The fatal shooting of Filipino radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa in Manila earlier this month has heightened concerns that the media will remain under attack during the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

The 63-year-old host of the “Lapid Fire” show was known for his sharp critiques of both Marcos Jr., the son of a dictator ousted in a pro-democracy uprising in 1986, and the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw a deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.

The Philippine police and a presidential task force on media security are still investigating the case but presume that the killing was work-related.

Mabasa, who used the broadcast name Percy Lapid, was the second journalist killed since Marcos Jr. took office at the end of June. According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, nearly 200 journalists have been killed since the late Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown and went into exile in Hawaii in 1986.

Activists light candle beside slogans as they condemn the killing of Filipino journalist Percival Mabasa during a rally in Quezon city, Philippines on Tuesday Oct. 4, 2022. Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a longtime radio commentator in metropolitan Manila in the latest attack on a member of the media in the Philippines, considered one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Activists light candles beside slogans as they condemn the killing of Filipino journalist Percival Mabasa during a rally in Quezon city, Philippines. AP Photo/Aaron Favila/2022

Mabasa’s killing stood out because it took place in the capital of Manila, while most other attacks against journalists have been outside of the capital. Another Filipino radio journalist, Renato “Rey” Blanco, was killed last month in the Negros Oriental province in the central Philippines.

Mabasa was killed when two men on a motorcycle approached the vehicle he was driving and shot him twice in the head on Oct. 3 in suburban Las Pinas City, The Associated Press reported, adding that the attackers escaped.

He was on his way to work, his brother, Roy Mabasa said on social media.

Local and international advocacy organizations condemned the killing and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on Philippine authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. The organization also said it had emailed Marcos Jr.’s office and the presidential task force for comment.

Decades of killings, institutional corruption, legal persecution, false labeling as communists or terrorists and disinformation campaigns have rendered the Philippines one of the most hazardous places for media workers. The Southeast Asian nation also is plagued by private armies controlled by powerful clans and weak law enforcement.

One of the worst journalist massacres occurred in 2009 when 32 reporters were killed in Maguindanao province. A decade passed before any of the killers faced justice.

Threats to the Philippine media received global attention when Maria Ressa, CEO of the online Filipino news platform Rappler, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov. She has since been fighting a cyber libel conviction in the Philippines.

Carlos Conde, head Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that over half of the journalists killed had worked in radio, a medium in which reporting and commentary blur together in efforts to stand out in an industry of competing voices. He said that demonization of the media was just one of the human rights challenges aggravated under Duterte’s term.

Philippines Filipino Percy Lapid Percival Mabasa Media Rights
Radio journalist Percival Mabasa, also known as Percy Lapid, was killed in the Philippines earlier this month. Courtesy: Roy Mabasa

“The killing of journalists is not something that occurs in a vacuum,” he said in a phone interview from his hotel room in Geneva, where he attended the 51st session of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Oct. 5.

Attacks against journalists reflect the poor quality of law enforcement institutions in the country as well as widespread corruption, Conde said.

“It’s been so commonplace and nobody’s shocked anymore – they’ve been inured to the violence,” Conde said.

Meanwhile, social media has facilitated the faster and easier spread of false narratives by government officials, journalists and citizens alike. And so-called red-tagging — the practice of harassing, threatening or blacklisting somebody by accusing them of being a communist or a terrorist — has bled over from the Duterte era.

“Troll armies” in the service of politicians make powerful accusations that become magnified among people who can no longer discern between real and fake news, Conde said. The problem is exacerbated in radio and broadcast journalism because of the selling of air time to the highest bidders, who can say whatever they want.

“This distinction really needs to be highlighted, especially for people outside of the Philippines: the fact is that a lot of this disinformation is put out by those with money to do that. It’s not some organic thing that happens,” Conde said.

He said such disinformation campaigns contributed to Marcos Jr.’s victory over former Vice President Leni Robredo in the presidential election.

The escalation of international attention on the human rights struggle in the Philippines started when Duterte took office in 2016 and began his war on drugs that drew international condemnation for widespread human rights abuses.

“It could be many years before the attitude towards the media changes.” — Journalists’ Union Chair Jonathan de Santos

The new president has vowed that journalists would be protected under his administration, and he reiterated that commitment in a speech after Mabasa’s killing.

“Under my lead, we will support and protect the rights of the media as they efficiently perform their duty. Whatever difficulties we may encounter from this point on, the government will always be ready to lend an ear and to listen to your concerns and to answer all that you may want to know,” he was quoted as saying in the Manila Times.

The signing of the first national U.N.-Philippines Joint Program for human rights on July 22 also gave activists hope that there would be more accountability to commitments institutionalized in the international arena.

The last episode of Mabasa’s radio show, which aired Sept. 27 on DWBL 1242 AM railed against the institutional red-tagging that had flared up during the outgoing Duterte administration and, according to the host, was continuing with impunity under Marcos Jr. 

The night following Mabasa’s death, the national journalists’ union organized a candlelit rally in Quezon City to pay tribute to the radio journalist and call for government action against his killers. 

Activists hold slogans as they condemn the killing of Filipino journalist Percival Mabasa during a rally in Quezon city, Philippines on Tuesday Oct. 4, 2022. Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a longtime radio commentator in metropolitan Manila in the latest attack on a member of the media in the Philippines, considered one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Activists hold slogans as they condemn the killing of Filipino journalist Percival Mabasa during a rally in Quezon city, Philippines. AP Photo/Aaron Favila/2022

“The biggest thing (journalists) can do now is watch out for each other, track the progress and lack of progress of cases, and keep them in the public attention. Another way is to look at the issues that the journalist was talking about and amplify them,” journalists’ union chair Jonathan de Santos said.

Early in the new administration, journalists and local civic organizations welcome Marcos Jr.’s words but express skepticism that change will happen fast.

“It could be many years before the attitude towards the media changes, but there’s so much more to gain from solidarity within the communities of the public. We have to reach out more to the community – be more relatable, I suppose, to make people feel that they’re heard, that they’re seen,” De Santos said.

The national journalists’ union has programs that support the digital and physical safety of journalists, ranging from a media safety office that tracks harm toward media workers to a fund for orphans of slain voices. The organization is expanding its outreach efforts to provide media ethics training and media literacy events showing why journalism is crucial for the public good and to help promote accountability.

“Being critical doesn’t mean you want the government to fail,” De Santos said.

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