Overview of Attacks and Threats against Journalists

By Penz Baterna

The killings of journalists in 2017 are about par for the course, given the terrible history since 1986. CMFR sees no real improvement in government’s efforts to address the violence that springs from an endemic ‘gun culture.’

THE PRESS worked under more openly threatening conditions in 2017 as the Duterte administration continued to express its animosity against news organizations and some individual journalists. As an institution and as a community, the media was under constant attack in different ways.

At the heart of this crisis of media freedom is the overarching design of the president and his government to diminish the credibility of the mainstream press. The Presidential Communications Operations Office consolidated the force of the Duterte’s social media election campaign by placing their digital warriors in government offices, making the most prominent part of the president’s entourage on his trips and sorties here and abroad. Given his popularity, it was not difficult to sustain the propaganda against the press, launched by an army of paid trolls, bots and bloggers.

The killings of journalists in 2017 are about par for the course, given the terrible history since 1986. CMFR sees no real improvement in government’s efforts to address the violence that springs from an endemic “gun culture,” which includes police’ illegal use of firearms. Several cases of violence and killings against journalists involve law enforcement agents.  The rhetoric of the president highlighted the justification of killings in the drug war. With the demonizing of journalists and their work, rationalizing the killings of journalists was not surprising at all. And this he did promptly enough when he was still president-elect and said in a June 2016 press conference that journalists are killed because they are corrupt. CMFR reviewed the cases of journalist killings since 2000 and found that only eight or ten percent of the 84 journalists killed were alleged to have been involved in corrupt practices such as bribe taking. The number excludes the 32 journalists killed in the 2009 Ampatuan massacre.  


Video from Rappler’s Youtube Account

While this administration has projected its efforts to address any problem, the government’s Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS), created in October 2016 through Administrative Order No. 1, has proven a bit of dud. By its own admission, it has no funds, no personnel assigned to it to be able to do independent investigations of journalists killed. Without resources, the agency does not even serve cosmetic purposes. The executive order which created it, notwithstanding, it reflects poorly on the government’s interest and intent to address journalist killings and the impunity issues of the country. 

From January 1 to December 31, 2017, CMFR counted a total of 21 physical attacks, including slay attempts, assaults and slay attempts. There were also non-physical threats, such as death threats, libel charges, death threats through text (SMS), website hacking and trolling/cyber bullying.

The incidence of physical violence is small compared to the number of victims felled by the drug war. To appreciate the dire conditions and the chilling effects this can have on journalism in the country, one must try to understand the other dark forces rising to check the power of the press and to ensure compliant coverage.

Attacks and Threats


Online Attacks

Online attacks have served the president well in his war against the press. Duterte’s choice of weapon, the free and unfettered exchange in social 

From the earliest days of the administration, the president had made it a habit to call out journalists, insulting them and joking in his usual crude and toxic fashion to dismiss any critical comment or intrusive inquiry.

In concert with a troll and blogger campaign against mainstream media, the presidential harangues succeeded in drawing out every possible grievance genuinely lodged in the heart of media users in the Philippines, those who have been concerned or aggrieved, as well as those conscripted for the word war in social media.

The pattern had become obvious. During the campaign, certain bloggers were clearly drumming up support of voters for the candidate Duterte. A following in the millions must have involved paid online armies allegedly working in call centers. But one could detect a pattern, the use of the same kinds of terms to downgrade those supporting other candidates and the Aquino administration. The mainstream press (newspapers, radio and TV) were called “biased” and “bayaran” (paid hack), and these same labels would soon be used by more netizens and picked up by the most ardent supporters of Duterte.

The online attacks cannot be reported as incidents, except where CMFR has been able to record the “screen grabs.” Because it became a daily thing, anyone engaged in critical analysis or negative reports were all subjected to the ceaseless harangues.

CMFR reported the hacking of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) website and an online threat to a GMA 7 reporter. The following exemplify the vehemence of the propaganda against the press.



Five journalists were killed during the period. The same pattern since 1986 remained: motorcycle-riding men, one driving and the other shooting with a handgun.

Killed were Marlon Muyco in February; Joaquin Briones in March; Rudy Alicaway and Leo Diaz in August; and Christopher Lozada in October.

Only three were considered by CMFR as work-related bringing the number of journalists killed to 156 since 1986 and four under Duterte.

Slay attempts and other attacks

Nine journalists were assaulted, accosted and barred from coverage. Three of these, all radio blocktimers, survived shooting attempts. Blocktimers are broadcasters who buy airtime mostly from provincial television or radio stations for their programs.



Threats against Journalists

Criminal Libel

Filed in 2017

Libel cases were filed against four journalists during the period. Three of the charges were filed by Quezon Province Governor David “Jayjay” Suarez.

Suarez filed libel cases against Senior News Correspondent of Journal Group of Publications Gemi Formaran, Ang Diaryo Natin publisher Johnny Glorioso and dzEL Radyo Agila anchor Rico Catampungan before the Lucena City Regional Trial Court (RTC) after the three criticized Suarez’s administration in their news programs/publication.

According to Formaran, the trial court served all three a 3,000-page subpoena for libel. Formaran said the charges have yet to include those filed by the governor’s mother in Makati and others filed by their allies. The correspondent said that the subpoenas were not sent to them and they had to pick them up from the prosecutor’s office.

In August 2017, DILG Undersecretary John Castriciones filed a complaint with the city prosecutor of Quezon City against Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong. Talabong wrote three stories from June to August 2017 about three DILG undersecretaries, Emily Padilla, Jun Hinlo and Castriciones, who were allegedly the subject of the department employees’ corruption complaints.

Libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines despite the call of media groups to decriminalize it.

Outcomes of Cases in Court

Two libel cases against journalists were dismissed by the court.

Cebu City RTC Branch 16 Judge Sylvia Aguirre-Paderanga granted radio broadcaster Cirse “Choy” Torralba’s plea to dismiss the libel charges filed against him in 2005 by Wellington Lim, brother of businessman Peter Lim. Peter was identified by President Rodrigo Duterte as one of biggest drug lords in the Philippines.

Torralba anchored a commentary program in dyAR Angel Radio at the time he was sued.

The judge cited the prosecution’s failure to present evidence and the inconsistencies in the testimonies of the lone witness as the bases of the decision.

Meanwhile, the city prosecutor of Quezon City dismissed a libel complaint against two GMA television network officials and three others.

Citing lack of factual and legal bases, the prosecutor dismissed the complaint filed by Hector Centeno, a former lawyer, against GMA News Anchor Mike Enriquez, GMA Network Chairman and CEO Felipe L. Gozon and three others. Centeno’s complaint was based on the “Sumbungan ng Bayan” segment of GMA’s primetime news program 24 Oras aired on May 30, 2016, reporting that he was continuing his legal practice despite being disbarred in 2008.



Text Threats

Hataw columnist Matt Vicencio, The Manila Times reporter Jomar Canlas and Radio ni Juan reporter Kat Cortez reported receiving death threats by SMS. In each case, the threat came after the journalist reported news about a scandal or corruption issue involving a government official. Two journalists received text messages from an unidentified number after criticizing the Duterte administration.

Vicencio received the threats after he published four columns questioning the supposed inaction of the PTFoMS and its executive director Joel Sy Egco on the five cases of media killings under Duterte. While Canlas received the threat days after he testified at the impeachment hearing against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno at the House of Representatives. Canlas is a reporter with the Supreme Court beat. He was among the resource persons for one of the issues raised in the impeachment complaint filed by Atty. Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon.

In the case of Cortez, the reporter received a series of text messages in vernacular to shut her mouth after she criticized the pre-debut photo shoot of presidential granddaughter Isabelle Duterte in Malacaang in her five-minute radio segment “Morning Review.” The last text message she received said, “Isang bala para nimu! Meri xmas! (One bullet for you! Merry Christmas!)”

Unreported Threats

CMFR also received information about threats and attacks which were not reported because the people concerned did not want to talk about it.

Undercover Surveillance

CMFR received a report from a journalist that his news organization experienced an unwanted police visit. CMFR also received information about plainclothes men (police) doing surveillance of at least 2 news organizations. They did not make any attempt to identify who these were and did not report it to authorities.

Impunity Statistics

The justice system continues to be plagued by its inherently slow pace given the kinds of procedures and practices allowed by the court system. The lengthy bail hearing is an outstanding example of how justice is denied on the principle of justice: that every accused has a right to bail. So the system allows the presentation of primary evidence to demonstrate a preponderance of evidence pro or con, in effect placing the bail petition in limbo for an indefinite period.

In the 156 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986, only 17 have been partly resolved, with the conviction only of the gunmen while the masterminds remain free. In the case of Bombo Radyo Kalibo broadcaster Herson Hinolan who was killed November 13, 2004, the murder case filed against convicted mastermind former Lezo, Aklan Mayor Alfredo Arsenio, was downgraded to homicide.

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