The recent – and alarming developments – make it imperative to take another look at the Philippine media landscape. The first half of 2020 has seen brazen state maneuvers inimical to media freedom, some of which were even done as the country struggles amid the coronavirus crisis. The head of the state himself, President Rodrigo Duterte, continued to make well-publicized threats and hurl insults against media outfits, which he has been doing since 2016 (Tomacruz, 2020). Several journalists and media companies, known for their critical reportage, are now facing charges filed by high-profile state functionaries and government agencies. In the middle of the longest lockdown in the world, one of the biggest media companies, ABS-CBN, was forced to go off air (The last time the station was shut down was when Philippines was placed under martial law in the 1970s). Furthermore, Duterte signed a new anti-terror law that critics fear will further erode freedom of speech (Buan, 2020; Santos, 2020), despite information and criticism being necessary in this time of the pandemic. For many, the Philippine case is another narrative about a strongman-led regime exploiting the pandemic crisis to consolidate power (see Rachman, 2020).
To make matters worse, overall trust in mainstream news has fallen significantly, as the public trust rating of Duterte, described as a ‘populist’ leader, remains high (Chua, 2020). In fact, Philippines is among the countries with the lowest trust levels in the sample of 40 countries surveyed in the latest Digital News Report (see Newman, Fletcher, Schulz, Andi, and Nielsen, 2020). Social media is also teeming with posts trying to delegitimize mainstream media and alternative media as sources of information. Especially among the mainstream media, there are cases in which commercial interests take precedence as evidenced by reporting slant, and some state functionaries and pro-state online influencers were quick to use this as a justification for vilifying the media.
The coronavirus crisis has also worsened the already precarious working conditions of Filipino journalists. Many continue to discharge their functions despite fear of contracting the virus and fear of losing their jobs as their companies bleed losses from declining advertising revenues (Tantuco, 2020). On top of all these is the atmosphere of fear created by vaguely worded provisions in new Philippine laws, which define ‘terrorism’ and ‘fake news’ in broad terms.
The repertoire of actions of the Duterte government underscores one of the many contradictions in the Philippine media landscape: a strong tradition of watchdog-adversarial journalism (Balod and Hameleers, 2019) that now struggles to function in a supposed democracy despite an increasingly militaristic approach to governance (Gita, 2019; Romero, 2018). In other words, the irony of a strong watchdog orientation within a political system that is being more and more authoritarian (Makalintal, 2018).
The Philippine media landscape is characterized by contradictions, apart from what was mentioned. On one hand, it joins the global trend of technological disruptions ushering changes in the media economy, profession, and consumption. On the other, persistent socio-economic inequalities and the urban-rural gap limit the potential of these disruptions, thus maintaining the supremacy of legacy media (except the newspaper) as source of information in the countryside.
Print media – newspapers and magazines – is said to be ‘losing its relevance’ as a source of information (Media Ownership Monitor, 2017) as it lags behind television, radio, and even the internet by rate of exposure. The traditional television remains to be the primary source of information, although the news reach of online media is exponentially increasing especially in the urban areas (Chua, 2020). The Media Ownership Monitor (2017) even concluded from the available data that the Philippines is ‘not a nation of newspaper readers’. The most recent data on media consumption affirms this downward trend for print: only 22 percent of the sample get their news from newspapers (see Newman et al., 2020).
The national and major regional newspapers, as well as other forms of legacy media, have already invested in online presence, as more and more Filipinos get their content from digital media. However, community and regional press have seen growth in the past few decades and in many rural areas, the community press banks on their reputation, collective participatory interest of its audience, and its perceived role in social cohesion.
The community press and the radio continue to be preferred modes of communication even for belligerent groups. The radio, in particular, is still seen as the most pervasive, reaching even the most remote of areas.
The country is labeled the ‘social media capital of the world’ given the rate of social media usage (Pablo, 2018; Mateo, 2018; We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020) and belongs to the top 20 countries with highest internet penetration rate (Internet World Stats, 2020a). However, and herein lies another irony, the telecommunications infrastructure of the Philippines remains underdeveloped in most areas, as the number of cell towers is far less than that of its neighboring countries. Internet speed is slower than the other countries in Asia-Pacific and is even below the global average (ABS CBN News, 2019; Akamai Technologies, Inc., 2017) and mobile signal, even the older generation 2G connectivity, is unavailable in many rural areas.
The coronavirus crisis has unraveled the poor state of internet connectivity in many parts of the country, as schools are struggling to switch to online learning and business processing outsourcing companies try to hit productivity targets despite unreliable internet in work-from-home set-ups.
Nevertheless, the past two years have seen a dramatic increase in the reach and speed of internet connectivity, as well as in the number of transactions enabled by it. E-commerce and digital finance are expected to grow as contactless payments are promoted as a safety measure against coronavirus transmission. Digital financial inclusion, however, is still limited by poor internet speed and lack of awareness about e-money security and functions.
Internet access in the Philippines is mostly done through the mobile phone screens, which explains the fact that the country is dubbed as a ‘mobile first market’ (The Nerve, 2019) and also the ‘fastest-growing app market in Southeast Asia’ (Garcia, 2016). However, the mobile phone and telecommunications market reflects some truths in Philippine demographics: the market is dominated by budget smartphones which have a strong presence in the provinces. The ‘emerging affluent’ are the heaviest users of mobile applications for an expanding array of services such as transportation and shopping (Visa, 2016). There is also a generational gap and an income gap in smartphone and internet usage. Far more young people, ages 18 to 29, use the internet and own a smartphone than people aged 50 and above (Schumacher and Kent, 2020). Higher income people are also more likely to use a smartphone than lower income people (Schumacher and Kent, 2020).
The preference for much cheaper smartphones in the countryside could be an effect of poor (if not absent) 3G and 4G connectivity outside the cities – hence, mobile activity is limited to 2G-based activity, which does not require more expensive handsets – and heightened poverty levels. However, this assumed causality has yet to be tested by empirical research.
Duopolies are well-entrenched in the television and telecommunications industry and the country has no strong measures to ensure fair competition (Only recently has a law been enacted, but implementation of course is an entirely different matter). In the case of the broadcast industry, however, market disruptions are likely to arise from the shutdown order on ABS-CBN, the leading network in terms of revenue and audience share and reach.
The media market is private sector-led, and so is research and development, which suffers from poor state funding when compared with other countries in Asia. Although technology-enabled companies are the most active agents in the innovation landscape, the attempts to bridge the digital divide by introducing innovation to the grassroots level are still largely a government affair.
The wave of digitalization definitely offered people, at least in the urban Philippines, new opportunities, but another irony lies in how the internet has become ‘weaponized’ by politically motivated groups and individuals. Some groups have taken advantage of the fact that Filipinos are heavy internet and social media users and the fact that the internet penetration rate is rising rapidly. Studies have documented the rise of systematized misinformation campaigns, with various components including deployment of ‘troll armies’ to sabotage online discourse and proliferation of fake news (see Bradshaw and Howard; Ong and Cabañes, 2016). The architects and operators of these campaigns were found to work for political parties and politicians, one of which is in fact the political party of the incumbent president (Bradshaw and Howard, 2017). In fact, Duterte himself admitted that he spent millions in paying internet trolls to defend him on social media during the 2016 elections (Carmencito, 2017; Ranada, 2017). This has largely contributed to social media networks, particularly Facebook and Twitter, being venues for online harassment and hostile exchange in the Philippines. There is also an ‘overwhelming concern’ about Facebook as a channel for ‘false or misleading information’ in the country (Newman et al., 2020, p.19).
Although the Philippine media system has been described as the ‘freest’ in Asia, and enjoys greater independence when compared to some of neighboring countries (Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network, 2018; Johnson, 2018), it is indeed far from a rosy picture. The ‘culture of impunity’ that has characterized the media landscape especially after the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre (single deadliest event for journalists in the world) appears to continue under the Duterte regime, as majority of journalist killings remain unresolved and 12 journalists were killed in the first two years of the current administration (International Federation of Journalists, 2019). Over 150 incidents of threats and attacks against journalists have been recorded since Duterte assumed office in 2016, according to Freedom for Media, Freedom for All, a network of journalist organizations (Rappler, 2019).
With the multitude of sources and deluge of data, coupled with delegitimization efforts discussed above, mainstream media in the Philippines found itself struggling for audience engagement. The political and commercial pressures created numerous instances of compromise, as in the case of some journalists reporting that in their respective newsrooms, there is a command to tone down articles critical of the administration (Estella, 2018).
In the face of commercial and political imperatives, many outlets continue to implement business schemes that in some cases include rationalization of labor. For starting journalists (and community journalists), ‘low wages’ tend to be the most important problem, but those in the higher positions tend to see lagging professionalism as the main dilemma (Tandoc and Skoric, 2010). Indeed, professionalism in Philippine journalism is also a function of working conditions and overall media economy, as wages and working conditions can also be predictors of unethical practice or media corruption.
The pathways to a journalism career are diverse. Many journalists graduated with a degree in journalism, communication, liberal arts, or even remotely related fields. There has been a massive growth in the number of institutions offering journalism or mass communication programs since the 1970s. In the basic education level, journalism conferences and competitions are held from the district to the national level and a special program for journalism is now being offered as a specialization strand in senior high school. However, there is no current empirical data evaluating the state of journalism education in the country.
Journalism education in the country operates largely in an industry-centered perspective – the learning emphasis is on reproducing the standards of the industry, i.e. educators train students according to the norms of the industry. This observation goes hand-in-hand with the fact that journalism studies or journalism research is not a robust field of study in the Philippines. Although practitioners see nothing wrong with this learning emphasis, such a perspective can be hostile to innovation and even critical thinking and can prevent the academe from functioning as a critic of the industry.