Press Freedom and Democracy are Alive and Well in the Philippines

President Duterte himself said many times that he is going to and will protect the rights of the Filipino people as provided for by the laws of the land. It only goes to show that claims that press freedom and democracy in the Philippines are being threatened under the Duterte administration are nothing but an innuendo.

Last June 15, 2020, the Manila Regional Trial Court found Rappler founder and CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-reporter Reynaldo Santos guilty of cyber-libel, more specifically violation of Republic Act 10175 or the "Cybercrime Prevention Act." This was after a Rappler article that was first published in 2012 and re-published in 2014 imputed that, based on alleged intelligence reports, businessman Wilfredo Keng was involved in murder, smuggling, drug trafficking, human trafficking and other crimes. It also claimed that Keng lent his sports utility vehicle to then Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Keng and his lawyers repeatedly sought Rappler to verify the alleged intelligence reports and publish their side of the story but to no avail. This forced Keng to file a case in court in 2017, which, despite claims by the side of Ressa and Santos, fell within the prescription period since, according to the court, Republic Act 10175 is a special law that has a prescription period of 12 years instead of the usual one year for the crime of libel under the Revised Penal Code. Keng was also cleared by the National Bureau of Investigation from involvement in any crime in 2019.

As expected, the guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos was used by the political opposition and Far Left entities as an attempt to link it to an assault on press freedom and democracy in the Philippines. Several political and media personalities also weighed in, condemning both the decision of the Manila Regional Trial Court and, from their point of view, "authoritarian" administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa herself even called a press conference after the court rendered its decision on the case, telling everyone present that not only press freedom was under assault but called on Filipinos to "stand up for their rights that are 'being threatened' by President Duterte."

Ressa and others who claim that the press freedom and democracy in the Philippines are being threatened under the Duterte administration are contradicting themselves. ABS-CBN may have been closed due to the expiration of its legislative franchise but GMA, TV5 and other radio and television stations continue to operate throughout the Philippines. Newspapers continue to report the news online, although the production and distribution of printed copies have been limited by the COVID-19 situation. Reuters, AFP and other foreign media outlets continue to report about the Philippines the news from the Philippines. Ressa's beloved Rappler is still online, producing reports that are, most of the time, critical of the Duterte administration.

Aside from the media outlets, social media interaction continues in the Philippines. Facebook and Twitter continue to see exchanges of opinions and insults from both sides of the Philippine political divide. Some could even openly dance their way into Tiktok. These things are not possible and will never happen if the Philippines is an authoritarian or totalitarian state under the Duterte administration, as alleged by Ressa, et al.

The mere fact that Ressa, Santos and their lawyers were able to quickly call a press conference after the court proceedings mostly to say things that actually undermine the laws, authorities and sovereignty of the Philippines is proof that press freedom and democracy are alive and well in the Philippines. President Duterte himself said many times that he is going to and will protect the rights of the Filipino people as provided for by the laws of the land. It only goes to show that claims that press freedom and democracy in the Philippines are being threatened under the Duterte administration are nothing but an innuendo.

Lastly, Ressa, et al. also contradicted themselves when they said during other occasions that there is no rule of law in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. Proof of this is the fact that Wilfredo Keng successfully sought relief from the courts of law to protect himself from a slanderous news report that was authored by Ressa and Santos and published by Rappler. If there is no rule of law in the country, Keng or any Filipino will be vulnerable to character assassination and other types of crimes against a person's honor.

Ressa and Santos, and their lawyers can appeal their case before the Court of Appeals and, if ever, the Supreme Court. They have to face the consequences of their actions as journalists. The exercise of freedoms and privileges is not absolute, as individuals, especially journalists such as Ressa and Santos, are expected to be responsible in doing so and will take full responsibility for the decisions and actions that they undertake.

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About the Author
Benedict is an agricultural economist, academician and writer. He has gained experience and expertise in various fields of economics, business, political science and public relations after through professional ventures in the academe, and in the public and private sectors. He has authored or co-authored key publications on topics ranging from agriculture and food security to global affairs and politics.
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