It has been widely acclaimed by academics and media watchdogs that the Philippines has the freest media system in Southeast Asia (Beltran, 2017; Brooten, 2011; Rosenberg, 1974; Smith, 1996). Journalists have traditionally enjoyed freedom of expression by actively critiquing government decisions (Siebert et al., 1956). And in the age of information technology, the Philippines’ prolific rise in internet users should theoretically enable all individuals to participate in a public sphere (Habermas, 1992; Beltran, 2017). But is total media freedom always a good, realistic practice in all contexts? (Huntington and Nelson, 1976). In actuality, is it threatened by repressive powers taking advantage of platforms, thus monopolising the representation of voices (Morozov, 2012)? Taking the case of the Philippines, what does this mean for its media development and the co-existence of media and democracy?
Does Media Freedom Still Exist?
In 1972 former president Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law over all newspaper, radio and television stations within the country (Rosenberg, 1974). Journalists criticising the Marcos administration were silenced and killed, and public civil liberties were taken away, which Marcos argued was the “necessary price Filipinos must pay for social order and economic progress” (ibid: 472). By this virtue, the media were no longer able to perform their watchdog function, which is where journalists could hold the government accountable for their actions – a concept which Siebert et al. (1956) associated with the social responsibility of the media. According to Rosenberg (1974), media freedom no longer existed.
Despite the ban being officially lifted in 1981, which Smith (1996) defines as the transition from “liberalisation” towards “democratic consolidation”, the extent to which this has had an overall success for media democracy and development is questionable. Perhaps this reflects political scientists Huntington and Nelson’s (1976) theory on how press freedom may not always be attainable, particularly for fragile states in transitional processes. With President Duterte’s current ‘War on Drugs’ campaign, is the state of media in the Philippines now entering a new stage of authoritarianism?
Violence and the Culture of Impunity
Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ is his government’s initiative to crackdown on the number of drug users in the Philippines. A story covered recently by Al Jazeera reveals CCTV footage capturing the killing of a seventeen-year-old boy by the police (Image 1). The violence itself is common with the thousands of killings in the fifteen-month campaign thus far, but the way audiences find out about it is unusual. This lack of reporting is not by mere lack of media interest or journalism training but lack of capacity. Individuals critiquing Duterte’s tactics are being silenced through contemporary strategies such as false news fabrication, as this Channel 4 report explores. The report also exposes Duterte’s influence on alternative media. For example, Margaux Uson previously used her blog “Mocha Uson Blog” as a platform to discuss sexual topics: she now “talks about Duterte” as a “self-confessed volunteer for the present administration” (Beltran, 2017: 71). This highlights an interesting parallel between the ways in which Marcos and Duterte have denied alternative, critical voices into the public sphere, and embodies Morozov’s critique of press freedom whereby repressive powers can use the media as a power-enhancing tool, reproducing further inequalities by refusing alternative opinions freedom of expression, which is arguably vital for democratic progression (Habermas, 1992).
Violence towards journalists has also been relatively common in Philippine media history (Brooten, 2011). In her comparison between the militarisation of Burmese and Philippino media, Brooten (2011) illustrates the burning down of ‘Radyo Cagayano’ in 2006, a community radio station whose group of attackers remained unpunished (Image 2). “Now it’s not in operation”, which “is really instructive on the lack of democracy in the Philippines” (ibid: 232). However, she also draws upon this idea of ‘structural violence’ which considers how layers of political and economic inequality accounts for this culture of impunity. Arguably, media reformers have too often been concerned with journalist safety and training and press freedom, as we have mostly discussed, where the focus should really be on the larger, structural factors behind why violence against the media and democracy exists at all.
Arguably, media reformers have too often been concerned with journalist safety and training and press freedom, where the focus should really be on the larger, structural factors behind why violence against the media and democracy exists entirely.
What does this mean for media development?
Where the Philippines was supposedly meant to have the freest press in its region, it has instead highlighted the challenges of pursuing press freedom in an environment experiencing unstable political transitions (Huntington and Nelson, 1976). Evidently, it also exposes dangers for democracy, particularly when powerful elites take advantage of the platform, influencing contemporary media, such as bloggers, to support them. (Morozov, 2012). Therefore, I am inclined to agree with Brooten (2011) that it is increasingly vital to be considering long term, structural problems initially, before addressing shorter term issues if we want to protect the co-existence of media and democracy.
Beltran, J. (2017). The Emergence of the Philippine “Anti-Media”: The Duterte Factor. Jurnal ILMU KOMUNIKASI, 14(1), pp.61-74.
Brooten, L. (2011). Media, Militarization, and Human Rights: Comparing Media Reform in the Philippines and Burma. Communication, Culture & Critique, 4(3), pp.229-249.
Habermas, J. (1992). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into A Category Of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press
Huntington, S. and Nelson, J. (1976). No Easy Choice. [S.l.]: Harvard University Press.
Morozov, E. (2012). The New Delusion. New York: Public Affairs, pp.ix-xvii.
Rosenberg, D. (1974). Civil Liberties and the Mass Media under Martial Law in the Philippines. Pacific Affairs, 47(4), pp.472-484.
Siebert, F. S., Peterson, T., and Schramm, W. (1956), Four Theories of the Press, Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
Smith, D. (1996). Democracy and the media in developing countries – The case of the Philippines. University of Leeds.