To the millennials of today, the early 90s feel like ancient history: Asteroids fell from the sky, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and stiff businessmen held mobile phones the size of concrete bricks. Couple this with the fact that Filipinos are incredibly forgetful — a Marcos is running for vice-president, after all — and it’s probably why World Press Freedom Day, ironically, doesn’t get the press it deserves here.
Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 to be celebrated every May 3, World Press Freedom Day should remind us of the fundamental importance of the freedom to give and receive information. It should galvanize us to evaluate the state of press freedom around the world, and it should ask us to commemorate the lives of journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of the truth.
What it actually is to most people, though, is a day when a new Google Doodle comes out; to Filipinos especially, May 3 is just a day like any other. Tell any person on the street that something actually happens in May 3, and you get the glazed-over surprised stare that math teachers are familiar with when teaching calculus.
Press freedom — and by extension, freedom of expression — is taken for granted here because it feels like the media and the populace can say what they like without consequences. There is open criticism of the government, public officials are often made fun of, and public opinion can sometimes sway public policy.
There are times, however, when the price of getting the truth out is a journalist’s life, and these times are actually more common than we might think.
In February 2014, a roadside bomb exploded as a military-media convoy passed by in Maguindanao, injuring two journalists. In April 2014, tabloid newspaper reporter and radio host Rubylita Garcia was killed by two gunmen who entered her home in Bacoor City; she had exposed abuses by the local police, and the Department of Justice considered her murder to be work-related. Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, has documented 77 confirmed cases of journalists killed in the Philippines from 1992 to 2016; 75 of the deaths were ruled to be murder and almost half of the murders were due to the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, where 33 journalists lost their lives. The CPJ has called the Maguindanao massacre the single deadliest event in journalistic history and, in 2015, ranked the Philippines as the third deadliest country for journalists, behind only war-torn Iraq and Syria. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the world’s largest NGO specializing in the defence of media freedom, recently ranked the Philippines 138th out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, citing the Philippines’ “climate of terror” as the reason why “media outlets succumb to self-censorship or corruption”.
In a country where journalists are killed on a disturbingly regular basis, the celebration of a “press freedom day” is oxymoronic at best.
It is, in a weird sort of way. Although the Philippines came in quite low in the World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders did note that the Internet is not subject to any control. The Internet, that unknowable cloud that has seen attacks from teachers, parents and moral crusaders alike, actually turns out to be a powerful force for freedom in the Philippines. It is so free, in fact, that hackers could happily come and go with COMELEC voter registration data last April. Government censorship of online material is almost unheard of in the country, and citizens have unrestricted access to all online sources of information, be it domestic or international. The country’s blogosphere is rich, varied, dynamic and uncontrolled. Whether it is food, travel, literature or politics, it has already been tackled by someone with a blog.
In the run-up to the general election, the outpouring of election-related posts in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram shows that the ordinary Filipino is a media animal capable of journalism at a moment’s notice, and contributing to the rise of citizen journalism in Asia.
The Philippines is not perfect, and the traditional press is not free; local reporters in the provinces are frequent victims of violence and intimidation, and journalists in the national media self-censor their reports to avoid facing the same fate. The baton of journalistic excellence has now been passed to ordinary citizens: World Press Freedom Day reminds us that it is now up to all of us to uphold the legacy of the slain truth-seekers, and to make sure that they did not die in vain.
It turns out we have something to celebrate about after all. Who wouldn’t kill for that information?