In an unusual turn of events this week, Philippine President Robert Duterte has ordered the creation of a presidential task force to protect journalists and investigate attacks on the media. The creation of such a superbody is at odds with Duterte’s acidic attitude towards the press since he took office on June 30th.
In a move described by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as “unprecedented,” Duterte recently issued a freedom of information (FOI) order that would promise the media full access to records of all agencies under the Office of the President. Both the creation of the FOI order as well as the task force have been seen as at-odds with recent comments by the president which condone the murders of “corrupt” journalists. These comments in support of justified media killings from a country’s leader are grounds for major concern, as noted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
This new multi-agency task force, made up of law enforcement agencies, news organizations, and media unions, will be dedicated to investigating unsolved murders of journalists. It will be led by Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar.
The CPJ says 77 journalists have died in the Philippines since 1992, making it one of world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.
The creation of this task force comes in the midst of Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs” campaign, which has seen the summary execution of hundreds of drug suspects by police and even vigilante groups – a result of Duterte urging private citizens to kill drug dealers themselves.
CPJ ranks the Philippines fourth on their Global Impunity Index, which shows where journalists are killed and how likely the killer will be brought to justice
The Philippines is the only country within the top five that is not marked by conflict or political instability, such as Iraq (second) and Syria (third).
Top officials in the government have claimed that some journalists are in collusion with the illegal drug trade. The Philippines’ National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa has claimed that some media personnel are “users, dealers, or protector of drug lords”, without offering proof.
Other officials such as Andanar have continued this narrative on the press, going so far as to outwardly say some might be extortionists.
In a statement condemning his remarks, the NUPJ fears that the “insinuation that corruption is justification enough to commit murder…could be used as a handy justification by those who seek to silence independent and critical journalists.”
These extrajudicial killings have been condemned by various human rights organizations, and the International Criminal Court – whose prosecutors have been threatening to take action against the perpetrators.
Duterte’s policies have surprisingly seen overwhelming support by the people as seen by their big social media presence, acting in what Secretary Andanar believes is a pillar of support against negative coverage by international and domestic media.
Pro-Duterte websites have published photos of Reuters journalists calling for punishment of the international news service, because they had misrepresented the President’s words. Many Duterte supporters believe their cause is misrepresented by the news media.
Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom, told the New York Times she believes major news organizations fail to critically analyze Duterte’s policies out of fear and intimidation.