ANALYSIS: By Danilo Arana Arao in Manila
Upon assuming the Philippines presidency on 30 June 2022, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr — the only son and namesake of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos — delivered an inaugural address that did not mention press freedom.
Press freedom also went unmentioned when he delivered his first State of the Nation Address before the joint Senate and House of Representatives on 25 July 2022.
His silence on the issue was notable given that the former press secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles, who stepped down on 4 October 2022 due to health reasons, had stressed that press freedom would be guaranteed under the Marcos Jr administration and that the administration would “work closely” with news media.
But as he pledged to protect press freedom on the campaign trail, certain journalists were pushed for getting too physically close to Marcos Jr.
It also remains to be seen whether his representatives will continue to evade critical questions during press briefings or if Marcos Jr will be more accommodating of interview requests. The normalisation of these practices would be a death knell for press freedom in the Philippines.
Media restrictions and abuse under Marcos Jr evoke memories of the Philippine media’s dark history under former Philippines president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law from 1972–86.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility identifies five similarities between the Marcos regime in the 1970s and the current Marcos Jr administration.
Distribution of propaganda
These are the distribution of propaganda through government agencies and social media, the ABS–CBN shutdown, attacks and threats against journalists, crony press and media selectivity and propaganda films.
There are chilling similarities between the two administrations despite Marcos Jr’s promise that he would not declare martial law.
For the current administration, “working closely” with journalists means putting them in touch with pro-Marcos Jr vloggers, content creators and influencers. Cruz-Angeles is prioritising the accreditation of pro-regime reporters to cover official functions.
But her claim that accreditation is open to those of all political beliefs rings untrue as pro-Marcos Jr vloggers recently established a new group (upon the suggestion of Cruz-Angeles herself) to help gain government accreditation.
Celebrity vlogger Toni Gonzaga was granted a one-on-one interview with Marcos Jr at the Malacañang Palace in September 2022, showing how the administration accommodates those who ask soft questions. That reminds many Filipinos of Marcos Jr’s non-participation in most presidential debates and interviews during the campaign, opting to accommodate events organised by his supporters.
During the 2022 election campaign, there were times when his handlers did not invite critical journalists, asking those invited to submit questions in advance to control the flow of press briefings.
By accrediting pro-administration, hyper-partisan non-journalists, the Marcos Jr administration gives them legitimacy as “truth seekers” even if there is evidence they proliferate disinformation. It is also a strategy to discredit critical journalists for peddling “fake news”.
Critical journalists harassed
Critical journalists and media organisations are harassed and intimidated under the Marcos Jr administration, just as they were under the 2016–2020 Duterte administration. Disinformation remains rampant even after the 2022 elections.
Red-tagging — the blacklisting of journalists and media outlets critical of the government — has continued.
Shortly after Marcos Jr assumed the presidency, the Court of Appeals upheld the “cyber libel” convictions of Nobel Prize laureate Maria Ressa and former Rappler writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.
While these convictions appeared to carry over the selective harassment and intimidation of the vengeful Duterte administration, the chilling effect on the media is real. Those targeted become grim reminders of what can happen if journalists and news media organisations incur the ire of the powers that be.
The date 21 September 2022 marked the 50 years since martial law was imposed. Marcos Jr repeatedly claims martial law was necessary to tackle communist and separatist threats, dismissing accusations that his father was a dictator.
Even the funding for the planned memorial for Martial Law victims was cut by 75 percent in the 2023 National Expenditure Programme.
Marcos Jr intends to rewrite history textbooks to include his family’s version of the truth. By silencing his critics, he can further engage in historical denialism. This is important not just to erase his father’s dictator image but to escape his family’s legal problems like the unpaid estate tax and his mother’s conviction for seven counts of graft.
Media repression ‘normalised’
Media repression continues to be normalised under the Marcos Jr regime. One of his allies in the House of Representatives blocked the return of ABS–CBN, whose franchise bid was denied in 2020. Rappler and its editorial staff, including Ressa, continue to face legal problems as well as the threat of closure.
The National Telecommunications Commission blocked 27 websites accused of having communist links in June 2022. It took a court order for the online publication Bulatlat Multimedia to be unblocked, while journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio remains in detention on questionable charges after being red-tagged and subjected to death threats.
That Marcos Jr did not mention press freedom in his inaugural speech and first State of the Nation Address reflects his disregard for critical journalism.
Although it is still early days, his efforts to whitewash the dictatorship’s dark past and continue his predecessor’s media repression indicate that his pre-election promise of a “free press” is long abandoned.
Danilo Arana Arao is associate professor at the Department of Journalism, the University of the Philippines Diliman, special lecturer at the Department of Journalism, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Santa Mesa, associate editor at Bulatlat Multimedia and editor at Media Asia. This article was first published in East Asia Forum.