State of free expression under Marcos Jr. ‘not any better’ – journos, artists

Story by A.C.M.

Leading up to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), artist and media workers groups discussed the declining state of free expression under the current administration in a public forum yesterday, July 19 at Alcantara Hall, UP Diliman.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), Altermidya and other media advocacy outfits organized the forum, formerly known as the “State of the Media Address.” 

The Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) raised the condition of cultural expression in the country to open the event. 

CAP Secretary-General Prof. Lisa Ito-Tapang highlighted three major attacks on the cultural sector: censorship of books and demolition of monuments,  rampant red-tagging of education and media institutions and surveillance and harassment of cultural artists and workers. 

She also compared the Marcos Jr. administration with that of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

“If Duterte abused the privilege of power to freely, very loosely [exercising] free speech to enable misogyny, human rights violations and red-tagging, the opposite is happening with Marcos Jr. but not in a good way,” she said.

Meanwhile, Janess Ann Ellao of the International Association of Women on Radio and Television presented the state of women journalists in the Philippines

According to Ellao, one-fifth of the press freedom violations committed under the Marcos Jr. administration involved women journalists, most of whom have been subjected to red-tagging. 

Some women community journalists also face trumped up charges. Frenchie Mae Cumpio has been detained in Tacloban since 2020 for alleged illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Others like Margarita Valle, who was wrongfully arrested in 2019, face pending appeals carried over from the previous administration. 

National Coordinator of Altermidya Network Avon Ang further emphasized that attacks against the media such as harassment, red-tagging and coverage restrictions persist under Marcos Jr. 

Last June, a resolution from the Kalinga Provincial Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (PTF-ELCAC) tagged CEGP, NUJP and the Northern Dispatch as “sectoral front organizations” of the Communist Party of the Philippines. 

The PTF-ELCAC resolution, thus, mandated these new groups to secure permits before conducting activities, hindering journalistic work in North Luzon. 

‘Yung freedom of the press, ‘yung freedom of expression, laging nakaugat din sa ano ‘yung mga conditions na umiiral para i-violate yung karapatan nila,” Ang said about the connection between the issues that community journalists cover and the attacks against them.

On the campus press, Brell Lacerna of CEGP highlighted the “intensified” digital censorship that student publications face as they shift towards online reportage. Lacerna mentioned a recent case where posts of student publications across universities on the death of Jose Maria Sison were taken down following troll attacks.

Lacerna added that, on top of being targets of red-tagging from the state, campus publications grapple with “increasing administrative intervention” which leads to defunding amid tuition fee hikes in private colleges and universities.

Ang buhay ng mga publikasyon ay pondo at ito ang kasalukuyang krisis na kinakaharap ng mga publikasyon,” Lacerna said.

Overall, there have been 79 documented attacks on journalists in the country under the rule of Marcos Jr., from June 30, 2022 to July 17, 2023 as per Ronalyn Olea, Secretary General of NUJP. 

Olea added that this situation on ground has been far from the “big words” that Marcos Jr. said on protecting press freedom during the anniversary of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas in April. 

Fighting back

Despite the persistence of attacks on free expression and free press, participating groups in the public forum enjoined to continue “fighting back.”

Altermidya Chairperson Raymund Villanueva discussed current efforts of media groups in preparation for the visitation of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Irene Khan, in January next year.

While it was the Philippine government who invited Khan, Villanueva says they are pushing to be given the opportunity to discuss the current state of press freedom and freedom of expression with the special rapporteur.

Hindi natin papayagan ang estado na siya lang ang magsabi kung ano ang kalagayan ng freedom of expression sa Pilipinas. Hindi natin sila papayagan na i-monopolize yung diskurso. Hindi sila ang magde-define dahil sila ang violators [ng human rights],” Villanueva emphasized.

After the visitation, Khan will report to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, who in turn will present her report to the wider UN Human Rights Council.

Villanueva says this initiative will push the Philippine government to address the human rights violations rampant in the country.

Meanwhile, artists and  media advocacy groups continue their call to defend the freedom of the press and of expression.

“We call on fellow artists and cultural workers to continue to collectively make art and culture that tells the truth about the Filipino people’s realities and struggles,” Prof. Ito-Tapang of CAP said, adding that art’s purpose is “not to entertain, but to confront realities.”

For the campus press, Lacerna stressed that CEGP remains committed in their campaigns to ensure the autonomy of publications and to provide sufficient funding for them.

Olea of NUJP emphasized that freedom of the press and of expression will continue being asserted, building on the hope brought by the attendance of student publications in the forum.

Mataas po ang aming pag-asa dahil may mga bagong henerasyon ng mga kabataang magpapatuloy ng ating paglaban para sa katotohanan at para sa free expression,” Olea said.