At a waterfront courthouse in Tacloban City, a long-time hotbed of communist insurgency in the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas island region, heavily armed guards were escorting jailed journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio to trial. The picturesque setting belied the harsh reality of the April 17 hearing. Cumpio could be put behind bars for life if found guilty of what her lawyers, family, and associates assert are trumped-up illegal arms and terror finance charges.
The 24-year-old community journalist is among the country’s most prominent victims of official “red-tagging,” the dangerous and sometimes lethal practice of wrongfully accusing journalists, activists and other perceived critics of the government and security forces of association with the banned communist National People’s Army. Her case is emblematic of the previous Rodrigo Duterte administration’s targeting of independent journalists, a campaign of threats, pressure, and lawfare that crushed media outlets and engendered a culture of self-censorship that has persisted in the year since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. won the presidency in May 2022.
“The prosecution has no legal basis for the case,” Cumpio’s lawyer, Ruben Palomino told the Committee to Protect Journalists after the April hearing – attended by CPJ representatives – was postponed because the prosecution failed to show up.
“The case is pure harassment,” said Palomino, listing alleged irregularities in the initial 2020 police raid on Cumpio’s house and subsequent inconsistent and seemingly unreliable witness testimony.
‘Better environment from hell’
Journalists, editors, and activists who spoke with CPJ representatives when they visited the Philippines in April all noted a discernible change in tone toward the press under Marcos Jr., who so far has demurred from the overt antagonism toward the media seen and felt under his populist, tough-talking predecessor.
That shift has been apparent in renewed media access to the peripatetic president’s official plane, a palpable decline in online trolling of reporters and media, and a stoppage of direct presidential criticism of the press, the same sources say.
The change, the same sources say, comes as Marcos Jr. bids to rehabilitate his family’s name and image tarnished by his father’s dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s while courting better diplomatic relations with the U.S., European Union, and Japan – a geopolitical tilt away from the Duterte government’s lean towards authoritarian China.
But that change in form, the journalists, editors and activists say, has not yet been accompanied by substantive actions to undo the damage wrought to press freedom under the Duterte administration or advance legal reforms to prevent a renewed government assault against independent journalists and media groups.
The ongoing court cases against independent news outlet Rappler and its Nobel-winning co-founder Maria Ressa are high-profile cases in point. In January, the Philippine Court of Tax Appeals acquitted Ressa – CPJ’s 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award winner – and Rappler of four out of seven tax evasion charges.
Ressa still awaits a ruling from the Supreme Court on her appeal against a previous conviction of cyber libel, which could see her jailed for nearly seven years.
Rappler editors acknowledged a discernible easing of the repression in the transition from Duterte to Marcos Jr., who “is not attacking the media” like Duterte. That, they told CPJ, has included “significantly diminished troll noise” against Rappler and its reporters, which spiked during the Duterte era.
“Generally it’s a better environment from hell,” said executive editor Gloria Glenda. “We operate not in fear, but there is always this anxiety that this isn’t going to last,” she added, particularly if news coverage becomes more critical of the Marcos Jr. administration.
A spokesman for the office of Marcos Jr., who won power on May 9 in a landslide election a year ago and was sworn in as president on June 30, said the president has vowed to protect journalists.
“As regards your concerns on the safety of journalists in the country, may we note that the Administration of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr has clearly expressed its full commitment to protect the same and uphold press freedom,” assistant secretary Clemencia Cabugayan wrote in response to CPJ’s request to meet with the president.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, a local press freedom group, says Marco Jr.’s change in tone has not translated into improved conditions on the ground, particularly in provincial areas that rank among the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
The union’s research, compiling the various threats facing Filipino journalists, ranging from red-tagging to cyber libel to physical attacks, shows the 53 press freedom violations recorded during Marcos Jr.’s first year in office have outpaced the average of 41 per year during Duterte’s six-year term.
“Our colleagues on the ground still feel the pressure,” said Ronalyn Olea, the group’s secretary-general, who met CPJ wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Free Frenchie Mae Cumpio.” “There’s been no undoing of anything of how the media is treated … we’re not letting down our guard.”
Three Filipino journalists – Percival Mabasa, Renato Blanco, and Federico Gempesaw – have been murdered in connection with their work in the year since Marcos Jr. took office. Their deaths have so far tracked the woeful pattern of previous media killings in the Philippines, where CPJ research shows justice is consistently denied.
Advocates and journalists see last October’s killing of radio journalist Mabasa, known for his scathing critical political commentaries against Duterte, as a key test case of Marcos Jr.’s resolve to achieve justice and reverse the tide of impunity in media murders seen in successive administrations.
The suspected gunman has been arrested, but those charged in the assassination’s planning, top-ranking national prison system officials Gerald Bantag and Ricardo Zulueta, are on the run from pending arrest warrants. (CPJ could not reach Bantag or Zulueta for comment on the murder charges).
Roy Mabasa, Percival’s younger brother who is also a journalist, believes the real mastermind behind the killing is even more powerful than the identified suspects, he told CPJ, noting that the vast majority of the murdered journalist’s last 200 or so programs were critical of Duterte, with fewer focused on Marcos Jr. and only a handful related to Bantag.
“Percy’s killing sent a message,” said Mabasa, who articulated concerns about his own personal security for being so outspoken in his pursuit of justice for his fallen brother, including in press interviews and his radio program. “It’s a wake-up call to be vigilant about those in power.”
Editors, journalists and activists told CPJ that if Marcos Jr. moved more overtly to reverse Duterte’s wrongs against the free press, it would send an important signal that the change in tone from Malacañang, the presidential palace, is actually being backed with press freedom-protecting action and reform.
But the same sources said they are not yet convinced the president intends to dismantle the repressive machinery Duterte built and deployed to cow the media and that Marcos Jr. may remobilize it to curb critical reporting when the current press-president honeymoon period ends.
Duterte’s press freedom-eroding legacy is perhaps most clearly seen at ABS-CBN, once the country’s most widely viewed and influential news broadcaster that now operates as a shell of its former self. ABS-CBN lost its free-to-air operating franchise under Duterte, a politicized decision that forced the station to close all of its regional bureaus, shut down its current affairs shows and retrench hundreds of staff reporters.
ABS-CBN editors who spoke to CPJ said they are no longer actively pursuing a new franchise as the only available frequency has since been allocated to a political ally of Duterte, who, they say, has de-emphasized public service news for more lucrative entertainment programming.
Jeff Canoy, ABS-CBN’s chief of reporters, said the news broadcaster is still dealing with what he characterized as “complex PTSD” caused by the station’s shutdown, massive loss of staff and news departments, and discrediting of the station and its journalists by online trolls who echoed and amplified Duterte tirades against the broadcaster.
“The democratic space has become smaller because of what we lost with the franchise,” said Canoy. “And it’s opened up a lot of venues for lies and propaganda online… Many now genuinely believe mainstream journalists are now the enemy… That’s the sad reality.”
(Crispin and Beh reported from Manila and Tacloban City.)