Rights Bodies Condemn Philippines Government's Move to Block Independent Media Sites

The country's telecommunications authority, on June 8, banned 28 websites, including independent news platforms and those belonging to progressive social groups, alleging links to various communist rebel entities.

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New Delhi: The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Thursday, June 23, has issued a press release joining its affiliate, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), in condemning the nation’s telecommunications body for blocking a number of independent media sites in the country.

Through an order dated June 8, Philippines’s National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) blocked access to 28 websites, including news portals and those belonging to social groups, alleging links to the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

The order was passed on the directions of the country’s national security advisor, Hermogenes Esperon, who alleged links to the rebel communist groups.

Among the sites that have been blocked are independent news platforms, such as Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, as well as progressive groups like the Save Our Schools Network, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Pamalakaya Pilipinas, Amihan and BAYAN. 

According to IFJ’s press release, Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly cover stories in the public interest and those pertaining to issues faced by marginalised groups in the country. What’s more, these outlets have reportedly faced cyber attacks in the recent past.

In fact, the release cites a 2021 report by Swedish non-profit digital forensics organisation Qurium, which found links between previous cyber attacks on Bulatlat to the Philippines military’s Department of Science and Technology.

Moreover, the news organisations reportedly didn’t receive any intimation about the block before it was enforced and it is currently unclear whether or not the blocks can be appealed.

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According to the media release, access to the Bulatlat website has been restricted since June 17 and on June 20, the organisation wrote to the country’s Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) seeking an investigation into the national security advisor’s allegations.

“Blocking access to independent media organisations under the justification of alleged terrorist affiliations is a clear attempt at censorship and media control. The IFJ urges the Philippines’ authorities, including the NTC, to immediately restore access to all online media sites and ensure press freedom is protected,” the IFJ said.

The NUJP, an affiliate of the IFJ, too released a statement.

“We call on the NTC and the NSC to reconsider the inclusion of news sites and the websites activist groups in their supposed list. We also call on the members of the journalist community, press freedom and freedom of expression advocates, and on the public to join us in condemning this blatant violation of press freedom and of the very basic idea of the free flow of information and ideas,” the NUJP said.

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The NUJP has even highlighted the Philippines government’s past deployment of ‘red-tagging’; where human rights activists and the media are threatened by being linked to communist or terrorist groups.

The NUJP noted that the fact that this exercise is now being carried out through official governmental channels (the official letter banning the websites) increases the dangers of harassment and physical attacks all the more pertinent.

The IFJ and NUJP were not the only organisations to condemn the NTC action.

Calling the NTC’s move a “blatant attack on freedom of information and expression”, Amnesty International, a global rights body, took to Twitter to call for the block on the websites to be restricted.

Similarly, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who focuses on South Asia, posted several tweets condemning the move, even highlighting the government’s use of ‘red-tagging’.