June round-up: Impunity and social media censorship threaten free expression
July 5, Manila: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte made international headlines in late May 2016, just weeks after he won the national elections, when he said that most journalists who were killed in the country were corrupt. Coming from a country that has seen among the highest numbers of journalists killed in the world, the statement shocked many in the local media and global free expression community who have been campaigning for years to end impunity in such killings.
In an immediate response to the statement made at a press conference in Davao City on 31 May, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said they were appalled by the statement. They said Duterte (sworn in officially on 30 June) had not only sullied the names of all the journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986, but that it was effectively an open call to silence the media.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility echoed those sentiments and said a study they conducted in 2006 showed that an overwhelming number of the 152 killed were in fact exposing corruption and criminal syndicates in the communities. CMFR noted that they have always been critical of unethical or unprofessional reporting, but were uncompromising when it came to the threat of violence against media workers.
In a display of solidarity and in defence of the profession, news organizations, student publications and citizen advocates across the country published a common editorial criticizing the President for his harsh attitude towards the media, reminding him of his obligations as leader of the nation, which includes honoring the rights of the public and the media to exercise their freedom of speech and expression.
Two UN experts called on Duterte to "stop instigating deadly violence", with the Special Rapporteur on summary executions Cristof Heys saying that the statement "amounts to incitement to violence and killing, in a nation already ranked as the second-deadliest country for journalists." The Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors the safety of journalists, ranked Philippines the fourth worst in the global impunity index for 2015.
Parallel to this confrontation was another form of censorship of political expression, especially those critical of Duterte and other personalities. According to CMFR, social media giant Facebook deleted the post of a veteran journalist, Ed Lingao, and took down the account of Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines (EJAP) for allegedly violating its standards and policy. Lingao's post and follow up comments were critical of Duterte's statement that he would allow the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Heroes' Cemetry. EJAP had criticized the President's comments justifying the murder of journalists.
Facebook issued an apology over its take down of some of the pages. Concerns have been raised that the company is censoring legitimate political discussions and freedom of expression. CMFR suggested that supporters of Duterte and Marcos may have "flexed their collective muscle – and Facebook took notice."
Similar cases were also noted elsewhere. In February, a Facebook user in Indonesia had her account suspended after she posted a series of historical photos of local women, based on complaints of 'nudity' and 'explicit content'. Twenty-three year-old Dea Basuri's posts, which showed Indonesian women in traditional attire with their breasts exposed, were in response to what she claimed was unreasonable censorship by television stations in the country. The TV stations had reportedly blurred the legs and cleavage of contestants of the Puteri Indonesia 2016 beauty pageant.
In France, journalist David Thomson who covers jihadism for several media outlets including radio RFI, had his Facebook account temporarily suspended on 20 June, according to the Mapping Media Freedom project covering Europe. Thomson's account was deactivated three times without warning since 2014, believed to be over his reportage on ISIS.
The Oslo Times International News Network/IFEX