By Yvonne T. Chua, University of the Philippines
Journalists and publications in the Philippines which have challenged populist president Rodrigo Duterte have faced increased attacks over the last year, ranging from insults to state-initiated court cases. Perhaps as a result, trust in the media is amongst the lowest of all the countries in this year’s survey.
Since his election in 2016, Duterte has vilified journalists, vowing to get back at those he felt had wronged him during the election and those who have been critical of his policies, especially his brutal war on drugs.
To date, ABS-CBN – the country’s leading radio and television network – has suffered the biggest blow. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, its 42 television stations, 10 digital broadcast channels and 23 radio channels stopped broadcasting on May 5, 2020, a day after its 25-year legislative franchise to operate expired (and around 3 months after the Digital News Report survey was conducted). The 66-year-old network’s roller-coaster ride began when Duterte repeatedly threatened to close it for failing to run his political ads in 2016. Packed with Duterte allies, the House of Representatives of the bicameral Philippine Congress had sat on ABS-CBN’s application for franchise renewal since 2014. In February, the solicitor-general asked the Supreme Court to revoke the network’s franchise for supposed violations of the terms of its license, an allegation it denies. As of end-May, the network’s presence remains limited to cable television and digital platforms unaffected by the expiration of its franchise. It is contesting its closure before the Supreme Court.
Like ABS-CBN, multi-award-winning journalist Maria Ressa and her news site Rappler – a digital-born operation which focuses on in-depth reports – have become the symbol of what it is to be the object of Duterte’s wrath. As well as being banned from presidential events, Rappler, Ressa and her colleagues face seven court cases, including revocation of operating licence, claims of tax fraud and cyberdefamation. A Manila court on June 15 convicted Ressa and a former colleague of cyber libel, sentencing them to between six months and six years in prison and ordering them to pay $8,000 in damages.
The government has also gone after independent media. In April 2019 it released a “matrix” that linked news site Vera Files, Rappler and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in a plot to oust Duterte. It later transpired that the accusations had no link to the named organisations, none of which was implicated.1
Journalists have been labelled “prostitutes,” “fake news,” “spies,” “lowlifes” and “enemy” by the president and his supporters who have sown confusion between foreign funding of mass media, which is lawful, and foreign ownership, which is prohibited. Alternative media outlets have been plagued by distributed denial of service attacks and “red-tagging” – being labelled as communists or terrorists. There have also been physical attacks. In May 2020, an alliance of media organisations recorded at least 171 incidents of attacks and threats against the media since Duterte became president, including the deaths of 15 journalists. The Philippines has become notorious for impunity.
As a response to the years of attacks that journalists have faced, in November 2019, a coalition of media stakeholders set up the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists – a five-point programme which includes protocols for working conditions, legal advocacy and public education. Coincidentally, in December, 28 people – including members of a well-entrenched political clan – were convicted for the 2009 murder of 32 journalists, the world’s worst single incident of killing of journalists.
Duterte’s assault on the media and his critics has not dented his popularity, however. Public trust in his office remains high in the eighties, according to the 2019 Philippine Trust Index survey2, perhaps as a result of his populist policies. This year’s Digital News Project found overall trust in news in the Philippines at a low 27%. Trust in the most battered outlets has suffered, while those which have escaped the presidential wrath have performed better. ABS-CBN scored 63% in the survey, 12 points lower than its rival, GMA Network, which has a reputation for cautious decision-making, and tied with state-owned PTV. Rappler has a score of 49%, below not only PTV but also the government’s Radyo Pilipinas.
Traditional TV still dominates the media landscape though with our urban sample internet reach has been growing rapidly. Legacy media have long gone digital, yielding positive results for many. This year’s report shows 85% of respondents going online for news, the majority through smartphones. ABS-CBN and GMA and the leading daily Philippine Daily Inquirer are the most visited news sites, in line with other industry data. Their social media accounts command a sizeable following in a country where people spend nearly 10 hours a day on the internet, nearly four hours of which on social media, the longest amount in the world.3 Filipinos have however shown themselves reluctant to pay for news. Digital content has so far remained mostly free.
Taken together, ABS-CBN and GMA had accounted for 80% of audience share, reach and advertising revenue, making them a duopoly. In late March, as the country entered its second week of lockdown because of the coronavirus lockdown, television viewership leapt 23 percent — an additional three million viewers — as people tuned in to their television, mostly for news. When ABS-CBN closed in early May, GMA’s share of viewers jumped overnight from 40% to 60%. The Philippine Competition Commission earlier warned this would mean a less competitive media environment.
Elections are held every three years, and always boost the profits of media organisations. Political adverts in the 2019 midterm elections helped ABS-CBN and GMA net income to soar to more than $40 million each for the first nine months of 2019. Senatorial candidates alone spent $75 million in campaign ads from February to April, channelled mostly to TV and radio. However, changes in campaign spending are in store for the 2022 presidential elections. Nearly all candidates across every election have fully integrated digital operations, including social media campaigning, in the 2019 elections. Many of them had used disinformation to sow distrust of rival candidates and the media.
How the lockdown arising from COVID-19 will hit media earnings remains to be seen. Advertising investments in TV alone dropped 40% when the lockdown started. News organisations suspended operations, shortened hours, showed repeats, reduced print runs or adopted remote working. Government media became a primary source of information. What seems certain is the pandemic has aggravated the crisis facing the media in the Philippines, which has fallen two notches in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Along with other laws, a law granting Duterte ad hoc emergency powers to handle the outbreak has been used to file criminal charges against two local journalists and threaten campus journalists for purportedly spreading false information during the lockdown. The journalists face two years’ imprisonment and a $2,000 fine.
The media have embraced further innovations. Another all-news TV channel was launched in 2018 on satellite provider Cignal. One News brings together the news division units all within the Medi-aQuest group: TV5, The Philippine Star and BusinessWorld. Its online platform started operations in July 2019.
Through YouTube’s Innovation Grant, ABS-CBN and GMA rolled out new programmes on YouTube for the digital generation. ABS-CBN’s “NXT” offers explainers on current events. GMA’s “Stand for Truth,” a daily newscast, focuses on data-driven reports. NXT is produced by ABS-CBN News Digital, which is also behind “ABS-CBN Digital Specials,” a collection of long-form multimedia stories. The network also launched in 2019 ABS-CBN TVplus Go, its new digital TV dongle for Android smartphones.
Text-to-audio services are prominent on the GMA and the Inquirer websites, in keeping with the growing online listenership. And as more Filipinos listen to podcasts – 57% each month in this year’s report – a startup formed by a group of journalists has launched the country’s first podcast network, PumaPodcast.
Note: Data are from more urban areas, rather than a fully nationally representative sample. These will tend to represent richer and more connected users.
Traditional TV still dominates the news media landscape, but amongst our urban sample online, news websites and social media are more widely used. Only a very small percentage read broadsheet newspapers. Filipinos are highest users of Facebook (73%) for reading, discussing, and sharing news in our survey. They also love to use smartphones to access news (75%).
Journalists have faced regular verbal attacks by President Duterte and his supporters in his battle with media critics. Trust in ABS-CBN, which was subsequently subject to a government shutdown order, scored 61% in the survey, 12 points lower than the GMA Network, which has a reputation for more cautious decision-making. Rappler, which is fighting multiple court cases, has a score of 49%.