'An attack on critical reporting': Filipino journalist Christian Esguerra exposes press repression Philippines

A small group of attendees quietly nibbled on their snacks — vegan banana bread and sticky homemade fudge — under the harsh Buchanan Tower lights as political journalist Christian Esguerra unravelled the Philippines’ carefully-woven disinformation networks.

“Are [the Filipino people] stupid,” he asked us, looking around. “No, they’re being exploited.”

On November 16, the UBC Social Justice Institute hosted the 2022 Marshall McLuhan Fellow Lecture, titled “Democracy at Stake.” As the 2020 recipient of the fellowship, Esguerra is touring Canadian universities, giving lectures about the media landscape in the Philippines.

According to Esguerra, in the Philippines, the “media is under siege.” The most striking example he cited was the shut-down of ABS-CBN in 2020 — the Philippines’ most prominent media network at the time — after receiving a cease and desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission. Imagine the Canadian government forcing the CBC to cease operations. That is what happened to Philippine journalism.

For context, the only other time ABS-CBN was taken off-air was in 1972 during martial law — an order imposed by the former president Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

“Media owners are under intense pressure coming from those in power in the Philippines because the media ownership structure … is heavily influenced by conflicts of interest,” said Esguerra.

Filipino journalists can and have been imprisoned for their reporting. Even Maria Ressa, 2022 Nobel Prize Winner and known critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, has been arrested multiple times for cyber libel.

During Esguerra’s time at ABS-CBN as a senior correspondent, the owner asked him to change headlines to avoid offending those in power. There is a climate of fear in the Philippines, Esguerra stressed. Media owners are scared.

Esguerra explained that the situation is even more hostile for community presses. The murder of prominent radio journalist Percival Mabasa reveals that for small-time journalists in remote areas — those who are not afforded the protections of public visibility or media giant legal teams — retaliation for critical reporting can be much easier, and much more deadly. Worse yet, thanks to the culture of impunity in the Philippines, those who do retaliate can get away with murder.

A new bill filed by Senator Jinggoy Estrada also worries Esguerra immensely. If passed, this bill would criminalize the “creation and dissemination of fake news.”

Since the bill focuses on punishing the entities spreading “fake news,” Esguerra is worried that this bill could be used to shut down the press in service of political interests.

“Who determines what news is fake?” asked Esguerra. “The government.”

Esguerra explained that there is already a sophisticated disinformation network in the Philippines that controls political narratives. They’re called Line Troll Networks (LTNs).

LTNs start with a client, such as a senatorial candidate. These clients pay someone to run a LTN and manage a group of strategists – otherwise known as social media trolls. These trolls manage several accounts registered under a variety of fake personas. Now, multiply that number by hundreds of campaigns whose demands gradually increase according to the rank of the office in question.

Esguerra knows the media landscape in the Philippines is bleak. He admitted that he didn’t think it would get this bad.

But he has not given up.

He looked at the attendees in front of him – a patchwork group of brown-skinned community members and Filipino student journalists — then shared why he still has hope for the Philippines: the country’s next generation of journalists.

“I haven't actually met a young person … trying to join the industry saying ‘There's no hope,’” relayed Esguerra. “Most of the [young journalists] I spoke with are saying ‘We want to join because it's a battle out there and we want to be part of that.’”

Esguerra smiled at us, tired but genuine. “There’s still hope … We’ve seen many problems over the years, but it’s one thing we cannot lose. It’s what keeps everyone going.”