MEDIA freedom is again being debated in the Philippines after a reporter for local independent news organisation Rappler was denied access to the presidential palace on Tuesday.
The news portal’s Pia Ranada, whose beat has long been to cover President Rodrigo Duterte at Malacañang Palace in Manila, was initially prevented from being able to report at the palace – reportedly on the orders of the president himself.
She was later provided access to a televised press conference with spokesperson Harry Roque, who reiterated claims from the government that Rappler reports “fake news”.
Rappler said in a statement that it was “another instance of power attempting to intimidate independent journalists” and “the first time, post-Marcos, that a duly-elected president has banned particular journalists from entering the Palace.”
— Pia Ranada (@piaranada) February 20, 2018
“The Palace cannot jump the gun in this latest attempt to evade public scrutiny and monopolise the conversation on matters of public interest,” it added.
Duterte has frequently sparred with Ranada and most recently took issue with Rappler’s reporting on the president’s Special Assistant Christopher “Bong” Go intervening in a deal to acquire new ships for the Philippine navy.
Go has called reports on the issue from Rappler and the Inquirer newspaper “fake news”.
The National Press Club of the Philippines released a statement on Tuesday in which it said despite its differences of opinion with Rappler, “the decision by some over-eager Palace mandarins against Ms. Pia Ranada is nevertheless uncalled for.”
“When the highest official in the land chooses to wage a personal vendetta against an individual, whether a journalist or a media outfit, it sends a clear and chilling signal that everyone else better report only what he wants you to or else,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines in a statement.
“We call on all colleagues to unite and reject this outrage and to continue resisting all attempts to dictate what we can and should report,” it added.
“[Ranada] has become known not just for putting tough questions to the president during press briefings, but also for being the target of presidential ire,” said a statement from Human Rights Watch’s Philippines researcher Carlos E. Conde condemning the move.
“It could portend a broader assault on journalists and news organisations, whose critical watchdog role has magnified the government’s poor human rights record, from extrajudicial killings of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users to conflict-related abuses in the south,” added Conde.
Last month, Rappler’s licence to operate was revoked by the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for supposedly violating conditions on foreign ownership and management of local media.
The company has said the move is “pure and simple harassment” and the “first of its kind in history”. Many have raised concern over the case as emblematic of creeping limits on freedom of speech in the Southeast Asian democracy under the Duterte administration.
“[They should fix their] personality as a local corporation otherwise they cannot [cover the palace],” said Philippines Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea later said of Rappler, as quoted by the state-run Philippine News Agency.
Nevertheless, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the company’s journalists were free to cover the Palace pending its appeal to the SEC’s decision.
“Let there be no doubt that harassing, punishing and terrorising a free press are symptoms of a tyranny,” said civil society group Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI) on Facebook, which is holding a protest at the People Power Monument on Saturday.
The issue of media freedom would be brought “to the fore” at the rally, it said.