A victory for press freedom
The acquittal of Maria Ressa and Rappler from tax evasion charges was a clear-cut victory for the Nobel laureate and her digital news organization in their long struggle against the Duterte administration, which had subjected them to a barrage of legal action in response to their reporting of the issues hounding the previous president and his policies, especially his bloody anti-drug campaign.
For the past six years, Rappler and its journalists have been subjected to all sorts of adverse treatment, including online harassment, by the previous administration which also went after other media organizations, including this paper and ABS-CBN network which was eventually denied its franchise.
Last week’s decision by the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) is undoubtedly a victory for press freedom, which has been under assault in the Philippines for many years now.
Indeed, the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for 2022 showed that the country dropped further down the global ranking to only 147th out of 180 countries monitored—its fifth consecutive year of decline.
And while critics of the local industry often point to the rambunctious Philippine media scene as proof that press freedom is alive and well in the country, this is only partly true. For many journalists, exercising this constitutionally protected right comes at great professional and personal risk. Anyone doubting this need only look at the grim body count: over 200 Filipino journalists have been murdered since the restoration of full press freedoms in 1986. Thousands more, notwithstanding the truths that they see are part of their work, simply opt to “choose their battles” and skirt outright conflict with the mighty and powerful.
More significantly, last week’s court decision was also an important step toward a fuller restoration of the rule of law that had been eroded by the previous administration’s ham fisted approach in dealing with its critics.
The CTA’s brave decision speaks volumes about the integrity of the judges and their commitment to the rule of law. We hope they will serve as an inspiration for other judges handling similar cases across the land to stay true to their oaths as interpreters of the true letter and spirit of the law, instead of succumbing to the temptation of interpreting the desires of the powers that be.
Even the Canadian and Dutch governments, cochairs to the Media Freedom Coalition, welcomed the acquittal as an “important and positive step toward upholding rule of law and media freedom.”
“Any measure that undermines the independence and freedom of the press must be strictly scrutinized with the highest standards of law and human rights,” the two embassies said in a joint statement.
But Philippine media should not rest on this victory.
Filipino journalists should weigh the events and trends of recent years, which have seen rising distrust on the media by significant portions of the public that they seek to serve. To simply ascribe this phenomenon to the proliferation of fake news in recent years would be a lazy cop out and a refusal to look deeper inward to the problems afflicting local journalism.
The media could no longer insist on the old one-way communication methods with the audience while ignoring the realities on the ground. In this age of the internet and social media, people can peddle and consume information in any way they want.
Media practitioners have only themselves to blame when they allow their personal beliefs to color their news judgement, and then recoil in surprise when they find that their readers and viewers chose to vote for the very politicians they warned them against electing.
There is something wrong when some journalists believe they are only doing their jobs properly when they report critical news, and not report the good things that are happening in their government and country.
And there is something wrong when the public demands quality journalism on one hand while refusing to pay for quality journalism on the other.
Filipino journalists should use the events of the last few years as a cue to take a long look in the mirror to see what has gone wrong and how they can regain public trust. And the public has to take this opportunity to reexamine its behavior in consuming information, especially the bad habit of disparaging professional media practitioners on one hand and simultaneously clinging to sources of fake news on the other.
The last few years have been difficult in this relationship. Journalists have failed the public on many occasions, and the public has failed its journalists in equal measure. But it is not the time to break things up. In an environment where there is too much information and not enough knowledge going around, and when press freedom and freedom of information are being constrained, Filipino journalists and the Filipino public need each other more than ever.
It’s time to rebuild that trust.
Your daily dose of fearless views
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.