When former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte left office this year, it marked a change in the government’s antagonistic relationship with the media. But new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr is the son of a former dictator who led a crackdown on the media decades ago, so when radio commentator Percy Lapid was shot dead near Manila on October 3, it left journalists wondering what this government’s response might show about how safe they will be in this next chapter.
In this episode:
- Roy Mabasa (@roymabasa), journalist and brother of Percy Lapid
- Jonathan de Santos (@desamting), chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
- Carlos Conde (@condeHRW), senior Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: When you’re out and about and people ask you, do you tell people that you’re a journalist?
Jonathan de Santos: I used to.
Halla Mohieddeen: When Jonathan de Santos first became a journalist in the Philippines, it wasn’t a profession he hid in public. But now, he says his press card is sometimes more of a liability than a protection.
Newsreel: Online attacks and media attacks, legal harassment, attempts at corporate takeovers and threats of franchise shutdowns.
Halla Mohieddeen: This month, Jonathan found himself at a wake for a colleague who was murdered. His name was Percival Mabasa, known on air as Percy Lapid.
Newsreel: He was a staunch critic of the Marcos and Duterte administrations.
Newsreel: Some of his listeners even considering him a hero.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now, journalists are wondering just how much of their next chapter will be written in blood. I’m Halla Mohieddeen, and this is The Take.
Halla Mohieddeen: Harassment. Misinformation. Distrust in the media. It’s a story that’s playing out all over the world now, but the Philippines has been a bellwether for a long time. When Rodrigo Duterte became president, his antagonism for journalists was well-known. This is him soon before entering office in 2016, saying not all journalists are “exempted from assassination”.
Rodrigo Duterte: Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a b**ch.
Halla Mohieddeen: Duterte left office earlier this year, and the new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has so far had a less antagonistic relationship with the press. But there are plenty of reasons to be wary, and Percy Lapid’s death on October 3 underscored why. We heard from his younger brother, Roy Mabasa, who’s also a journalist.
Roy Mabasa: My brother Percy was a hard-hitting commentator with listeners all over the world through his programme Lapid Fire, which was simultaneously aired on radio and through livestreaming on Facebook. He was assassinated by motorcycle-riding men on the night of October 3, 2022, while he was on his way to his studio in Las Piñas City, some 22km (13.7 miles) south of the capital, Manila. We still don’t know the mastermind. I, as a journalist myself, don’t feel safe. Many of my colleagues fear for their safety as the Philippines has truly become one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.
Halla Mohieddeen: Jonathan de Santos, who you heard from at the start of this episode, has been helping to lead journalists’ efforts against those threats.
Jonathan de Santos: I’m chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. I’m also a news editor at philstar.com. That’s a news website in Manila.
Halla Mohieddeen: And where are you speaking to us from?
Jonathan de Santos: Well, I’m in Taguig. It’s one of the cities in Metro Manila. It’s a city near where Percy was shot.
Halla Mohieddeen: We’re talking to you today because obviously we’re wanting to hear about Percy Lapid. Is it fair to say he was really quite well-known?
Jonathan de Santos: He had quite the following, and a lot of his listeners, as it turns out, they’re more like senior citizens, elderly listeners. They listened to him at night before going to bed, like he became part of their routine.
Halla Mohieddeen: Did you have any older relatives who listened to Percy Lapid?
Jonathan de Santos: My dad, well, he has passed on, but he listened to a lot of AM radio, so Percy Lapid was one of his staple programmes.
[LAPID FIRE THEME PLAYING]
Jonathan de Santos: He had a different charisma because he talked like a regular person. He just spoke in plain language, so I think that was part of his appeal.
Halla Mohieddeen: Yeah, for sure. People appreciate that, don’t they?
Jonathan de Santos: Yes, actually when we went to his wake, most of the people there, they weren’t family, they weren’t media – a lot of them were actually listeners.
Newsreel: Family, friends and supporters accompanied his remains in a procession from the funeral home to his final resting place.
Jonathan de Santos: They were wearing shirts calling for justice for his case. So, yeah, it was a big crowd, actually, at his wake.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s still not known why Percy Lapid was killed. On October 18, one suspect in the murder who was caught on tape surrendered to the police.
Newsreel: Authorities say he surrendered on Monday. As the alleged gunman, he ratted out his supposed cohorts.
Halla Mohieddeen: Who gave the order to kill Lapid is still unclear. But the video evidence suggests the hit was well-prepared-for.
Jonathan de Santos: They saw one of them, walking up and down the street where Percy would be passing, so it seems like they really cased his area just before the hit. It suggests that it’s premeditated and that they really prepared for him.
Halla Mohieddeen: Crikey. His death was shocking for multiple reasons, really. What stood out to you?
Jonathan de Santos: Well, as someone from Metro Manila, we haven’t really had a journalist get killed in Manila for a long time. I’ve been in news for 13, 14 years – I don’t remember the last time that that has happened. Most of the risks are outside the capital, so for that to happen in an urban centre, it’s really a cause for concern for us who live here.
Halla Mohieddeen: The murder of Percy Lapid didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Newsreel: All the newsroom attacks happen in this highly charged political climate where state propaganda, boosted by trolls and click farms, systematically target dissent.
Halla Mohieddeen: The country’s biggest TV station, ABS-CBN, has been taken off TV airwaves when it was shut down by the Duterte administration after the Congress did not renew its permits in 2020.
Newsreel: Duterte accuses the network of swindling, claiming ABS-CBN did not show his political ads during the 2016 campaign season, even though these were already paid for.
Halla Mohieddeen: Another major news website, Rappler, has been tied up in at least seven court cases since 2018. If Rappler loses its appeals, it will be shut down, and its co-founder, Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa, also faces a cumulative sentence of 100 years in prison. This is her speaking about Rappler in Oslo last month.
Maria Ressa: We decided to keep going because we’re not violating anything in the constitution, so every day we go to work, and we’re not sure whether we will get shut down that day. And at the same time, because we’re doing well, I’m trying to recruit people to a company that may or may not get shut down. It’s kind of a strange place to be.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s just the media landscape, not the physical threats.
Halla Mohieddeen: Was it like this when you first started out in journalism, or is it quite different?
Jonathan de Santos: Well, of course, there has always been some tension between media and government. I mean, that’s the nature of the work that we do.
Halla Mohieddeen: Of course, yeah.
Jonathan de Santos: But the Duterte administration really went full force on basically discrediting the media, telling people that they shouldn’t trust us or that we’re working against the government, so, yeah, there has been a lot more harassment in recent years than previously.
Halla Mohieddeen: The rhetoric has inflamed a situation that was already volatile. Since 1986 when the Philippines returned to democracy after years of dictatorship, nearly 200 journalists have been killed for doing their jobs, and their cases have rarely been brought to justice.
Jonathan de Santos: Like when Percy was killed, there were some comments saying that he deserved it, and basically, the past few years have been one big chilling effect on media. We’re lucky to still be able to push past that and keep reporting, but a lot of our colleagues have left the industry, have left journalism, especially after the May elections. So that’s the sort of impact that the environment that they’re working on has on the community.
Halla Mohieddeen: Just before Percy Lapid was killed, he spoke out on an issue that goes hand in hand with press freedom. In the Philippines, it’s known as red-tagging or redbaiting.
Jonathan de Santos: Red-tagging is basically labelling anyone you don’t like – but generally journalists, human rights workers, civil society people – as communists and as communist rebels. Basically, almost reflexively, people who speak out against the government are labelled as communists.
Halla Mohieddeen: Communist rebels have been fighting for decades in an armed conflict that’s claimed 30,000 lives, so the label is a harsh spotlight.
Jonathan de Santos: The government has stepped up its campaign against the rebels since around 2017, and it has tended to equate dissent and criticism with actually taking up arms, for example, against the government.
Halla Mohieddeen: In September, a judge blocked a government petition to declare the Communist Party and its guerrilla wing a “terrorist organisation”. The judge was promptly red-tagged herself.
Jonathan de Santos: People who have been red-tagged have been arrested. Some have been harassed. Some have been killed. Basically, there is a fear that if I report on issues, for example, about human rights or about land disputes, there is a risk that that might be construed as aiding terrorism or participating in terrorism itself.
Halla Mohieddeen: As Jonathan mentioned, the issue goes far beyond journalists. Even a Catholic nun has been red-tagged after she criticised Maria Ressa’s conviction for cyber-libel.
Jonathan de Santos: A nun, like, she’s in her 80s, I think, and basically, they said that she’s a communist leader. There is no evidence to that. She actually works for a school. So, yeah, we have nuns under investigation for allegedly financing “terrorism”. It’s just that’s how careless the red-tagging has been.
Halla Mohieddeen: The government has defended the practice. The Philippines’ justice minister said earlier this month in Geneva about red-tagging, “If you can dish it out, you should be able to take it. That, for me, is probably the essence of democracy.”
Jonathan de Santos: The government says they’re not doing it – they’re just telling the truth, for example, about activist groups. But there is no credible evidence to show that activist groups are linked to the Communist Party or that they’re linked to the armed rebellion in parts of the Philippines. And unfortunately, there are people who believe the propaganda. There are people who believe that anyone who disagrees with government could be a “terrorist”. So yeah, that’s the sort of thing that we’re working under now.
Carlos Conde: I think it’s an understatement to say that it’s not an ideal environment to practise journalism.
Halla Mohieddeen: Carlos Conde is the senior Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch and a former journalist himself. And he says deaths like Percy Lapid’s fit into a long history.
Carlos Conde: Actually, in the region, I mean, in Southeast Asia, the Philippines probably has one of the freest press. We don’t have prior restraint in this country, unlike in many other places.
Halla Mohieddeen: Carlos is referring to other restrictions in the region, such as Thailand’s lese-majeste law, which limits what can be said about the royal family.
Carlos Conde: And that’s good. I mean, the problem only becomes when people decide to take action against you in terms of reprisals. The problem is always reprisals. You know, journalists in the Philippines are so brave that the threat of death or the threat of physical harm are not stopping them from doing their jobs. And, you know, this sort of tradition [goes] way back.
Halla Mohieddeen: People are watching the current battles for press freedom, but they may not realise it’s a very long war. One that goes back to the time of the current president’s father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Newsreel: Marcos Sr’s rule was marked by enforced disappearances, torture and police brutality. The victims number in the thousands, the families they left behind even more.
Halla Mohieddeen: Marcos led the Philippines from 1965 until 1986 when he was overthrown in a democratic revolution.
Carlos Conde: When Mr Marcos – the senior, the father of the current president – became president, people were starting to detect some problems in the way the news is being manipulated or controlled by the administration at the time, so a lot of the journalists became critical. They started covering the Marcos administration much more critically, so that when Marcos declared martial law in 1972, journalists were among the first ones to be arrested and locked up.
Halla Mohieddeen: Here’s Marcos Sr after martial law was declared.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr: I have received hundreds and hundreds of telegrams from all corners of the Philippines congratulating you – and incidentally, me – for the proclamation of martial law, for the sudden cessation of anarchy and of criminality throughout the land.
Carlos Conde: The crackdown was so massive that newspapers and radio stations were shut down. There were some who remained, but they were controlled or cowed by the regime, so the information at the time really was severely limited to whatever the dictatorship and the family of Mr Marcos wanted to spread.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it also gave birth to a new form of journalism, one that operated guerrilla-style to expose the Marcos dictatorship.
Carlos Conde: You know, the human rights violation, the arrest and torture and murder of activists, the famine that was happening in some places in the country, and all these unsavoury events that took place.
Halla Mohieddeen: It was known as the mosquito press. If you’ve ever heard about the president’s wife, Imelda Marcos, and her thousands of shoes discovered after the revolution, it was the mosquito press who stung her first with reports of her lavish excesses.
Carlos Conde: They would swoop in on the subject, you know, bite the subject and fly away and then do the same thing another time, so they became this pesky, you know, bunch of journalists. And so, you know, from this history, after 1986, it rose from there. There was this kind of revival of really good Philippine journalism after Marcos was ousted and so that kind of was the context of the birth of a really rambunctiously free Philippine press.
Carlos Conde: We have a very proud tradition of competent, courageous journalism in this country, and seeing what’s happening now, it’s really heartbreaking.
Halla Mohieddeen: And now there’s a new Marcos in power. After the break, what that legacy means for journalists today.
Halla Mohieddeen: To understand the environment today for journalists in the Philippines, I asked Jonathan de Santos what he’s been seeing.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now into all of this comes the new president, who’s the son of the old president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Newsreel: The new president praised the legacy of his father, Ferdinand Marcos, for accomplishing many things. He promised to emulate him.
Halla Mohieddeen: What are the fears now about that legacy of press freedom? Is any of that something you think could happen again in the Philippines?
Jonathan de Santos: I think in terms of policy, he’s smoother. He talks better, but in terms of action, there hasn’t really been a change.
Halla Mohieddeen: And Jonathan noticed it in Marcos Jr’s reaction to Percy Lapid’s murder.
Jonathan de Santos: In response to the Percy Lapid killing, he said – well, the palace said he was concerned about it and that he wanted a quick investigation, but he hasn’t said anything directly about it. He attended an oath-taking for a journalist group, and he didn’t even mention the case. The killing was very fresh, and it was on everyone’s mind, and I think that’s what you were waiting for, that he would say that, well, you know, journalists shouldn’t be killed.
So it doesn’t really send the signal that the rhetoric against journalists should stop or that attacks against journalists should stop. And again, he comes to power after Duterte, who had ABS-CBN taken off the air, who had – basically, whose government offices filed cases against Rappler. So basically, those precedents are already there. There hasn’t been any indication that that’s going to happen, but I guess knowing that the attacks on media have been done and that they can be done again, it adds to the whole chilling effect that we’re trying to work against.
Halla Mohieddeen: So it’s a sort of fear at the back of the minds of the news organisations themselves?
Jonathan de Santos: Right. Because he also has the backing of the biggest political families and most political parties. Also the 31 million voters who elected him into office.
Newsreel: One of the reasons Marcos won the election is a massive social media disinformation campaign that whitewashed his father’s record.
Jonathan de Santos: There’s a really huge mandate, and I don’t think media owners would be willing to risk his wrath at this point.
Halla Mohieddeen: But as the Philippines heads into this new Marcos era, Jonathan says what he is seeing is a growing understanding among his colleagues that journalists have to stick together in the face of those forces.
Jonathan de Santos: When the attacks against Rappler and ABS-CBN happened, they saw that as something that was happening to someone else, something to report about, but not really something that could impact them. Now, I think it’s clearer that if it’s riskier for one of us, then it’s riskier for all of us.
Halla Mohieddeen: Jonathan says people have seen the Philippines as a warning about the risks of misinformation and distrusting the media for years, but he says the physical threats should be a warning too.
Jonathan de Santos: We’re living in a country where basically, critical reporting is seen as trying to bring down the government, and it’s a scary place to be. I’m hoping that it won’t be a common situation for journalists, so maybe the Philippines is also a warning in the sense of press freedom and journalist safety. Our situation could also happen elsewhere. So, I guess, take your lessons from where we are now and try not to end up where we are now.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke, with Chloe K Li, Ruby Zaman, Ashish Malhotra, Amy Walters, Negin Owliaei and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Emileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.
This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Chloe K. Li and our host, Halla Mohieddeen. It was fact-checked by Ruby Zaman.
Our production team includes Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.