Reporters without Borders (RSF) is right to express outrage over President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s remarks on the murders of Filipino journalists. Its call for Philippine media to boycott his press conferences is dead wrong. So is the suggestion to use the law on defamation (libel or slander in this country) against Mr. Duterte.
The international organization was reacting to this particular line of Mr. Duterte: If you’re not a bad journalist, you won’t get killed. That was a line repeated thrice in his rambling harangue, each time said with greater intensity.
Media did not misinterpret, Mr. Duterte, nor take him out of context.
Read: Lawyering for the killers of journalists
Media groups, in their investigations into the 174 murders of journalists, have pointed out allegations of corruption against some of the victims and the unjust economic systems in media that make colleagues vulnerable to corruption.
There are laws that cover erring media practitioners. Murder is a crime; there is no excuse for it.
Most journalist victims died in the line of duty. It is not true that only the bad eggs are hunted.
Most victims were murdered for exposing corruption and actions threatening local communities, including human rights violations, the sale of narcotics, the proliferation of illegal gambling, illegal logging and abusive mining practices.
When state agents commit the crime – and majority of suspects in the killings of journalists are active or retired law enforces, and local officials and/or their henchmen – the situation grows worse.
Hundreds of human rights workers, judges, political activists and environmentalists have been slain for many of the same issues that journalists die for.
There is no downplaying the gravity of Mr. Duterte’s statements.
But for RSF to suggest that Philippine media organizations bring defamation lawsuits against Mr. Duterte is mind-boggling.
“Duterte should nonetheless be pleased by the existence of these laws because without them he would also be exposed to violent repercussions, according to his own words. We urge organizations that represent the media to not overlook comments of this kind and to bring lawsuits. We also urge the media to boycott the Duterte administration’s news conferences until the media community gets a public apology.” — RSF
Hasn’t RSF kept track of our long campaign to decriminalize libel? Did it not monitor the threat represented by the Anti-Cybercrime Law, which increases the penalty for the crime?
I do not want this used on me, on citizen journalists, or the 40 million Filipinos on social media.Why would I use it against a critic, even if he happens to be the President-elect?
I am a member, formerly chairperson, of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), which campaigns to drop libel as a crime. Around the world, media groups are battling to decriminalize defamation. RSF should know that.
The late Jun Pala’s family, on the other hand, or other heirs of slain journalists, can choose this course.
Grounds for boycott?
A boycott by journalists is tantamount to a strike against both news sources and the people we serve.
A media boycott should be used only when our physical safety or ability to gather, process and disseminate the news, are in direct danger due to the actions of news sources.
The President-elect’s remarks present a general danger — especially if people with axes to grind see his views as a green light to go after journalists perceived as erring. These remarks do not yet represent a direct threat as, say, censorship does.
His catcalling and leering, however, are direct threats to well-being of women reporters — that is why there are laws on sexual harassment in the workplace.
Mr Duterte MUST apologize with no excuses for that, and pledge not to display such behavior. GMA7 reporter Mariz Umali has enough grounds to file a legal complaint. RSF did not mention her case.
Mr. Duterte uses extremely colorful language. But other chiefs of state, including outgoing President Benigno Aquino III have used similar lines. That does not excuse the President-elect. And media groups have spoken up as they always have.
The Philippine media did not boycott former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when they directly attacked us.
The first pressured owners of one national daily into selling it to his political allies. Mr. Estrada also prodded business cronies to boycott a hard-hitting newspaper.
Mrs. Arroyo took on emergency powers, padlocking a newspaper and arresting outspoken critics. The Armed Forces and the police went around the country, providing schools and communities with a list of “enemies of the state” – which included the name media organizations, including the NUJP.
The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos closed down media, except for a few outfits owned by cronies.
Impunity’s throwback loop
Through all these years, Filipino journalists slugged it out with the powers-that-be. Even under the dictatorship, we put up underground press units and alternative media outfits.
We continued to cover Mr. Estrada and Mrs. Arroyo, not allowing their actions to cow us.
In 2014, on the fifth anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) came out with a report. I wrote a piece what perpetrates impunity in this country. I scoured files going back to the early 2000s. Here are excerpts from that article:
“It is 2014 and I’m looking at reports, articles, talks and papers from 2004. Few things have changed. Indeed, every incident of violence perpetrated against journalists and almost every official statement on the issue by the incumbent President hurl those working for press freedom into a never-ending #throwback loop….
Mr. Aquino has tried to downplay the 33 murders of journalists under his watch, insulting the victims while at it.
‘When we say ‘media killing,’ usually (we refer to) agents of the state suppressing the search for the truth . . . but many of them, we can say, were not in pursuit of the profession,’ said the President, citing love triangles and extortion as possible motives.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) notes the poor solution rate for the 33 murders under Aquino’s term, with arrests only for six of these cases. Yet here was the land’s highest official, who often presents his administration as righteous, providing an old, discredited spin to a long-festering problem.
Mrs. Arroyo and leaders of the Philippine National Police (PNP) then also repeatedly blamed media victims for the killings, hinting at “shady backgrounds,” corruption and messy personal lives.
Then and now: Top government officials refusing to acknowledge that murder has become a routine response by powerful individuals and groups who come under a harsh media spotlight.
Then and now: Top government officials ignoring the roots of the problem, instead, hinting that murders could decrease if journalists eased up on their duties as watchdogs of society.”
We owe the people
And now we face Mr. Duterte.
A boycott is not just between media and Mr Duterte. A boycott does not just affect the incomes of media workers or the profits of our employers.
A boycott would hurt most the people we serve. Our people, RSF.
In this day and age, Mr Duterte can take to the Internet and record daily ramblings for the people to watch. He could very well bypass media.
But that would not be real communication. It could become a one-way monologue or he could impose a controlled platform, where only supporters get to ask sacharine questions. Filipinos know about that; we saw that during the dictatoship.
RSF is wrong. Filipino journalists owe the people our coverage of Mr. Duterte. We owe them, his fans and critics, the duty of asking the tough questions.
We cannot criticize if we abandon the task of asking those hard questions. We cannot educate, nor explain, if we stop prodding and investigating contradictions between words and actions. And we won’t be able to give Filipinos the good news – and there are many positive pronouncements and actions from Mr. Duterte – if we ignore his existence.
This is not a playground brawl. This is a fight for press freedom and free expression; a fight against impunity. This is not just about journalists, because those two rights are intertwined with other basic rights due to all citizens of this republic.
Media is a reflection of the society it serves. Where we get killed, others, too, face the guns. And they struggle on, as we in media should.
Impunity rides high when society confers too much power on select individuals and groups and imposes too little accountability on them. The murders of journalists in the Philippines will go on so long as governments continue to confound calls for transparency, so long as the corrupt and abusive wield the silence of the graveyard in response to expressions of the people’s democratic aspirations.
Opaque systems and selective imposition of justice, not to mention a weak justice system that makes sitting ducks of whistleblowers and witnesses, fueled and continue to fuel conditions that constrict press freedom – and all other freedoms — in the Philippines.
We will slug it out. We will soldier on. And while at it, we will give credit to Mr. Duterte when he gets it right even as we stand our ground when he is wrong.