Filipino Americans are watching the Philippines. Why isn't American media?

My dad grew up in a Philippines province without consistent electricity or television, far away from the epicenter of protests against the Ferdinand Marcos regime. All the media he consumed was run by Marcos-friendly officials.

He still remembers when he found out about the People Power movement that ousted Marcos from power and caused him to flee the country. As a high school journalist, my dad was at the National Secondary High Schools conference when the news was announced.

“I remember the air just changed,” he said. “The people from the Ilocos region, central Visayas, where there were a lot of Marcos supporters — they were just crying. And the people from Metro Manila were cheering.”

Looking back, he thinks it makes more sense to rename what Marcos supporters were watching on TV.

“The channels were Fascist 1, Fascist 2, Fascist 3, Fascist 4, Fascist 5,” he said. “That was all we had.”

For many Filipinos around the world, the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest broadcast network, and the passing of an Anti-Terrorism Bill — legislation that detractors say will result in gross abuse of government power–brought back memories of their parents’ or their own experience with martial law. 

But both the ABS-CBN shutdown and the anti-terror law have largely escaped coverage in American news outlets, even though the law could put the over four million Filipino nationals and citizens living in the United States at risk if they were to return to the Philippines. 

The Anti-Terrorism Act, signed on July 3, replaces a 2007 Human Security Act that received similar pushback from the Human Rights Watch for its vague language, but clearly defined terrorism as anyone who committed an act punishable under specific sections of the Philippine Revised Penal Code. Under the new law, it’s entirely unclear what “terrorism” means. Anyone who proposes or participates in “terrorism", provides support to “terrorists” or recruits members of a “terrorist organisation” could face life imprisonment without parole. 

The Anti-Terror Council created by the new legislation would be able to designate groups and individuals as terrorists, bypassing the judicial branch of government. It has the power to detain them for 24 days without incurring fees, while under the Human Security Act, law enforcement must pay 500,000 pesos to the person being detained. The act, when it takes effect, will also allow for 90-day surveillance and wiretaps.

ZJ, a college student in the U.S. who asked The Objective to use a nickname for safety reasons, said that ABS-CBN was a way for their family to connect to home. 

“It means so much to them because they’ve spent over 30 years living away from home,” ZJ wrote in an email. “For my family, they’ve voiced that martial law this time around is going to be worse than the Marcos era — it’s a reminder of a dark time.” 

ZJ said their aunt and uncle spent their twenties protesting the Marcos regime.

“There's definitely trauma and deep history, and the current events in the Philippines and Duterte's regime reminds them of a time they worked so hard to move on from,” they said.

The New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR have covered the ABS-CBN shutdown and the Anti-Terrorism Act, but have not detailed how both will affect Filipinos abroad. The Post’s only coverage of the Anti-Terrorism Act came from the Associated Press

The Anti-Terrorism Act, which will take effect on July 18, has made #DefendPressFreedom a rallying cry on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for free press advocates and Filipino activists internationally. The legislation will go into effect just days after the Philippine Congress denied ABS-CBN a 25-year franchise renewal, meaning the network must stop broadcasting on free-to-air and cable channels, putting 11,071 jobs at risk.

The International Press Institute condemned the rejection of the ABS-CBN franchise renewal, arguing that the decision will undermine “objective and factual reporting.” And Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said the Anti-Terrorism Act could “have a horrific impact on basic civil liberties, due process and the rule of law amid the Philippines’ shrinking democratic space.” 

Mikee Garcia, who studied journalism at University of the Philippines-Diliman, has a cousin studying in the United States. Garcia said she wanted people abroad to know that the situation in the Philippines is “all kinds of wrong.” 

“The Philippines has been on lockdown for over four months now — the longest lockdown in the world and we like to call it the most useless, as well,” Garcia said in an email. “Technically, the courts are closed [...but] that has been the Philippine government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with terrorism and quelling press freedom.”

The Duterte administration, Garcia said, is hauntingly similar to the Marcos administration, which put the Philippines under martial law from 1972 to 1981. 

“Human rights violations during Marcos’ time included the torture and murders of student activists, lawyers, journalists,” he wrote. “We still live in the same reign of terror with the Duterte administration, but his extrajudicial killings with his war on drugs, or war against the poor, has reached 27,000, including minors.”

Human Rights Watch said the Philippines has been plunged into the worst human rights crisis since Marcos’ rule. 

Marcos, like Duterte, closed down ABS-CBN, saying in his shut-down order that ABS-CBN was engaged in “subversive activities against the Government..and [its personnel] are participants in a conspiracy to overthrow the Government.”

Shutting down ABS-CBN doesn’t just cut into press freedoms, but severs many Filipinos in the country from essential information and Filipinos overseas from their homeland. 

Garcia said that with the ABS-CBN shutdown — especially because the free-to-air channels are no longer broadcasting — Filipinos in distant provinces won’t get news anymore.

“They’re still online, but some parts of the country don’t have good or any signal at all — that’s the value of television,” he said, arguing that cutting television news is just as bad as school classes shifting online. “We found that the amount of information you get depends on your internet connection, so access really matters.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Edre Olalia from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said that he fears the law will affect not only reporters and activists who are critical of Duterte, but also members of the public expressing anti-Duterte opinions online. “The powers of the law are so expansive and broad that even legitimate activity can be considered terrorism,” he said. 

Section 49 of the new law notes that Filipino nationals and citizens — even if outside the territorial bounds of the Philippines — are subject to the same punishment as Filipino “terrorists” inside the country. MB, who asked The Objective to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said they planned to erase their entire Twitter history — 11,000 tweets — for fear the country would find their family and retaliate. 

MB is a Filipino citizen who immigrated to America when they were seven years old. They said that the funeral of Corazon Aquino — who led the Philippines after its period of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos — motivated them to learn more about martial law and the Philippine government’s history of killing and silencing activists and journalists. 

MB said they’ve already experienced public digital harassment from Duterte supporters.

“My relationship to the Anti-Terror Law is related to the people that are most important to me,” MB said. “In some ways, it is also about honoring a childhood promise to uphold the legacies of heroes who are being erased from memory.” 

Filipino journalists are dying and the government — more often than not — is killing them. The deadliest media attack in history happened in the Philippines in 2009, when 32 journalists and 26 civilians were kidnapped and murdered in the province of Maguindanao. Eighty-four journalists in the Philippines died between 1992 to 2020, as compared to 11 in the U.S, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

A 2020 United Nations Human Rights report found that at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists have been killed for their work between 2015 and 2019. 

When asked about how he would handle the Philippine’s high rate of death for journalists in 2016, Duterte responded by saying, “Just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” 

Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of progressive Filipino news site Rappler, was convicted with cyber-libel last month for an article posted four months before cyber libel was deemed a crime. The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling for the Philippine government to drop all charges against Ressa and Rappler and said the conviction was a clear and present danger to press freedom. Articles on Rappler detailing Duterte and his history with the media were listed as not found at the time of publication. 

Still, Duterte remains widely popular in the Philippines. That’s unlike past presidents, whose approval tends to plateau or decline after the midpoint of their terms. He’s maintained an approval rating of 75% or above since taking office in 2016, and in December 2019, he had an 87% approval rating, with only 5% of Filipinos surveyed disapproving of the administration. 

Despite Filipino-American activism in the States criticizing Duterte, namely through chapters of Anakbayan-USA, a national Filipino youth organization that organizes and mobilizes Filipino youth, not all college Filipino-American organizations have addressed the Anti-Terror Law.

Advocacy groups across the U.S. have joined together in calling for the introduction of a Philippine Human Rights Act into the Philippine Congress. The act would suspend U.S. security assistance to the Philippines until “human rights violations by Philippine security forces cease and the responsible state forces are held accountable.” 

Warjay, who asked The Objective to use only his first name for safety reasons, graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in 2018 and now serves as an advisor for the largest Filipino-American student organization on campus, Barkada. As a former president of Barkada, Warjay said that though he tried to foster greater awareness of issues faced by Filipinos in America and in the Philippines, he has received a lot of pushback from fellow leaders and general membership.

“I definitely think folks want to play it safe — the leaders are worried about any kind of statement against the law being used against them when they go back to the Philippines,” Warjay said.

While he’s also part of an activist organization actively speaking against the Anti-Terror Bill, Kabataang Maka-Bayan Los Angeles, Warjay said he knows a lot of his friend circle have turned down interviews or chosen not to speak up due to fear of retaliation from the Philippine government.

Others in the United States, like MK, who also asked The Objective to use a nickname for safety reasons, are speaking up because of their position as Filipino Americans. 

“We [Filipino Americans] have privilege and we have power,” MK, also an organizer with Anakbayan-Los Angeles, said. “I fear that my loved ones will be harmed if I'm ever charged for activism and labeled a terrorist and it will always be a concern to hold, but I know though by doing nothing to help the Philippines, I will have let fear overcome me.”

Filipino media in the United States, like the Manila Mail and Pinoy Magazine, have covered both the implications of the new law and how Filipino Americans are responding. Mainstream American media may not be watching closely because what’s happening abroad feels distant, but in neglecting to cover the suppression of free press and speech in the Philippines as it relates to Filipino Americans, the U.S. media perpetuates the idea of the Philippines as a “third world” country that is separate from — instead of inextricably linked to — the United States.

ZJ, another Anakbayan-LA organizer, said Americans need to pay attention because the U.S. is complicit in the Philippine government’s human rights abuses, citing the military arms deal between the U.S. and the Philippines as an example. 

“Duterte willingly spent the equivalent to 2 billion U.S. dollars instead of spending that money to address the health needs of the people during this pandemic,” ZJ said. “Our U.S. tax dollars pay for the U.S. military to conduct paramilitary operations in the Philippines.”

Back in the Philippines, Garcia is trying to remain hopeful, even though she said she had “never felt more helpless in his life.” While she has been attending protests and said no protestors had been jailed on the UP-Diliman campus, she also said that they were preparing to tread carefully once the law took effect.

“But I refuse to truly be silenced,” Garcia said. “I’m a journalism major. I hail from a revolutionary breed of national heroes. There are much bigger struggles ahead, but the media practitioners I know, upperclassmen and professors, continue to be brave, and so will I.” 

Janelle S. is a Filipino journalist. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Image courtesy of Anakbayan LA.

This story was corrected to reflect the accurate pronouns used by one of the subjects mentioned in the story. The Objective regrets the error.


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