Remembering the Maguindanao massacre, media reps hold webinar on press freedom in PHL

Last November 22, DAKILA presented Speaking Truth to Power: The Future of Press Freedom in the Philippines. Through DAKILA’s Active Vista Center, in partnership with Rappler, Asian Center for Journalism (ACJ) at Ateneo and in support of the Embassy of the Netherlands in the Philippines, the forum commenced via Facebook Live and Zoom in commemoration of the Maguindanao massacre, which happened on the morning of November 23, 2009. 

Shedding light on the issues on press freedom, the webinar featured ACJ Columnist and Rappler Editorial Consultant John Nery; ABS-CBN News Public Service Bayan Mo, Ipatrol Mo Head Rowena Carranza Paraan; National Union of Journalists of the Philippines President Jonathan De Santos; and multi-awarded documentary photographer Ezra Acayan as speakers. 

A ‘display of power’

Luz  Rimban, ACJ executive director, opened the forum by remembering what is dubbed one of the worst tragedies in the history of Philippine journalism. Twelve years later, the massacre continues to serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers that come with the title of “journalist”. Saska De Lang, ambassador to the Philippine Embassy of The Netherlands, followed Rimban’s remarks with a hopeful note in establishing The Netherlands’ collective effort in protecting the rights of journalists worldwide.

Starting the discussion by expounding on ABS-CBN’s shutdown in May of last year, Paraan expressed how the discontinued franchise has drastically affected the pillars of press freedom. “It was [a] display of power with the message that if you fight the government, they can shut you down no matter how big you are,”  she emphasizes. Paraan also discussed the side effects of this display of power, easily suppressing anyone that speaks ill or expresses criticism toward those with greater influence.

Furthermore, the disenfranchisement of ABS-CBN seemed to have also affected the masses along with the journalists and staff who were abruptly unemployed. As Typhoon Rolly (Goni) made its landfall last November 2020, the loss of regional networks and radio stations left the cities in the path of the storm clueless. This left those with limited power, signal, and coverage to be caught off guard.

Challenges amid the pandemic

While there are fewer journalists killed under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte as compared to earlier administrations, this does not mean that they are safer. 

Duterte’s constant tirades against journalists gave supporters an enemy to harass online and the spread of disinformation also jeopardizes the media’s position in conveying news and headlines. As online content virality and sensationalism supersede credibility, Nery expounded that disinformation is not necessarily believed. However, the overwhelming number of misleading content can grab our attention; this blurs the line between truth and falsehood as the former becomes less apparent.

Despite these, however, journalists continue to mobilize themselves to cover every story that needs to be shed light on. With movement amid the pandemic being limited, journalists had limited options for transportation. On top of that, compliance with health protocols also had journalists shoulder costs to safeguard themselves from exposure to the virus. While there is no shortage of dedicated journalists, Arcayan hopes that publications will continue to support their staff.

‘Speak truth with power’

With governments continuously attempting to control information dissemination, journalists observe symptoms of the erosion of truth. Apart from calling out injustices and demanding change, Nery also stated he believes we need to “speak truth with power” by joining forces with those who have the same sentiments and concerns. 

The issues journalists face today extend beyond the Duterte administration, requiring long term change and action. With this, De Santos calls for unity among different publications and news groups to work together in reporting news and promoting fact checking.

For Paraan, the right to information “belongs to the people.” Defending press freedom should be advocated for especially now, but it also involves the masses having a healthy amount of skepticism against disinformation. Any events that involve information will always affect the ordinary person after all.

Despite these challenges, De Santos is optimistic that the people can hold the line. Nery reflected on his experience as an activist during the martial law era, sharing that he never expected that it was possible to oust the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos up until the day he left the country.

“Sometimes we don’t even know if what we will do will make a difference. But if we feel compelled to do it, we should do it. We’re acting according to our conscience,” Nery concluded.

A tale of bravery

It is evident that the fight to defend press freedom is a long and arduous battle that exhausts journalists and advocates alike. 

Ian Yee, co-founder of media group The Fourth, emphasized inclusivity and the power of collective effort. To him, sharing stories of journalists is “very important” in order to empathize with the struggles that they face. Ted Alwin Ong, a freelance journalist, echoed Yee’s statement and added that journalists’ importance lies in imparting knowledge to the masses and in seeking truth. Meanwhile, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer Kristoffer Brugada said he looks ahead to revolutionizing the way investigative content is presented by the media—offering an avenue for the discourse to materialize in action.

Attacks on press freedom is an attack to the people’s constitutional right to free speech. At the same time, misinformation only perpetuates harm to the underprivileged as the price of truth is commodified by those in power. 

The fight to justice may be a long and difficult battle but complacency and silence is not an option. As the season of elections starts, journalists have the honor and  responsibility in igniting the spark of power that comes with an informed decision.

Alexandra Simone Enriquez

By Alexandra Simone Enriquez

Dustin Albert Sy

By Dustin Albert Sy

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