A Philippine court recently acquitted Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her media company, Rappler, of tax evasion charges that were filed during the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. While this move is a step in the right direction, it may not fully alleviate concerns regarding media freedom in one of Asia's oldest democracies.
Assessing the Philippine government's commitment to upholding media freedom is not a complex task. The nation consistently ranks among the harshest environments for media professionals. Shockingly, media figures are openly assassinated with impunity. Despite its professed dedication to safeguarding media practitioners, the government continues to exert tight control over the dissemination of truth and the expression of dissenting ideas, especially those that challenge state propaganda.
Regulatory measures, particularly those enforced through taxation and licensing laws, are frequently employed to impose prior restraint. The situation has devolved into a glaring display of hypocrisy.
Evidently, a significant faction within today's government displays a strong aversion to free and independent media. Investigative journalism finds itself increasingly marginalized as if the right to report factual information is a privilege that can only be granted by those in authority when they see fit. This climate of intimidation has led the public to question the indispensability of media freedom, a crucial element for a thriving democracy.
Amidst various government claims, including the perceived threat of communism and other justifications for authoritarian ordinances, the enduring and acrimonious battle for media freedom looms as a significant impediment to the nation's democratic ambitions. The situation is exemplified by the appalling number of media practitioners killed while exposing corruption in government, and also cases like that of Rappler’s Maria Ressa where independent media outlets are targeted by the state for censure or closure.
Taxation as a Repression Tool
The imposition of taxation laws on media outlets has emerged as a convenient tool for the government to restrict media freedom. While the notion of a universal "taxation for all businesses" principle may appear equitable on the surface, the government's selective and vindictive filing of tax evasion charges against legitimate media enterprises prompts a more comprehensive evaluation of this issue. This entails a sincere reflection on the pivotal role that independent media plays in a democracy, ultimately leading to its recognition as an integral, legalized, and sanctioned fourth estate within the government framework.
The significance of the media as the “fourth estate” is reduced to a mere cliché when the government can effectively silence any publication, news website, or broadcasting network by merely raising tax issues against them. This amounts to allowing arbitrary censorship, granting the government not only the authority to control the information being reported but also to determine which media companies can continue to operate. Such power undoubtedly aligns with the agenda of authoritarian regimes.
Using taxation as a means to stifle media organizations that challenge propaganda is actually an important chapter in the authoritarian's playbook. This practice should raise significant concerns, especially in a country like the Philippines, where the integrity of the rule of law is fragile, and the judiciary is susceptible to political pressures. A single tax evasion charge can serve as a powerful drain on already struggling radio stations or "mosquito press" publications, depleting their resources and hindering their ability to fulfill their journalistic duties.
Restraint in All its Forms
Government actions that hinder media from disseminating factual, accurate, informative, appropriate, and ethical content should be deemed illegal. But it's hardly the case here. The opposition, if any, is backed on the defensive. The system is skewed so that the ones in power pay no price for curtailing legitimate reporting, and even gain from such actions.
Supposed "legitimate reasons" for imposing restrictions on the media, including those that pertain to national security, are so overused, they are turning out to be mere excuses. There's a consistent failure to strike a balance, with the protection of state interests consistently prevailing over the public's right to know. This has culminated in a disconcerting trend where nearly the entire bureaucracy, for example, opts to permit and normalize the granting of lump sum (in the billions) "confidential funds" to politicians, while reputable news outlets like ABS-CBN and Rappler face the threat of being shut down for the most minute misinterpretations in financial disclosures.
Beyond taxation, the Philippine government employs an array of other tactics to curtail media freedom. Accreditation, licensing, and franchising rights have all become convenient tools for the government to shut down media outlets at will. Lawsuits like libel, copyright infringement, or the anti-wiretapping law, burden numerous media organizations and journalists with exorbitant legal fees, diverting their focus and resources away from reporting.
Corrupt politicians can simply buy out media outlets or influence their ownership structures by pressuring these to sell proprietary shares to cronies acting as proxies. Once under state influence, media companies lose their impartiality and become compliant mouthpieces for the government's agenda of suppressing dissent through disinformation. What are otherwise credible public institutions for education, fact-finding, and truth dissemination turn into vehicles of falsehood and manipulative propaganda meant to preserve a predominantly corrupt status quo.
Applying economic pressure, particularly through advertising, is another tool employed by the government to restrain media freedom. Since many media outlets heavily depend on advertising revenues to sustain operations, government officials use advertising contracts to gain control and manipulate media outlets. Government can buy "air time" or advertising spaces and then delay the payments for these, thereby starving media companies of much-needed cash flow. On the other hand, corrupt bureaucrats can sometimes "reward" media with substantial advertising contracts and pay in the millions of pesos, expecting the recipient publication or broadcast network to be indebted and beholden to them afterwards. These economic tactics often place media outlets in compromised positions, where they are forced to comply with the government's directives or risk financial ruin.
This is aside from the usual anti-media arsenal of the government. The powers to censor, suspend air-time, padlock printing presses, regulate content, and issue gag orders and other restrictive policies are used exhaustively, almost at a whim, to the extent that the media's ability to serve as an independent watchdog is significantly infringed on.
On top of it all, the government's got its goons, the police and military whose loyalties are not to the Constitution, but to the ruling elite. Journalists in the Philippines who expose government corruption face genuine threats to their safety and livelihoods from these elements. In numerous documented instances, they are subjected to intimidation, harassment, and violence orchestrated by state forces acting at the behest of agitated politicians operating in the shadows. Many cases of violence against media practitioners remain unsolved, the perpetrators rarely facing justice.
The government's message to investigative journalists is unmistakable: "Silence yourself, or we will silence you."
In recent years, the Philippine government has harnessed the power of the internet to propagate false propaganda. With the expenditure of substantial sums of taxpayers' money to assemble 'troll armies,' it has effectively weaponized social media to spread false narratives, deceptive news articles, fabricated visuals and videos, unfounded rumors, and disinformation campaigns. This concerted effort has sown confusion among the public, elevated members of the kleptocracy, and tarnished the reputations of political opposition figures and media professionals committed to uncovering the truth. It is, plainly, state-sponsored hatred aimed at those who champion truth and integrity in governance.
Fake news campaigns are primarily intended to glorify corrupt public officials, while promoting hate towards members of the opposition and legitimate media organizations that are trying to expose corruption. Moreover, media outlets are compelled to allocate resources away from investigative journalism toward fact-checking and combating false propaganda. Funded by taxpayers, the liars' machinery is making it ever more difficult to get facts through.
For journalists, it is disheartening to witness how the government exacerbates societal divisions through deliberate disinformation, rather than upholding the truth and promoting education. The resultant ignorance, confusion and cognitive dissonance is causing millions of citizens to reject facts and embrace falsehoods. The media's solemn duty to inform the public about matters of importance is becoming increasingly thankless, taking a backseat to the narratives of the deceivers in power.
A Vocation for the Honest and the Brave
Undoubtedly, in the Philippines, a nation that claims democracy as its foundation, the battle for media freedom persists. Realizing the magnitude of the struggle, rather than shame or dismay, honor should be bestowed upon those who remain steadfast in their pursuit of what is just and right despite the gargantuan challenges.
Three cheers, then, for the champions of truth! The investigative journalists, the reporters, the broadcasters, the publishers, and media entities whose sole allegiance is to the truth––these are heroes to be honored. We owe a lot to defiant media establishments like Rappler, Bulatlat, and Altermidya that, against tremendous odds, deliver much-needed facts is such confusing times. And in granting this kudos, let us not leave out the often unsung heroes, the fearless lawyers who confront repressive laws and defend, not only the rights of journalists but all human rights, as they work side by side with media practitioners to assert the freedoms we should enjoy in a democracy.
Equally commendable are the skilled and noble spirits who dedicate their days to forging solidarity for the cause of upholding the truth––those behind esteemed organizations like the NUJP (National Union of Journalists of the Philippines), PCIJ (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism), Ibon Foundation, IMS (International Media Support), IFJ (International Federation of Journalists), Freedom House, TI (Transparency International), and the United Nations' OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights).
These individuals and groups are genuine heroes. They are the ones who keep it real, dispelling the illusions, so that the people of this nation may hold power to account.
The recent acquittal of Maria Ressa on tax evasion charges may be seen as a modest victory, just one battle in a protracted and challenging war. Yet, for those who have fought and continue to fight for media freedom, the struggle itself is its own reward. Their struggle defines their character and, as such, underscores their commitment to good moral values. And there is a calling now for people who are made of such stuff.
The more corrupt the government, the more extreme its measures to silence critical media outlets. Sadly, this correlation is manifesting at alarming levels, with no improvement in sight. The Philippines, currently ranking as the 7th most dangerous country for media practitioners, is also among the world's most corrupt nations, sitting at 64th place out of 180 countries, with the situation deteriorating annually. This situation only worsen if no one fights back.
At its core, this is a fight for the truth—the truth unearthed through courage and hard work; the truth enshrined in the Constitution; the truth that should be shared with all, as it should be known by all. This is a war between those who have sworn to uphold the truth at all costs and those who have pledged their allegiance to the Devil, the Father of Lies. And it is a fight that will rage on until the end of time.