Journalists, fact-checkers under attack in Philippines while trust in news rises

·Senior Editor
·6 min read
FILE PHOTO: Journalists, reporters and editors at work in the newsroom of ABS-CBN News on February 11, 2020 in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. The Philippine government on Monday moved to shut down the country's leading broadcast network, ABS-CBN Corp., over alleged constitutional violations, in what is seen by critics as the latest push by President Rodrigo Duterte against media outlets that have been critical of his leadership. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: Journalists, reporters and editors at work in the newsroom of ABS-CBN News on February 11, 2020 in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. The Philippine government on Monday moved to shut down the country's leading broadcast network, ABS-CBN Corp., over alleged constitutional violations, in what is seen by critics as the latest push by President Rodrigo Duterte against media outlets that have been critical of his leadership. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Both journalists and fact-checkers in the Philippines continue to come under attack, even while overall trust in news has risen amid a corresponding slide in trust for media brands, according to the most comprehensive global study of news consumption trends.

The Digital News Report 2022 also found that there has been a steady growth of online news consumption on social platforms in the country, with Facebook the most popular and TikTok experiencing a spike in usage.

Despite Rappler CEO Maria Ressa winning the Nobel Peace Prize for Journalism in December 2021, "journalists and fact-checkers have been vilified not only by online trolls but also by public officials," noted Yvonne T. Chua of the University of the Philippines, who authored the Philippines profile for the report.

Concerns over press freedom have also grown as incoming president Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. held professional journalists in low regard throughout his campaign.

Chua noted that overall trust in news rose as Filipinos turned to media amid a surge of COVID-19 cases around the time the survey was conducted between January 18 and February 2.

However, trust in brands fell, with the exception of DZBB, Teleradyo, Rappler, and the tabloid Abante. "Independent outlets respected for their reporting on those in positions of power are often actively distrusted by supporters of the politicians in question," said Chua.

The report found that GMA News had the most weekly online reach, with 51 per cent of respondents using it at least once a week. This was followed by ABS-CBN News (41 per cent), Philippine Daily Inquirer (39 per cent) and Rappler (30 per cent). Yahoo Philippines came in fifth at 29 per cent.

93,000 surveyed globally

The Digital News Report documents ways in which the connection between journalism and the public may be fraying, including a fall in trust following last year’s positive bump, a declining interest in news and a rise in news avoidance.

Released globally on Wednesday (June 15) by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, is based on a YouGov survey of over 93,000 online news consumers in 46 markets covering half of the world's population.

A total of 2,023 adult Filipinos were among the respondents from 46 media markets in six continents polled online.

Professional journalists sidelined

Chua noted that Marcos barred professional journalists from covering his campaign events, snubbed media-hosted debates, and gave preferential treatment to friendly social media influencers and a partisan TV station that repeatedly lambasted mainstream media.

Presidential communications official Lorraine Marie T. Badoy even warned in February that the government’s anticommunist task force intended to take legal action against Rappler for allegedly spreading disinformation. Badoy also threatened action against Facebook for allowing Rappler and Vera Files ‘to abuse the immense powers’ of their designation as the platform’s third-party fact-checkers.

Meanwhile, both big and small news organisations like Rappler, Vera Files, ABS-CBN, GMA News, CNN Philippines, Interaksyon, PressOnePH and Mindanao GoldStar Daily were targets of what seemed to be coordinated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that crippled their websites.

Months earlier, the attacks against Bulatlat and another alternative news site were traced to an IP address assigned to the Philippine Army. The country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index has also slipped further, by nine spots to 147th out of 180 countries.

Tide of disinformation

INFOGRAPHIC: Digital News Report 2022
INFOGRAPHIC: Digital News Report 2022

The Philippines is also one of three countries where political misinformation (64 per cent) is more widely seen than unproven claims about the coronavirus (61 per cent).

"With the country awash with disinformation in the lead-up to the elections, media combined forces with academia and civil society to fact-check untruthful election narratives that mostly lionised Marcos and demonised his rival, Vice President Leni Robredo," noted Chua.

Two fact-checking collaboratives took the lead: TsekPH, formed during the 2019 midterm elections and relaunched with 34 partners, and FactsFirstPH, a new initiative with 18 fact-checking partners.

The survey also found that concern over online misinformation has eased slightly among Filipinos: 56 per cent worry about identifying what is real and fake news online, down from 59 per cent a year ago.

Some 30 per cent of Filipinos question the independence of news organizations from undue political and business interests. A majority also say that all or most news organizations put commercial interests (37 per cent) and political interests (34 per cent) ahead of what is best for society.

And when looking for news online, the survey found Filipinos paying most attention to specific brands (44 per cent) as well as specific journalists or commentators (40 per cent).

Television still the most popular

While television remains the most popular medium in the Philippines, there has been a steady growth of online news consumption on social platforms.

Facebook remains the most widely used (73 per cent for news weekly) but the biggest leap comes from TikTok, used by a mere 2 per cent for news in 2020 and now by 15 per cent.

57 per cent of of Filipinos also consume news via YouTube, the highest among the 46 markets.

"News organisations correspondingly moved into the platform, especially in time for the elections," said Chua. "Besides being the largest radio and television network, GMA Network is now the country’s largest news creator on TikTok, which it also partnered with for an election campaign series."

Other brands that have attracted a loyal following are ABS-CBN, News5, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, DZRH, and Rappler.

Investments by media houses have also been channelled mainly to growing their digital presence as Filipinos increasingly turn online for news. In January, ABS-CBN Corp. raised nearly US$10m from the sale of its shares and depositary receipts to fund digital initiatives and content production. These have kept the network afloat since mid-2020 when its free-to-air radio and TV stations closed after Congress refused to renew its franchise.

ABS-CBN’s move preceded the government’s decision to assign its highly coveted frequencies to three companies, two of them owned by allies of Marcos and outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte.

Swara Sug Media Corp., owned by Duterte’s spiritual adviser Apollo Quiboloy, who is wanted in the United States for sex trafficking, received the frequency formerly used for ABS-CBN's digital terrestrial television.

The network’s two other frequencies, including Channel 2, were awarded to Advanced Media Broadcasting System purchased only in 2021 by Manuel Villar, former Senate president and the country’s richest man.

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