Experts bewail silencing of the press, cite persecution of De Lima as example of lawfare vs free expression

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           Rappler Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Maria Ressa and former Rep. Walden Bello have condemned the Duterte administration’s proclivity in promoting impunity for abuses against journalists and repressing media in the context of the lawfare against free press.

            In a webinar entitled “From Repression to Resistance: A Webinar on Combatting the Lawfare Against Press Freedom” held last Nov. 21, Bello cited as an example on silencing the press how some news outlets self-censor important updates on the case of Sen. Leila M. Lima out of fear of being the next government target.

            “The weaponization of the law has had massive effects on the dispensation of justice and the welfare of citizens. One [instance] is the case of Senator Leila de Lima. There have been two very significant recent developments in the government’s legal persecution of the honorable senator,” said Bello.

            “Now, under other circumstances, with the collapse of the government’s case against her, Senator De Lima should have been freed immediately. However, most news sources, apart from Rappler and a handful of others, have not dared to highlight [o]n these latest developments for fear of becoming the next object of Malacanang’s wrath. So she remains in jail, with the public knowing virtually nothing of the facts that would liberate her,” he added.

            Ressa, for her part, said the shutdown of ABS-CBN and the passage of an Anti-Terror Law made Filipinos, including some journalists, afraid to speak up and challenge power, thereby leading to the decline of democracy.

            As such, she underscored the need to “tap the global community of journalists and press freedom groups to help Filipinos shine the light on abuses of power in the Philippines,” which she said include the case of De Lima whom she cited as the best example of lawfare victim in the country.

            The webinar on lawfare, which was originally set on the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists last Nov. 2, but was moved to Nov. 21 due to the onslaught of recent typhoons, served as a platform for rights group and press freedom activists to share their expertise on lawfare against free press and cognate rights.

            The online forum was organized by the Committee for the Freedom of Leila M. de Lima (Free Leila Committee), in cooperation with the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, the Asian Center for Journalism, and Cebu for Human Rights.

            In the forum, Ressa further noted that impunity of social media, particularly Facebook, allowed the exponential attacks and hate speech against journalists, adding that a fake bandwagon effect is meant to influence others to believe the lies such as when they used micro-targeting to seed fake narratives against De Lima.

            “Lies spread with anger, and hate spread faster than the boring facts of news,” she said. “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, democracy as we know is dead.”

            Meanwhile, Froilan Gallardo, a veteran photographer and journalist, who was also a speaker during the webinar, appealed for an end to media harassment, citing the Committee to Protect Journalist ranking the Philippines as the 5th deadliest in the world for journalists.

            Bello also cited the Committee to Protect Journalists, noting that there have been 87 press people who have been murdered in the Philippines between 1992 and 2020 and 19 of these murders have taken place during the last four and a half years.

            It may be recalled that the Free Leila Committee previously staged two successful forums on lawfare last February and August dubbed as “International Forum on Lawfare: Weaponizing the Law vs Democratic Dissent” and “Clampdown Amid Lockdown: Human Rights Repression in the Philippines during the Pandemic,” respectively.

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