Now Filipina journalists are saying #MeToo
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Now Filipina journalists are saying #MeToo

This article is part of a developing mini-series on the global #MeToo movement that has now reared its ugly head in parts of Asia. Read our first articles on the issue here and here, and email us at editor@asiancorrespondent.com if you have a story of your own to share. 

“So how’s your sex life?”

Diana Mendoza, a Filipina freelance journalist for more than 20 years, was asked this question by a male photographer whom she hadn’t seen for a long time in front of other colleagues.

“I’m doing great and my private life is none of your business,” she replied, raising her voice a little, hoping to embarrass the guy.

Mendoza is one of several Filipina journalists who claim to have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the course of their work, not just from male colleagues but from the sources they interview. She believes the problem has always existed in the Philippine media industry, although hardly ever discussed openly, as many fear the humiliation it would bring.

Asian Correspondent reached out to Mendoza and a few of others from the local media scene after several female journalists from neighbouring Asean countries came forward with revelations of their own. From lewd texts to forcible kissings and groping, their stories told of a culture of sexual harassment in the media so normalised, it was hardly ever considered a punishable offence.

SEE ALSO: The Chinese version of #MeToo is at universities and heavily censored

The alleged perpetrators – oftentimes male politicians, as these stories claim – would act with impunity and without fear of repercussion, believing they could hide behind the powerful positions they held. And more often than not, they were right.

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The harassers are often men in positions of power. Graphic by G. Vikneswaran

But when the #MeToo movement, accelerated by the Harvey Weinstein expose in Hollywood, became a global phenomenon, women across Asia and just recently, conservative Asean, decided they too needed to join the hordes of others saying “Time’s Up” to their harassers.

In the Philippines, the stories of local women saying #MeToo first surfaced late last year when actress Saab Magalona retweeted a posting on Twitter by Hollywood’s Alyssa Milano that encouraged women worldwide to take a stand.

Spurred on by Magalona’s retweet, many did. At the time, however, the accusations centred mostly on the country’s entertainment industry, with stories outing local male band members and artists. One of the bands, Jensen and the Flips, in an official statement, acknowledged their mistakes and apologized for the misconduct.

But according to Mendoza, the problem isn’t endemic to the entertainment scene; women in media face the same kind of harassment, and just as rampantly.

For Mendoza, the bulk of her experiences took place when she was a rookie journalist assigned to the police beat, a common local media practice.

“A female covering a male-dominated beat (and one where males feel powerful physically because they are armed) is like a sheep being thrown into a lion’s den, a snake pit or a pigsty,” she told Asian Correspondent.

“Sexual harassment came in many forms in this beat – verbal harassment like being called ‘baby’ or ‘sweetheart’, being winked and wolf-whistled at, being complimented physically, and this is (happening) every day,” she alleged.

Some police sources also asked her out, including for sexual trysts that she said she outright rejected.

“In my more than 20 years in the (Philippine media) profession, I can say that sexual harassment is prevalent – as prevalent as when a female journalist comes in contact and works in close proximity with a male, be it a colleague or a news source,” Mendoza said.

The journalist said she would report the ordeals to her editors and there were many times she would simply reject these advances or abandon a lead to avoid any form of contact altogether. This isn’t ideal, however, as the rejection could lead to her losing a valuable source or story, which would, in turn, infringe on the public’s right to information.

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(File) Female journalists work at the office of Rappler in Pasig, Metro Manila, Philippines, on Jan 15, 2018. Source: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD) Executive Director Red Batario echoed the sentiments of Mendoza, who gave her consent to be identified in this article.

“It can impair the journalist’s ability to explore the other nuances of the story if she was (sexually) harassed by a source,” said Batario, whose group has been working to build capacities in news reporting and in developing media-citizen engagement mechanisms.

“The situation becomes even more difficult for the journalist if she does not get the support of the newsroom editors or her colleagues. In some instances, she may altogether drop the story,” he said.

Describing sources as the “very lifeblood” of journalists for the information that they possess, Batario noted that some female reporters would brush aside sexual harassment for the sake of their careers.

“Perhaps fear from being humiliated in public if the case goes to trial in addition to being doubly victimized when asked to testify and narrate the details of the sexual harassment,” he told Asian Correspondent.

“Others fear losing their sources and therefore their stories, which would also translate to losing their jobs,” he added.

Veteran editor and opinion writer Inday Varona-Espina told Asian Correspondent that one of the biggest problem these days is the use of sexually-charged attacks on social media targeting women journalists critical of the government. Other common behaviours include sexual jokes, constant chatter about sex and repeated use of sexual innuendos during conversations.

SEE ALSO: 6 Asian politicians caught watching porn

Many women, though offended, may not even think to consider these offences. But they are, as is something as common as wolf-whistling, said Varona-Espina, Batario and Mendoza.

Wolf-whistling became controversial in the country in 2016 when then president-elect Rodrigo Duterte made such a gesture towards television reporter Mariz Umali. Duterte, who has proudly admitted to being a womanizer, came under fire for the act but insisted he committed no wrong as wolf-whistling was not an act of harassment.

The irony, as it was pointed out by netizens at the time, was that he had only a year prior signed the Women Development Code for Davao City, an ordinance that prohibited catcalling women in the city.

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According to Duterte in 2016, wolf-whistling at a woman isn’t a form of sexual harassment. Source: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

“It was clearly a case of sexual harassment made doubly worse because it was committed by someone who has just been elected to the highest office of the land which sends signals to others that doing so is not only alright but par for the course,” CCJD’s Batario stressed.

More than 20 years ago, the Philippines approved Republic Act 7877 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995, as well as other laws protecting women’s rights, including the Anti-Rape Law.

In 2016, Quezon City, the most populated area in Metro Manila, passed an ordinance and became the first city to impose penalties on street harassment. Under the measure, light violations, such as cursing, catcalling, repeatedly asking the subject for a date or her contact number, or taunting a woman with constant talk about sex, which tend to ridicule, humiliate or embarrass the woman, are punishable with a fine of from PHP1,000 to PHP5,000 (US$20 to US$99) or a jail term of up to one month.

Stalking, making offensive mouth, hand or body gestures with the intention to demean or threaten a woman are considered moderate violations with the same range of penalties.

Severe violations include acts such as unnecessary touching, pinching or brushing against the subject’s body; public masturbation or lascivious exhibition directed at a woman, and inserting any object into the genitalia, anus or mouth of any person whether of the same or opposite sex.

Despite these measures, sexual harassment continues to persist, especially in the streets where wolf-whistling, and calling out comments like “Hi Miss Beautiful,” and “wow so sexy” to passing women are all too common.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Online ‘virginity auctions’ reflect wider tensions over women’s rights

Statistics released by the Philippine Commission on Women covering a 10-year period from 2004 to 2013 showed that only 629 sexual harassment cases have been lodged with the Philippine National Police’s Women and Children Protection Centre.

The belief, however, is that this figure is only a fraction of the actual number of harassment offences committed against women, who form around half the country’s estimated 105 million population. It is said many cases go unreported as victims prefer to keep silent to avoid humiliation, shame and inconvenience in pursuing legal recourse.

Last year, convinced that such cases against women were on the rise, Senator Risa Hontiveros filed a Bill seeking to complement the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995, which is limited to the workplace and superior-subordinate relations.

Hontiveros’ Senate Bill No. 1326 or the Safe Streets and Public Spaces Act of 2017 aims to prohibit and penalise gender-based harassment in public spaces such as catcalling, wolf-whistling, cursing, leering, groping, persistent request for name and contact details, and the use of words tending to ridicule on the basis of actual or perceived sex, gender expression, or sexual orientation and identity including sexist, homophobic and transphobic slurs.

The Bill, substituted in August by the Safe Streets, Workplaces and Public Spaces Act of 2017, is currently pending second reading in Congress.