Philippine press freedom faces new threat from foreign influence operations: FOCAP

Jojo Riñoza
Philippine press freedom faces new threat from foreign influence operations: FOCAP Filipino journalists take part in a protest to air their concerns about threats to local journalists as they mark World Press Freedom Day in Quezon City, Metro Manila, May 3, 2024.
[Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia have added a new dimension to threats to media freedom in the Philippines including foreign-based “malign influence operations” targeting local journalists, a press watchdog group said Friday.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), which was founded in 1974 during the dark days of martial law, paid tribute on World Press Freedom Day to journalists across the globe who were carrying on with their jobs despite increased threats to their lives.

At home, FOCAP said that Philippine media workers “remain vulnerable to harassment and attacks by state agents and political actors who try to control news and information as a way to wield power.”

Since last year, the group said it observed a new threat to journalists working in the Philippines that had emerged as “malign influence operations indicative of foreign interference.”

“The organization has recorded a case of impersonation or spoofing and an uptick in messages to journalists from fake or suspicious email addresses, attempting to either extract information or skew the news agenda regarding coverage of the South China Sea,” FOCAP said in a statement it issued on Friday.

The group said at least one of its members was a victim of “two attempted hacks” traced to an unidentified government.

“The source of the threats are unclear, but FOCAP calls on journalists and the public to remain vigilant. In a heated geopolitical situation, there is no shortage of attempts to bait, influence, misrepresent, and smear the free press,” it said.

The Philippines and China are locked in a territorial dispute over the South China Sea. Lately, bilateral tensions have become heightened over frequent standoffs between Chinese coast guard ships and Filipino boats in waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.  

Pursuit of truth 

FOCAP, which groups together workers for foreign media organizations reporting in the Philippines, said it would remain “dedicated to its pursuit of the truth.”

“It will not be swayed by any threat, domestic or foreign. It will continue to record and monitor these incidents and support its members under threat or attack,” it said.

FOCAP was founded to provide critical information as the Philippines descended into chaos after then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law in 1972. His dictatorship jailed opposition figures, human rights activists, and plundered billions of U.S. dollars from the national coffers. The late Marcos ruled the Philippines for 21 years, from 1965 until 1986.

His son and namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., won the presidency in 2022 and has pledged to protect the press’ rights in reporting the truth. In a speech before FOCAP last month, he said he would not interfere with critical reporting by the press.

“Unlike my predecessors, I do not seek collaboration, for that implies a surrender of your independence,” he said during his visit to FOCAP on April 15. “I am of the opinion that national interest is better served by a press that is critical rather than a press that is cooperative.”

His immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had not been shy with his attacks against the press. 

Duterte once notoriously said that “just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” His government worked to shut down the former broadcasting giant ABS-CBN, and took to court journalist Maria Ressa, a co-founder of the independent news site Rappler. She would later win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Nobel laureate and journalist Maria Ressa speaks to reporters outside the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Philippines, Jan. 18, 2023. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

Press freedom rankings

Yet, attacks on the press have continued during Marcos Jr.’s term.  

This year, the Philippines dropped two places in the global press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a worldwide media freedom watchdog group. Manila currently ranks 134th out of 180 countries on its 2024 World Press Freedom Index.

In 2023, as Marcos Jr. marked his first year in office, the Philippines climbed to its highest ranking on the World Press Freedom Index in six years. But in its 2024 report, RSF said that “there seem to have been fewer and less violent attacks” against news outlets and journalists under the Marcos administration, “but they are still worrisome.”

“Harassment by means of threats and ‘red-tagging’ persists, while defamation and cyber-defamation are still punishable by prison sentences,” the watchdog said, referring to Filipinos tagged by the authorities as suspected communists.

Other Southeast Asian countries also fared lower on this year’s press freedom index. 

Malaysia dropped 34 notches on the index, as journalists struggled with political pressures, and news sites critical of the government were often blocked, RSF said.

Indonesia also plunged three places in this year’s rankings, as threats continued against journalists covering cases of local corruption and environmental issues, according to the Paris-based group.

Thailand was a bright spot in the rankings in 2024, climbing 19 places to rank 87th out of 180 countries, compared with its 106th position last year. However, Thai journalists said they continued to face harassment and intimidation in their coverage.

Killings continue  

Meanwhile, the Philippines remained one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters. 

While there has been progress in some high-profile cases of journalist killings in the Philippines, the masterminds in most of them are rarely arrested and imprisoned.  

Police in recent weeks have arrested and charged three suspects in the November 2023 killing of radio broadcaster Juan Jumalon, as he was broadcasting live on Facebook. 

He was the fourth member of the press killed since the start of the second Marcos administration. 

At least 199 media workers have been killed in the Philippines since the restoration of democracy in 1986, according to RSF. 

That figure includes the 32 journalists and media workers killed in one incident in 2009, described as the biggest single-day attack on the working press.

Lady Ann Salem, a journalist with the online outfit Manila Today who had been jailed for three months in 2021, said threats and harassment against journalists continued under Marcos Jr. 

Salem was arrested in a police raid along with several trade union activists who had been accused of gunrunning. The lower courts had thrown out her case, but the state appealed it. Salem’s case is now pending before Manila’s highest court. 

“There are many threats continuing against news organizations,” she told BenarNews on Friday, adding that her job had been affected because she needed to focus more on her case. “The accumulation (of these threats) really had a chilling effect so much so that we don’t know now to what degree journalists censor themselves.”

Lady Ann Salem, editor-in-chief of Manila Today, waves to reporters as she leaves a jail in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, upon her release from custody, March 5, 2021. [Handout photo/Manila Today]

Asked about Marcos’ pledge to protect the press, she replied: “I think it would be more believable if there is action behind the words.” 

Salem cited the continued detention of Frenchie Mae Cumpio, a community journalist in central Leyte province, who had been in jail since 2020 while on trial for firearms and explosives possession. 

Cumpio had repeatedly denied the allegations.

Note to readers: BenarNews and sister organization Radio Free Asia (RFA) are represented at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).


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