Embassy network bolsters efforts for media freedom in the Philippines

McLuhan Forum Philippines
McLuhan Forum on Responsible Media held at the University of the Philippines in Baguio in March 2023. Photo: Embassy of Canada to the Philippines

Embassies of MFC member countries are doing vital work to support media freedom from a unique position, according to journalists and campaigners in the Philippines.

Expressing support for media workers who are being harassed, and attending trials to ensure the rule of law is followed, all play a tangible role in working towards press freedom, they say. Practical solidarity has benefits beyond offering hope to journalists at risk and their families, and can improve media freedom and democratic accountability.

“They [embassies of the Media Freedom Coalition] try to know about the real situation, especially on the ground, and they verify reports of violations,” says Len Olea, the editor-in-chief of news outlet Bulatlat, and the secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

Len Olea
Len Olea. Photo: Len Olea

“And we value the work they do because we know that they raise these issues whenever there are opportunities to have dialogues with several government agencies.”

The NUJP has recorded 113 violations of press freedom in the 30 months since the last election, including the killings of three broadcasters.

“Because we know the situation on the ground, we appreciate that the embassies, particularly the members of the MFC, are also reaching out to us. So we think that’s a positive move on their part.”

In 2023, MFC members’ embassies in the Philippines issued joint statements on Rappler editor Maria Ressa’s tax case, and the killings of radio broadcaster Cresenciano Bunduquin and of journalist Juan Jumalon

Member embassies also hosted and supported briefings with journalists as well as public panel discussions such as the Marshall McLuhan Forum Series on Responsible Media at the Canadian embassy (March 2023) and the Czech Embassy forum on “Keeping the Flame of Freedom Alive: Case Study of Percy Lapid Mabasa” (October 2023).

 

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Marielle Geraedts, ambassador of the Netherlands to the Philippines. Photo: Embassy of the Netherlands to the Philippines

“Unfortunately, even in the past few years, there have been some journalists killed, some very prominent journalists in the Philippines,” notes Marielle Geraedts, ambassador of the Netherlands to the Philippines. “So in that case, we publish statements. We, of course, express our condolences, but also we urge the government to really take the investigation seriously.”

Rowena Paraan, Training Director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, says international pressure was key in ensuring more resources were dedicated to investigating the killings of journalists.

She says, “I was head of NUJP for a long time and it was during this period that the very first police task force on journalist killings was created. And it was a product of international pressure on the government… [It] came about because of the alerts and statements that international groups release whenever incidents attacking press freedom and journalists occur in the Philippines.”

Trial monitoring is another important contribution embassies can make. For example, representatives of embassies in Manila attended hearings in a case surrounding the online blocking of Olea’s Bulatlat news website, an intervention which was “greatly appreciated”, says the editor-in-chief.

“Even as observers, I think their presence gives a silent support to our fight for press freedom,” says Olea. “Even if they are not there to speak about our case, the mere presence of embassy representatives supports us, gives us a sense of encouragement in the face of these difficulties, a bit of solidarity.”

Rowena Paraan explained some of the other needs of media workers in the Philippines, as well as civil society working on their behalf. “Resources have always been the biggest problem for journalists’ groups to carry out policy advocacy and public awareness campaigns. However, equally important are training on basic journalism tenets and ethics, and support in the search for a viable business model to enable independent community media to sustain their operations.”

Embassies of MFC member countries in the Philippines have supported both training and funding programmes in recent years, including a safety training for women journalists supported by the Netherlands, and a call for funding proposals from the British Embassy in Manila which included media freedom as a focus area.

Actions on media freedom are more effective when embassies work together and coordinate, notes Ambassador Geraedts – and this cooperation can take place under the banner of the MFC.

Rowena Paraan
Rowena Paraan. Photo: Rowena Paraan

“There is a division of labour within the coalition, of course,” she says. “In the beginning of the year, we try to strategize among each other. Of course, we all have our own human rights programmes with certain frameworks, but in the beginning of the year we try to strategize. What are you planning? What are we planning? What are the joint events we can plan? There’s a lot of cooperation in the group.”

Working as part of the Media Freedom Coalition also allows messages to be amplified and carry greater diplomatic weight.

“I think the value of the coalition is that it really is a broad coalition, and not only the western countries, but it has other members from Latin America, from Asia,” says Ambassador Geraedts. “And I think that’s the value, because then it shows how human rights is a universal thing. It’s not about western countries pushing their agenda.”

It’s partly a matter of access, says Olea. Embassy statements are taken seriously and embassy officials may find it easier to set up meetings with key figures in the administration, compared to NGOs and campaigners.

“We know for a fact that several government agencies reach out to the embassies to talk about several issues,” says Olea. “And foreign embassies here have a unique privilege in trying to raise certain issues, especially about the press freedom situation in the country.”

Ambassador Geraedts also has advice for fellow diplomats and embassy staff, chiefly to maintain a network of trusted journalists. “Listen to them. Don’t be afraid,” she says. “I would say sometimes it might seem scary to do a public statement, but you can really have some influence as a government.”

It’s work which resonates and has an impact, concludes Olea.

“We really appreciate embassies who always express their support over, particularly, attacks on journalists, and on red letter days such as in November, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. And of course, during May 3, World Press Freedom Day,” she says.

“We always look forward to statements issued by the Media Freedom Coalition and other embassies, supportive of our advocacy for press freedom.”

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