Manila, Philippines - International and local journalists' groups have strongly condemned online threats made by alleged pro-government supporters to at least two female journalists in the Philippines, urging President Rodrigo Duterte to launch an investigation and penalise the perpetrators.

Freelance journalist Gretchen Malalad and Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan became targets of social media attacks in recent days, receiving threats of rape and harm to them and their families. 

The two Manila-based journalists had been reporting on Duterte's anti-drug war, as well as the military operation against the armed group Abu Sayyaf.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on Tuesday called on Martin Andanar, Duterte's senior spokesperson, to investigate the threats under a special government body, announced by Duterte in July to investigate media killings in the country.

"The IFJ expresses serious concerns for the safety of media employees working in the Philippines," the groups said in a statement.

"Threats delivered to journalists via social media must be taken seriously by the government and perpetrators must be penalised accordingly so as to ensure the safety of journalists."

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Malalad came under attack online for supposedly assisting in a report by Time Magazine on deaths related to the anti-drug war. 

Since June 30, when Duterte took office, more than 3,500 people have been killed in police operations and by unknown attackers.

"We are increasingly concerned by threats made to journalists, including over social media, for their coverage of the drug war in the Philippines," Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative at Committee to Protect Journalists, told Al Jazeera. 

"Philippine officials, including President Duterte, have jeopardised the security of journalists by accusing them of misrepresenting or being supported by drug lords to critically portray the campaign.

"They should immediately cease and desist from such veiled threats and instead work to reveal and punish those who use social media to anonymously threaten journalists."

Commentators on Facebook pages loyal to Duterte called for physical harm against Malalad, who is a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism in New York and a former reporter with ABS-CBN, the largest media company in the Philippines.

Others branded her a "traitor".

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Alindogan, meanwhile, received threats for her reporting on the military operation against the Abu Sayyaf. She is also doing a follow-up documentary on Duterte, after working on a 101 East documentary in April.

Alindongan told Al Jazeera that she does not feel safe after the threats against her.

"[The] attacks [against us] have become so vicious, [that] we have been put on the defensive," she said.

"Coming from a country considered already one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist, the situation, it seems, is getting worse," she added. 

"We hope the government will speak soon condemning such acts."

In a separate statement, the Philippine journalist group NUJP said that while the media "always welcome engagement, including criticism, from their audience", the threats "have gone beyond legitimate criticism of their professional output to outright threats on their persons".

"We will never take any threats, whether of physical harm or to silence us, lightly for we have lost far too many of our colleagues and hardly seen justice for them," NUJP chairman Ryan Rosauro said.

The group said it is hoping the special unit formed by Duterte to investigate media killings and other media threats could "prove its worth" in looking into the case of Malalad and Alindogan.

'Corrupt journalists legitimate targets'

The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries for practising journalists, with 145 media workers killed since 1990.

Duterte, himself, has been known to denounce journalists for their coverage of his drug war.

He has previously cursed foreign journalists for their reporting, and has said that corrupt journalists are legitimate targets of assassination.  .

A self-confessed hitman from Davao, the hometown of Duterte, recently told a Senate committee hearing that the then-mayor had ordered the  killing of a radio commentator who was critical of him.

Before taking office, Duterte was also quoted as saying that the commentator, Jun Pala, was "a rotten son of a whore", who "deserved" to be killed.   

But Duterte previously said that he welcomed questions from the media. "I have nothing against you. I am not at liberty to [be] angry at anybody," he said.

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Source: Al Jazeera News