OPINION: Freedom of Press in the Age of Social Media and Authoritarian Presidents

by Cindy Domingo

As we close out Filipino American History Month this October, we realize through the many virtual educational events we have watched that there is more that binds us than divides us as a transnational Filipino community. In fact, the Philippine Congress and Constitutions were patterned after the U.S. — enshrining the same freedoms of speech, expression, the press, the right to peacefully assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress. 

Unfortunately, 2016 marked a year when both the Philippines and the U.S. elected strongarm presidents who have threatened these freedoms and moved our countries away from the democratic principles found in our respective constitutions. Both Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and President Donald Trump have gone full force to try to silence their opposition and, more particularly, have gone after the press and eroded the role that the media plays in defending democracy. 

Last month, two leading journalists in the Philippines, Maria Ressa, founder of the online news outlet Rappler, and Karen Davila of ABS-CBN, the largest Philippine media company, spoke about the repressive policies targeting the press under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa and Davila participated in a webinar hosted by Columbia City-based A Legacy of Equality Leadership and Organizing (LELO) and Akbayan North America. Both Ressa and Davila are award-winning journalists. Ressa was selected as Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, as one of “The Guardians,” a selection of global journalists challenging oppressive regimes.

Both journalists described the Duterte government’s various strategies to shut down both media outlets, ranging from canceling ABS-CBN’s government-issued license to the government’s fabricated charges against Ressa for tax evasion, as well as accusing Rappler of foreign ownership and political bias. However, Ressa asserts that the real reason behind Duterte’s attacks is Rappler’s 2016 exposé after the presidential elections that exposed Duterte’s army of social media trolls and then the massive extrajudicial killings related to Duterte’s drug war. Duterte himself bragged about bringing down ABS-CBN, declaring that he dismantled the Philippine Lopez family oligarchy — the owners of ABS-CBN — without declaring martial law. (Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos closed ABS-CBN for 14 years during the years of his reign under martial law). Both media outlets also criticized Duterte’s militarized approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in arrests and jailing of mainly the poor and unhoused populations for curfew violations. 

The attacks on Philippine journalists and their companies have advanced exponentially with the assistance of social media. According to Ressa, “Saying something on social media repeatedly makes people believe [it] even if it is not true.” And if the fake news is laced with anger and hate, the message moves faster and further than fact. For Filipinos who are on the internet, they are 100% on Facebook. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms become their news outlets and set the tone for the country. Established media outlets and reliable journalists become nothing but “criminals,” as represented by the criminal cases against Ressa and ABS-CBN. 

However, Ressa and Davila warned the audience that what is happening in the Philippines is an international phenomenon. We need to look no further than our own President Donald Trump’s utilization of social media to distort reality and perpetuate fake news. With Trump’s almost 90 million followers on Twitter, he has spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, made mask-wearing a political statement and promoted unsafe treatments. His latest tirade against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and calling him a “disaster” and an “idiot” who has been around for “500 years,” comes amidst a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. Trump admitted in his October 15 town hall that he often retweets items from sources such as QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory group, while stating that he knows nothing about QAnon. In response to questions about his refusal to disavow white supremacist groups, Trump’s response is to attack the Black Lives Matter movement and conflate their protests with violence and riots. 

Ressa called for accountability of tech giants like Facebook and Google for the spreading of fake news. “If facts are debatable, then you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. If you can’t have trust, you can’t have democracy,” Ressa stated in the webinar. She also called on us in the U.S. to take action because, “the decisions made in Silicon Valley have a trickle-down effect and they impact us in the Philippines 100%,” Ressa concluded. She is the subject of the 2020 documentary, A Thousand Cuts, which describes the attacks against her. It is available online at www.athousandcuts.film. Watch the webinar co-sponsored by LELO that featured Ressa and Davila here.

Cindy Domingo is a lifelong justice advocate and led the Committee for Justice for Domingo/Viernes that won the only U.S. wrongful death case against a foreign dictator (the Estate of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos) who orchestrated the assassination of Seattle ILWU 37 leaders, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo (her brother). She is the co-author of “A Time to Rise” the story of the Union of Democratic Filipinos, published by University of Washington Press. Cindy can be reached at: cindydomingo@gmail.com.

Featured image by Elizadeath on Flickr (used here under a Creative Commons 2.0 license).

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