The Philippines, where hundreds of journalists have been murdered since the fall of the Marcos regime, has become the deadliest country in Asia for journalists.
Autocratic and demagogic leaders hate journalists. We are called “enemies of the people”, “garbage”, “scum”, “downright dishonest”, or “really bad people”. Unfavourable criticisms are frequently met with the response “fake news” by leaders unable to respond intelligently. Their surrogates entangle themselves in senseless phrases such as “truth isn’t truth”, or “alternative facts”.
In their world, life for autocrats would be much simpler and quieter if the free press didn’t bother to expose corruption, injustice or untruths. But a free press is essential for democracy to flourish. Democratic countries benefit when investigative journalists courageously ferret out facts and demand accountability, even when facing persecution, imprisonment or even death for doing so.
Perhaps the most vivid recent example of a journalist suffering in pursuit of the truth is that of Jamal Khashoggi. Jamal fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 following threats to his life after publishing articles critical of the Saudi regime. On 2 October 2018, he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents relating to his planned marriage to his partner, Hatice Cengiz. He never left alive. His dismembered body was removed from the consulate in plastic sacks by Saudi personnel. The CIA concluded that the country’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, but after a long trial, the Saudi public prosecutor announced in December 2019 that five unidentified people would be sentenced to death for Khashoggi’s murder. Two senior officials, one of whom is the Crown Prince’s adviser, who is alleged to have planned and overseen the killing, were cleared of wrongdoing. In 2018, Time magazine named Jamal person of the year, referring to him as “guardian of the truth”.
Other autocrats have different methods of removing journalistic criticism. They have journalists shot or poisoned. Russia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, being also the worst at solving their murders. Since President Vladimir Putin came to power, 21 journalists have been murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist renowned for her critical coverage of Putin’s actions in the Chechen conflict. The Moscow Times reported in October 2019 that attacks on journalists had more than doubled in two years, with Russia dropping to 149th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
The Philippines, where hundreds of journalists have been murdered since the fall of the Marcos regime and very few jailed for their crimes, has become the deadliest country in Asia for journalists.
Four were murdered last year. When the current President, Rodrigo Duterte, was mayor of the conflict-ridden city of Davao, he was used to ruling with an iron fist without any criticism from the local compliant media. It came as a shock, therefore, when he became President four years ago to find that the national independent media had the temerity to question him. A macho-man, press-hating Duterte dismisses journalists as everything from “bulls**t” to “garbage”, echoing other autocrats. However, in an attempt to retain a semblance of democracy, Duterte is now drawing from a “modern autocrat’s field guide”, with the aim of complete encirclement so as to drown out critical and independent voices.
Along with Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban, Duterte has launched a two-pronged attack. The first is media muzzling through government regulation, deployment of the tax department and libel laws. The other is letting loose an army of trolls, bloggers on the state’s payroll, propagandists and paid hacks who ensure the strongman’s attacks against the press are amplified in the newspaper columns, on the air waves, on social media and fake news sites.
A suspicious tax crackdown on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a respected national newspaper and defender of free speech, led to it being sold to a friend of the President, where it has become a populist, chatty newspaper, uncritical of Duterte.
Online media platforms have become the venue for a more critical and alternative brand of journalism that began to worry Duterte. The news website, Rappler, uncovered corruption and bot armies, and documented the brutal anti-drugs campaign waged under Duterte, which the UN recently warned had led to “widespread and systematic” extrajudicial killings. Rappler’s revelation has led to an avalanche of criminal charges against its executive editor, Maria Ressa. These include cyber libel charges, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies and investigations into her old tax returns.
At one stage, Rappler’s operating licence was revoked, simply for criticising Duterte. In the words of Amal Clooney, a London barrister who represents Ressa, “Rappler has been vilified in presidential press conferences and Maria herself has received horrific misogynistic rape and death threats online simply for doing her job”.
I had the privilege of meeting Maria Ressa at the 2019 Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards in London, organised by the Human Rights champion, Bill Browder. A tearful Hatice Cengiz was also present to receive a courage award for her murdered soul-mate Jamal Khashoggi. Maria, a pint-size woman with an Everest-size personality and also a Time Magazine Personality of the Year, was given the award “Outstanding Investigative Journalist of 2019”.
She revealed that Duterte’s government had filed 11 cases in 2018 against herself and Rappler, almost one a month, just for reporting that the UN Human Rights Commission had declared the extrajudicial death toll in the Philippines to be at least 27,000 since July 2016. Last week she found herself facing six years in prison, having been found guilty of “cyber libel” charges. Amal Clooney said afterwards that the court had become “complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse”.
Journalism is under threat world-wide. At least 554 journalists were killed between 2010 and 2019. Currently, 248 are held in detention, the worst jailers being China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Attacks on the free press are rampant, with governments charging journalists with publishing fake news, raiding media organisations and implementing internet blackouts.
From Mexico to Malta, attacks on journalists and publishers have proved deadly to individuals and broader freedoms.
Citizens should be concerned. As UNESCO said recently, “Today’s citizens are in lockdown, eager for news like never before. And more than ever, the news must be fact-checked and verified. Because disinformation spreads as fast as the virus itself, journalists are on the frontline in the fight against distortion of truth. More than ever we need facts. Facts to avoid spreading fear, fake news and panic. More than ever we need a free press.”
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.