The Philippine media landscape is rife with contradictions. On one hand, digital communication is steadily becoming ubiquitous, as shown in the surge in internet use and mobile activity figures. However, the widening socio-economic inequalities and the gap between urban and rural infrastructure maintain the digital divide. Hence, while the urban Philippines, particularly the youth, is expecting a future reality enabled by the ‘Internet of Things’ and artificial intelligence, legacy media – with the exception of the newspaper – remain as prime sources of information outside the cities and for the entire nation in general.
Nevertheless, internet and mobile activity pervade everyday life in a pace unprecedented, so much so that groups and individuals, many of which working under political parties (a notable example is the political party of the incumbent president), exploited the technology for political agenda. Hence, the documented systematic misinformation campaigns (proliferation of fake news) and deployment of ‘troll armies’ aiming to sabotage online discourse, which lead to the ‘weaponization’ of the internet to serve political interests.
Internet as a source of information also sped past print media, which is losing its relevance for much of the general public as the current figures suggest, albeit the community and regional newspapers have seen tremendous growth over the years. Print media, as well as radio and television, invested in online presence to expand reach obviously for relevance and profit, to an extent that we see news outlets that are purely online or more active online. If these trends continue, it is likely that national newspapers and magazines may either merge with others, diversify into other platforms (especially online), cease publishing and maintain an online platform, or worse, cease operating. The forecast may be different for community and regional press, most of which operate in areas where the internet is not yet an indispensable part of everyday transactions, or where the internet and mobile connectivity infrastructure is sorely underdeveloped. It is in these areas where legacy media, particularly radio and community newspapers and magazines, remain as tools for social cohesion.
Although telecommunications infrastructure of the Philippines – and its innovation capability in general – remains far behind that of other countries and even some of its ASEAN neighbors, mobile internet use is pervading every aspect of urban Filipino life. The volume of digital payments, e-wallet accounts, and e-commerce transactions is on the rise, so is the usage of apps for a wide range of activities. New players are challenging the duopolies in the telecommunication and home internet industries, pushing established companies to invest more on the accessibility and deployment of technologies. The ‘mobile-first’ (The Nerve, 2019) market of what is touted as the ‘social media capital’ (Pablo, 2018) of the world makes the country predisposed to higher levels of digital financial inclusion.
However, apart from low media literacy levels (see for example Rubinas, 2019), poor internet connectivity remains as a stumbling block, especially in the time of the coronavirus crisis, in which the new normal is contactless payments and work-from-home set-ups. The crisis has unraveled the sorry state of Philippine internet infrastructure. For one, online learning is not feasible for many schools especially in impoverished areas. Business processing outsourcing companies, which generated thousands of jobs for Filipinos, are struggling to maintain productivity despite internet problems in work-from-home set-ups.
Digitalization in the Philippine mediascape, like in other parts of the world, clearly ushered new business models and transformed the media economy. Unfortunately, these changes include unjust rationalization schemes, such as depression of wages for entry-level journalists. If the internet penetration rate continues to rise and if the private sector-led telecommunications industry continues to invest more in infrastructure development, the greater access to the internet may generate more and more rigid competition for a highly distracted audience. This competition – as well as the delegitimization efforts that discredit mainstream media as source of information – may urge firms to create more aggressive profit-maintaining schemes, which may lead to journalists being overworked and underpaid. These conditions are at the root of unethical practices, media corruption, and lagging professionalism.
The current administration, particularly President Rodrigo Duterte, has maintained an antagonistic stance toward the media, which he and other pro-administration online influencers described as ‘biased’. Duterte has issued threats against some media outlets, including the threat of not renewing the operating license of ABS CBN, biggest broadcast network. Less than two years after issuing this threat, ABS CBN was forced to go off air when Congress refused to renew its franchise. Many see this as a form of political vendetta (Lema and Morales, 2020) because Duterte accused the network of refusing to air his political advertisements during the campaign period of 2016, which the network denied. Duterte himself said, ‘I will see to it that you are out’ (Esguerra, 2019).
These statements can contribute to a climate of distrust in which people view reports critical to the administration as merely false or ‘biased’, especially because Duterte continues to enjoy a high trust rating. The mainstream media is not exactly a clean slate – there are documented cases in which commercial interests take precedence over public service, which the pro-administration forces were quick to use as an excuse for legitimizing measures and statements detrimental to media freedom. If the efforts delegitimizing the media will succeed in the time of intense competition in the industry, there is a possibility that outlets will have to deviate from the watchdog orientation that has long characterized Philippine journalism.
For critics, the recent actions of the Duterte government show how it is using the coronavirus crisis as leverage for its ‘forceful exercise of power’ (Deinla, 2020). As the optimism levels of Filipinos plunge to record-low levels in the coronavirus recession, the government has also enacted laws that have the potential to punish criticism, no matter how valid. In the newly signed anti-terror law, for instance, a handful of presidential appointees have the power to define terrorism and decide who is a terrorist, giving them ample room to target critics and send a chilling effect to the population.
The coronavirus crisis has further exposed the systemic dilemmas that account for the many ironies in the Philippine media landscape. Although government agencies are making efforts to close the digital divide and increase information literacy, the current contradictions in the Philippine mediascape will persist if these structural dilemmas are not addressed. These ironies are rooted on the massive socio-economic inequalities, heavy concentration in the media and telecommunications industry, and inadequate investment in science and technology research and development. The income disparity that continues to rise is in fact the mother of poor information literacy, a tool that one can gain from access to education and a must in the time of fake news and troll armies.