The Philippine media are extremely vibrant despite the government’s targeted attacks and constant harassment, since 2016, of journalists and media outlets that are too critical.
Radio and TV are the most popular media and, of these, the gigantic GMA-7 television network has an audience share of nearly 50%. Its main competitor, the ABS-CBN network, was stripped of its franchise in 2020 but continues to broadcast online, where its presence is growing. The print media are losing momentum, even if the Philippine Daily Inquirer is still the newspaper of record, now driven by its digital version, Inquirer.net. The Rappler site, founded in 2012 by Nobel peace laureate Maria Ressa, has established a stable readership on the internet and social media. Once dominant regional newspapers such as the Sunstar Baguio and the Visayan Daily Star are struggling to survive without a strong online presence.
The election of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as president in June 2022 was very unsettling for most Filipino journalists because of the reputation of his father, the former dictator and “historic” press freedom predator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. The six-year term of Bongbong’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, was marked by Duterte’s numerous verbal attacks against journalists coupled with judicial harassment targeting any media deemed overly critical of the government. During Duterte’s term, congress refused to renew the ABS-CBN network’s franchise in 2020, leading to the closure of dozens of radio stations and TV channels. Several news websites, such as the Altermidya network sites, were also the targets of cyberattacks by pro-Duterte trolls, which could lead to their suspension. There seem to have been fewer and less violent attacks of this kind since Bongbong Marcos became president but they are still worrisome.
The 1987 Constitution guarantees freedom of the press but, in practice, Philippine law does not protect the free exercise of journalism. Defamation is still criminalised and the journalist Maria Ressa faces the possibility of several decades in prison as a result of legal actions brought by several government agencies. Her acquittal in a tax evasion case in January 2023 was seen as an encouraging development. But the government uses laws relating to media ownership and taxation to harass critical media such as the Rappler site.
Mainstream media ownership has recently reached even greater levels of concentration than in the past – a development accompanied by closer ties between media owning families and political barons at regional and national levels. The ABS-CBN / GMA duopoly is now being challenged by a third media giant, the Villar family’s Villar Group, which is openly affiliated with President Duterte's clan. Journalists working for this kind of media outlet have little editorial autonomy, self-censorship is the rule and respect for journalistic ethics is not guaranteed. The internet and social media offer a space where many independent media can work freely but their economic viability is uncertain.
Under Duterte, who was nicknamed the “Punisher”, journalists who tried to cover his expeditious “war on drugs” were the target of the worst attacks. In this respect, the policy of his successor, Bongbong Marcos, is more consensual. But the authorities still often resort to “red-tagging” – a practice inherited from the colonial era and the Cold War, whereby journalists who do not toe the government line are branded as “subversive elements” or “reds”, which amounts to pointing them out to law enforcement as legitimate targets for arbitrary arrest or, worse still, summary execution. Frenchie Mae Cumpio, a female journalist arrested in February 2020, is still being held in a prison in the south of the county on the basis of evidence fabricated by the police.
The Philippines is one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists – as seen most shockingly when 32 reporters were massacred in the southern province of Maguindanao in 2009 – and impunity for these crimes is almost total. In an attempt to address this issue, the government set up a Presidential Task Force on Media Security in 2016 but this inter-ministerial body has proved unable to stem the vicious cycle of violence against journalists. At the regional level, many journalists are the targets of threats and lawsuits, while women journalists are subjected to specific gender-based threats – threats of rape, cyber-harassment, disclosure of personal details and so on.