Analysts cite threats to freedom of information under Marcos

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By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

JOURNALISTS and civil society groups should work together to counter threats to freedom of information, analysts said on Sunday, as they flagged increasing efforts to erode public trust in legacy media.

“Journalism cannot function when it is under attack, much less when it is absent,” said Danilo A. Arao, who teaches journalism at the University of the Philippines.

“Since press freedom is a cornerstone of democracy, and some would argue that it is democracy itself, the struggle should be multi-sectoral in character,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The international community and local groups have warned that efforts to erode trust in traditional media and disinformation campaigns could become more widespread in the coming years.

They cited how presumptive President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. avoided tough questions from journalists during the campaign period.

His contempt for media could pose serious risks for democracy in the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.

“Ignoring critical publications is bad enough, but Marcos, Jr. will have tools at his disposal to muzzle the media in a manner that the elder Marcos, no supporter of press freedom, could only dream of,” it said.

“Real vigilance is needed from donor countries and rights-respecting governments. They, along with journalist associations in the Philippines and around the globe, need to be prepared to push back against Marcos administration inroads against media freedom and critical reporting.”

Marcos spokesman Victor D. Rodriguez did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

Mr. Arao noted how the civil society played a key role in demanding accountability for the deaths of more than 30 Filipino journalists in Maguindanao province in southern Philippines in 2009, and how various groups expressed solidarity with ABS-CBN Corp. after President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s allies in Congress rejected its bid to have its franchise renewed.

“We expect nothing less in the near future as a Marcos presidency looms.”

“Media and civil society should collaborate to fight disinformation and push back against possible threats to press freedom and perceived opacity of government,” said Zyza Nadine Suzara, executive director of the Institute for Leadership, Empowerment and Democracy.

“This should be seen in the broader fight for transparency and accountability, which are hallmarks of democratic governance,” she said in a Messenger chat.

In its report, Human Rights Watch noted how Victor D. Rodriguez, Mr. Marcos’ spokesman and soon to be executive secretary, repeatedly ignored questions from a journalist about a contempt order in the US against the incoming Philippine president.

This was not the first time the Marcos camp had mistreated the reporter from news website Rappler, Inc., noting that the same person had been shoved aside and blocked by the frontrunner’s bodyguards during a campaign rally.

HRW said a correspondent of BBC had received death threats online after he tweeted a video of him asking Mr. Marcos about his refusal to participate in presidential debates.

Mr. Rodriguez has said they would allow vloggers to cover the presidential palace once Mr. Marcos becomes president.

Watchdogs earlier criticized the Marcos camp for restricting journalists during the campaign trail, while giving online influencers special treatment.

“The media plays an important role in ensuring that the climate for the exercise of meaningful participation of the people and civil society is realized and expanded for dynamic public engagement,”  the Council for People’s Development and Governance said in a Messenger chat.

It said nongovernment groups would always ensure that press freedom, access to information and the work of journalists and other media workers are protected and upheld at all times.

“In these trying times, we need the highest level of unity based on the common stand to defend whatever is left of our democracy,” Mr. Arao said. “We cannot accept the normalization of disinformation and corruption.”

Journalists play a key role in reporting on potential corruption in government infrastructure projects, said Terry L. Ridon, convenor of think tank InfraWatch. Mr. Marcos is expected to continue President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s Build, Build, Build program.

“A free press is not a luxury,” the World Bank said in a report. “It is at the core of equitable development.”

Media can keep a check on public policy by throwing a spotlight on government action, it said. “They let people voice diverse opinions on governance and reform, and help build public consensus to bring about change. Such media help markets work better.“

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