FROM THE MAIL

By Atty. Perry Solis

PRESS freedom is alive and well in the Philippines despite the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) release of its annual World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) putting the country in an unenviable position of no. 147 under what it called a new methodology, down from 138 last year.

According to RSF’s website, the low ranking of the country was due to many factors, foremost of which is media killings, especially the Ampatuan Massacre that happened more than a decade ago in 2009.

 As presented by RSF, it would be easy to assume that countries with a higher ranking would have a “freer” press than those with low rankings but that is not the case.

Journalists should ask:  Do citizens in African countries such as Namibia (18), South Africa (35), or Ivory Coast (37) enjoy greater press freedom than those from countries below it in ranking, such as let’s say, citizens of the United States, which is currently at no. 42 in RSF’s index?

Journalists should wonder how RSF was able to come up with such rankings, considering the fact that press freedom is not an absolute matter that can be computed and analyzed mathematically. How does one “measure” press freedom in a country?

But before that, who are the reporters without borders? 

According to Wikipedia, RSF “is a leading international non-profit and non-governmental organization that safeguards the right to freedom of information. Its mandate is to promote free, independent, and pluralistic journalism and to defend media workers. Its advocacy is founded on the belief that everyone requires access to the news and information, inspired by Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes the right to receive and share information regardless of frontiers, along with other international rights charters. RSF has consultative status at the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and the International Organisation of the Francophonie.”

It gets its funding mostly from the EU nations. Interestingly, most of the EU nations are ranked in the top tier of the index, labeled by the RSF as a “good situation” in terms of press freedom.

Also, anybody can become a “member” of RSF as long as he or she pays a minimum of 15 euros (student’s discount rate).  But to get the coveted RSF ID card, one must pay at least 100 euros if you’re living outside of France.

So how does the RSF come up with its own assessment of the state of press freedom per country?  Prior to 2022’s index, RSF stated that:

“The degree of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries and regions is determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated. The criteria used in the questionnaire are pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information."

"To compile the Index, RSF has developed an online questionnaire focusing on the subjects specified above...The questionnaire is sent to journalists, media lawyers, researchers, and other media specialists selected by RSF in the 180 countries and regions covered by the Index. Each country and region is assigned a score based on the answers provided by these experts and on the figures for acts of violence and abuses against journalists during the previous year.""A team of in-house specialists, each assigned to a different geographical region, keeps a detailed tally of abuses and violence against journalists and media outlets. These researchers also rely on a network of correspondents in 130 countries."

New methodology beginning 2022

As far as the 2022 index is concerned, RSF says it “developed a new methodology to compile the 20th World Press Freedom Index” after “working with a committee of seven experts from the academic and media sectors.”

As found on their website:

"The new methodology defines press freedom as “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.” In order to reflect press freedom’s complexity, five new indicators are now used to compile the Index: the political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context, and security."

"In the 180 countries and territories ranked by RSF, indicators are assessed on the basis of a quantitative survey of press freedom violations and abuses against journalists and media, and a qualitative study based on the responses of hundreds of press freedom experts selected by RSF (journalists, academics and human rights defenders) to a questionnaire with 123 questions. The questionnaire has been updated to take better account of new challenges, including those linked to media digitalization."

"In light of this new methodology, care should be taken when comparing the 2022 rankings and scores with those from 2021. Data-gathering for this year’s Index stopped at the end of January 2022, but the updates for January to March 2022 were carried out for countries where the situation had changed dramatically (Russia, Ukraine and Mali)."

So should RSF's WPFI be taken at face value?

Andrew Rosenthal, a veteran American journalist and former editorial page editor of The New York Times has called the RSF a “state-subsidized, ostensible defender of press freedom".  He described RSF’s data gathering as arbitrary. In one of his earlier commentaries on the RSF (“The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index: Independent Assessment or EU Propaganda?” World Politics Review, November 6, 2007) he stated that:

“RSF's lack of transparency concerning both its primary "data" and the "method" ostensibly employed for converting the latter into the concrete "scores" assigned to the individual countries, obviously leaves the organization an extremely large -- indeed virtually unlimited -- margin for arbitrariness in establishing its rankings. A closer look at the RSF rankings shows that it has made ample use of this margin.”

“The unseriousness of RSF's approach is patent. It would appear that the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Rankings serve essentially as pegs on which to hang preconceived political judgments: a useful tool, then, for the propaganda purposes of RSF's sponsors. But for an independent and objective evaluation of the situation of press freedoms in the world, one will have to look elsewhere.”

Indeed, RSF’s index is untrustworthy and indefensible in every way. That is why RSF does not hold press conferences when it releases its index. RSF merely puts out some kind of press release accompanying the release of their WPFI.

How can one gauge the state of press freedom from a questionnaire given to unnamed individuals with unknown political and social backgrounds, hand-picked by RSF which it labels as “experts”? 

As another American writer puts it in one of the more scathing reviews of RSF's index:

“Whatever the case, one thing’s clear: while RSF may well deserve plenty of credit for some of its efforts, the Press Freedom Index is a joke — and, more than that, a slap in the face to all the writers and journalists who have been persecuted in recent years xxx." (The Press Freedom Index has no Credibility, Medium, April 8, 2018.)

To understand these extremely negative views of the index, one only has to look at the rankings themselves. Take, for example, Singapore, with is currently listed as 139 in the index, and yet, according to RSF itself, “Singapore boasts of being a model of economic development but it is an example of what not to be in regard to freedom of the press, which is almost non-existent.” So why did Singapore score better than the Philippines in RSF’s press freedom index, if according to RSF, press freedom there is almost non-existent?

Or how does Somalia, with a rank of 140, fare better than the Philippines, where, according to RSF, “ Journalists are frequently forced to face military courts”, and “More than 50 media workers have been killed since 2010, making Somalia the most dangerous country for journalists in Africa.”

Who finances the RSF? 

In his expose, Rosenthal points out that much of RSF’s million-euro budget comes from “public French and EU sources”.  Even EU countries are not exactly a beacon of press freedom despite their consistently high ranking in RSF’s index.  According to Rosenthal, in Germany, “both investigative journalists and media commentators have been subjected to a degree of interference and harassment by organs of the German state that would be unthinkable in the United States. The numerous episodes of press harassment and interference have included spying on journalists, police raids on editorial offices, and criminal investigations.”

Would this explain why most European countries fare better than the United States in RSF’s index?

The Philippine landscape 

Most democratic countries of the world protect freedom of speech as a constitutional right. The same is true for the Philippines. Threats to journalists, especially the harassment of women journalists, rarely happen in this country. The Philippine Supreme Court has also time and again upheld the Filipinos’ right to freedom of expression and of the press.

It’s well worth mentioning that the Philippines is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, The country has consistently ranked higher in several gender-equality indexes than most OECD-member states such as the United States, Canada, Australia, France, or Switzerland.

The Philippines already had two women presidents, several women lawmakers, and countless women in high government positions such as department heads, commissioners, justices and the like. Two women have already served as chief justice of the Supreme Court. The current vice-president is a woman.

Even in the field of journalism, there is no perceptible inequality between men and women in the Philippines. Among the major media organizations in the Philippines such as Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and Philippine Star, women hold high editorial positions. The news departments of the major broadcast networks in the country were reportedly led by women.

Unlike RSF’s press freedom index, gender equality is easily quantifiable by essentially looking at the number of men and women in the workplace. 

While RSF makes a big issue of the threats allegedly made by President Duterte on journalists, it turns a blind eye to the actual steps made by the government to safeguard press freedom.

In Asia, Papua New Guinea is high on the index at No. 62 and yet it is considered one of the most unsafe countries in the world. As one guide describes the country: “The law and order situation in Papua New Guinea continues to pose serious risks to travelers. Violent crime, including armed robbery, carjacking, home invasions and sexual assault, is common throughout the country, especially in urban areas such as Port Moresby, Lae and Mt Hagen.” (SafeTravel)

If the country cannot even protect its citizens against violent crimes, how can press freedom be ensured? Indeed, one can only scratch his head on how RSF comes up with such rankings.

Our country is no stranger to the dangers of curtailing freedom of expression. Precisely, this is the reason why President Duterte created the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) under Administrative Order No. 1 upon assumption of office in 2016. PTFoMS’ primary function is to establish a government-wide program to protect members of the press.

Journalism serves a critical function in any democratic society.

President Duterte has done much to preserve the freedoms of the country, particularly in the realm of expression and opinion. The government has consistently assured the international community that there is no State-sponsored action to curtail freedom of the press. Again, one only has to read the news or watch TV to know that press freedom is alive and well in the country.

Even RSF has described the media landscape in the Philippines as “extremely vibrant.”

Thousands of news stories, commentaries and editorials have already been written by hundreds of intrepid journalists highly critical of the administration. And yet, there are no mass arrests of journalists, there are no mass closures of media outlets. Journalists here are still free to report the news as they see fit. 

Even in those rare instances in which local journalists were allegedly being penalized for criticizing the government, the right to free speech was never violated.

Take the example of Latigo News TV website editor Mario Batuigas and online reporter and video blogger Amor Virata, both relative unknowns in Philippine society who were reportedly arrested for violating “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” for disseminating false information on the pandemic.  RSF has demanded “Philippine prosecutors to abandon all proceedings against journalists under a new law that supposedly combats “false information” about the coronavirus crisis but in fact, constitutes a grave violation of press freedom.”

A closer look reveals otherwise.

There was no abuse of authority. Local authorities simply arrested persons suspected of violating the law based on the complaint of private individuals. The rule of law was being upheld. Those arrested are presumed innocent until proven guilty by the courts of law. Their sacred right to due process of law is fully recognized and respected. In all probability, their counsels were already by their side giving speeches criticizing their arrests. They will have all the chances to present their side while out on bail. If they choose to do so, they can file criminal, civil, or administrative charges against the police, public officials and private individuals whom they believe were responsible for their predicament.

RSF’s call for “Philippine prosecutors to abandon all proceedings” against them is tantamount for them to abandon the law. This is irresponsible and absurd. 

Even the incident involving a school paper editor was given extraordinary attention by RSF. According to RSF, University of the East Dawn Editor Joshua Molo was allegedly invited to attend a barangay hearing where “the teachers threatened to sue him for libel, while barangay officials threatened to have him arrested if he did not issue an apology and pledge not to criticize the government again…in effect, renouncing his right to free speech”.

It turns out that the alleged press freedom violation is fake news. 

On April 5, Redwire, the official student digital media organization of UE, posted on their Facebook page about Molo’s alleged harassment by barangay officials and his former high school teachers in Cabiao, Nueva Ecija.  This post eventually became the source material for various media outfits. However, Molo categorically denied the incident and stated that the Redwire post was false and contains misleading statements. According to Molo, he even pleaded with the media to take down all news stories on this matter but it became out of his control.

In context: Press freedom still better under Duterte in RSF's 2022 index

Even at face value, the state of media freedom in the country is far better today than in previous administrations.

Despite the new methodology used in this year's World Press Freedom Index, the Philippine press remains freer under President Rodrigo Roa Duterte compared to the previous administrations of former Presidents Noynoy Aquino and Gloria Arroyo.

The index showed that President Duterte has a better average of 135.8 points counted from 2017 to 2022 with a high of 147, compared to the presidency of the late President Aquino which averaged 142.5 points during his term, reckoned from 2011 to 2016, with a high of 149. A difference of 6.7 points.

Although the Philippines ranked 147 in this year’s index, RSF has acknowledged that the “Philippine media are extremely vibrant.” RSF also cautioned readers, “In light of this new methodology, care should be taken when comparing the 2022 rankings and scores with those from 2021.” 

It should be pointed out that the Philippines is not included in RSF's category of countries in the so-called “RED LIST”, which RSF says indicates “very bad” press freedom situations. 

The Philippines is also not included in RSF’s “world’s 10 worst countries for press freedom.”  Among the countries red-tagged by RSF “include Myanmar (176th), where the February 2021 coup d’état set press freedom back by 10 years, as well as China, Turkmenistan (177th), Iran (178th), Eritrea (179th) and North Korea (180th).”

Unlike in the past, there was also no country-specific report regarding the Philippines in “RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index: A New Era Of Polarization.”

The country’s ranking in the index has forever been tainted by the Ampatuan Massacre that happened in 2009 during the time of President Arroyo, where 32 journalists have been killed, and it has been very difficult to free ourselves from such a tainted past despite the many concrete steps undertaken by President Duterte which have been fully acknowledged by other, more reputable international organizations such as the UNESCO.

However, it should be recalled that it was only in 2019, through the political will of the Duterte administration, that the nation became a beacon of hope for press freedom when Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr and Zaldy Ampatuan, the masterminds of the Ampatuan Massacre, were convicted of 57 counts of murder along with 28 other co-accused, while more than a dozen others were sentenced to 6–10 years for being accessories.

First in the world 

The PTFoMS was created by President Duterte in 2016 as a task force directly under his office to combat the perceived impunity in killings of journalists that transpired during past administrations, a first in the world. PTFoMS has a dedicated 24/7 hotline for journalists to ensure a prompt response and immediate access to protective measures.

With this, the Duterte Administration through the PTFoMS ensures that media practitioners in the Philippines are given adequate safety and security, especially during the upcoming elections with the recent designation of high-ranking police officers all over the country as PTFoMS Media Security Vanguards.

In the recent 2021-2022 “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development Global Report” released by UNESCO, it highlighted the Philippines as among a very few countries in the world that have undertaken “good practices and positive measures” in the safety of journalists.

The UNESCO report also cited the establishment by the Duterte Administration of “a special task force for the safety of journalists,” now being copied in other parts of the world. 

President Duterte is a man of action. While other presidents in the past were satisfied with simply mouthing their commitment to freedom of the press, only President Duterte has made significant progress towards this end with the signing of various measures to safeguard this sacred right, as follows:

*Administrative Order No. 1 (2016) created the PTFoMS under the Office of the President with a devoted mandate to protect media workers;

*Executive Order No. 2 (2016) operationalizes in the Executive Branch the people’s constitutional right to information by allowing full public disclosure and transparency in the public service;

*Republic Act No. 11458 which expanded the scope of the Philippine Shield law that now includes internet-based mass media; and

*Republic Act 11699, declaring August 30 as the National Press Freedom Day, seeks to raise the consciousness of Filipinos on the importance of the press, their rights and social responsibilities, and the elimination of all forms of violence against the press.

The government through the PTFoMS is also actively pushing for the passage of the proposed Media Workers Welfare Act (MWWA), a bill that seeks to uplift the economic welfare of media practitioners. The bill grants media workers hazard pay, a living wage, employment security, safety equipment, plus additional insurance and hospitalization benefits.

Indeed, never in the history of the Philippines that an administration gives so much emphasis on the welfare of Filipino journalists.

In the end, we cannot dismiss altogether Rosenthal’s observation that the RSF’s index is mere propaganda of the EU where RSF gets most of its financing. For lack of credibility and transparency, the so-called Press Freedom Index should never be taken at face value. It should come with a warning: use it at your own risk.

(Atty. Solis comes from a family of journalists. He is presently the chief of staff of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security. He also teaches at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines College of Law.)