappointed. The citizens’ freedom of speech, their freedom of the press, their freedom to express their criticisms toward the government are being taken from them little by little. The May 5 shutdown of ABS-CBN — the Philippines’ most significant media outlet — is not a symbol of a corporation taken down for supposed “greed” but a symbol of how no matter how much you give back to your country, all of your success and achievements can be taken away by one man.

Giving context, the biggest media source in the country, ABS-CBN, has been trying to renew its broadcast licensing since 2016. However, for years now, two words remain: “pending approval.” Even before he was elected to power, Duterte vowed to take ABS-CBN down all because the franchise refused to promote his political agenda. The government made many excuses to delay the renewal, and now they are using the pandemic as an excuse not to do what is fair and legal. Finally, the day before the license expiration, the National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease-and-desist order, claiming that there is reason to believe that the ABS-CBN franchise has been involved in illegal activities. To this day, all “evidence” has been proven false.

The citizens’ freedom of speech, their freedom of the press, their freedom to express their criticisms toward the government are being taken from them little by little

How is it that for a country lauded to have the “liveliest and freest” press in Asia, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, is also one of the most dangerous for journalists (dropping every year on the World Press Freedom index since Duterte was elected)? How is it that for a country that values honesty and realism let a man take down one of the only major media sources we had willing to defend our press rights?

This is not merely a show of power. Duterte has robbed millions of citizens of their main source of entertainment and news in the midst of a pandemic, during a time when they need it the most. He has robbed what for a lot of people is their only source of media. And that’s without the implications of the value for society of having a free press.

The story of one Filipino journalist — Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and Time’s Person of the Year 2018 — tells us a lot about Duterte’s approach to the media. Ressa had to post bail a whopping eight times, facing many charges ranging from libel to tax evasion. And now, his courts — this month — have successfully convicted Ressa of cyber libel. She was convicted for an article she did not write, edit, or supervise. The crime that she allegedly committed did not even exist when the article was published according to many news sources.

This is all because Duterte did not like how he was portrayed by Ressa. She said that being in the frontline as a war correspondent is easier than fighting for press freedom in the Philippines. “At least when you’re in a war zone, the gunfire’s coming from one side and you know how to protect yourself,” she said in a 2019 CNN article.

He has called reporters lowlifes, vultures and sons of bitches. He urged ABS-CBN to promote his political agenda, and when it was not obeyed, he blocked the agency’s franchise renewal. He paid money ($200,000 to be exact) to deploy bot accounts, flooding social media to attack the opposition and to spread his agenda according to a report from the University of Oxford. He even imprisoned journalists, blocking those who wrote stories he did not approve of as seen with Maria Ressa.

At least when you’re in a war zone, the gunfire’s coming from one side and you know how to protect yourself

Maria Ressa, journalist and CEO of Rappler

If these things are not a violation of press rights, I don’t know what is.

Home country, although I want to say that Ressa was the only journalist who had to face false accusations because of her reporting, we have seen many news sources censored and reporters prosecuted in the name of media manipulation.

Somehow, despite how dangerous it is to be a journalist in my home country, I have always wanted to be one. I have always wanted to report the truth, give support to those who need it, and expose those who should be exposed. Though it’s hard and nerve-wracking, I have a duty as a Filipino citizen and journalist to uphold my rights and fight. 

Now, an anti-terror bill is looming over our heads. While ridding the country of terrorists is initially a good idea, the anti-terror bill and its vagueness threaten anyone who would dare say anything negative about the government, giving the government more freedom to imprison more reporters.  Home Country, we should help share this information with everyone we can. We should direct them to petitions and rallies that fight against the anti-terror bill so innocent reporters and regular civilians would not have the power to wrongly imprison and punish them. We should shout, louder than we have ever before because we never know until we cannot anymore. Activism and spreading the truth should never be criminal.

Feature image courtesy of Franz Lopez Photography