We survived!

by Nonoy Espina

Congratulations, everyone.


In my more than three decades with our Union, never have I seen and experienced the levels of vilification and threat against the organization, its officers and members as during this administration.

But of course, the attacks have been directed not only against us but the profession and media, the institution itself, something I guess we’ve all known since May 31, 2016, when the still president-elect Rodrigo Duterte declared, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch,” thus setting the tone for his administration’s relations with us.

So here we are, with ABS-CBN shut down, Rappler persecuted, colleagues and news organizations, both mainstream and alternative, red-tagged and harassed, colleagues jailed on trumped up charges.

All these even as the great majority of us continue to work under onerous conditions for measly pay and, as contractualization worsens, absent security of tenure. Indeed, as many colleagues are wont to joke, we, who people often run to for help when they are oppressed, are also among the most oppressed.

On hindsight, the first day of our 10th National Congress, June 8, 2018, may have set the tone for the next close to three years. That day, Dennis Denora of Trends and Times in Panabo City, Davao del Norte was murdered, becoming the 11th of what would eventually become 19 colleagues – hopefully the count ends there – slain under this administration, and we, the delegates, marched to the Boy Scout Circle to protest.

Actually, even before our term began, we were already targeted for cyberattacks – distributed denial of service and brute force attacks – that almost crippled our online presence and operations. But we were able to recover with the help of Internews, which provided consistent technical and financial support while strengthening our organizational capacity to respond to digital threats and attacks.

Internews has also partnered with us for the Initiative for Media Freedom project, a five-year undertaking that has provided support to our media safety office’s activities since 2019. Among the activities undertaken under the project are the updating of our safety guide, which we have translated to Tagalog and Bisaya; the improvement of NUJP’s website, which includes a microsite for materials on journalists’ safety; and the National Journalists’ Safety Conference, which will be part of this, our 11th Congress. And while the pandemic has forced the postponement of some of the project’s activities, like the safety trainings, it has ensured that we have enough resources to implement our programs over the next three years.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the dangers of red-tagging more than the unjust imprisonment and trumped-up charges against three of our colleagues, the first time, to my recollection, this has happened since the Marcos dictatorship: Manila Today’s Lady Ann Salem, recently released, is back with us today, and Anne Krueger of Paghimutad Negros, is out on bail on firearms charges. But Frenchie Mae Cumpio of Tacloban’s Eastern Vista, remains behind bars while facing trial for the usual trumped-up firearms and explosives charges.

Let us not forget the abduction by police of Margarita “Ging” Valle, who is now chair of our Davao City chapter.

And while we have never accused the government of a deliberate policy of targeting us for assassination, now that we, too, are regularly and openly red-tagged, it would be prudent to consider a change in policy, especially as this administration nears its end.

But our presence here today proves the NUJP in particular and the community of independent Filipino journalists in general have not only braved the storm, we have emerged stronger and can only continue to become even more so.

That we continue to be recognized as one of the leading forces in the defense of press freedom and freedom of expression, and of the people’s right to know, is a testament to your courage, your tenacity, your fierce commitment to truth-telling at a time when government itself is the main purveyor of disinformation.

During our last Congress, we were aware that things were bound to get worse before getting better, which is why your National Directorate chose to embark mainly on programs and campaigns aimed at resisting the growing assault on our profession and to improve our capacity to keep ourselves and our colleagues safe.

During the 2018 Congress itself, with our partners from the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and International Media Support, we held the first national risk assessment workshop, to determine the hazards colleagues faced in the different regions where they live and work, and how the socio-political climate, culture, and dynamics in these areas contribute to these risks and threats.

Soon after, we launched the books Defending Journalism, which documents best practices to maximize the impact of support programs for journalists, and the Impact of the Reporting of the Mamasapano Incident on the Peace Process in the Philippines, which looks on how the botched 2015 raid impacted on reporting on the Mindanao peace process.

In September that year, we held the first regional quick reaction training in Cebu City and, in November, we launched our “Sign Against the Sign Campaign” to urge Congress to repeal the anti-drugs law to exempt media from acting as witnesses to anti-drug operations, which not only placed them in danger but also exposed them to potential corruption.

As an update, the campaign was successful as House Bill No. 7814, which seeks to amend the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, explicitly says members of media may be invited to anti-drug operations only to cover. Unfortunately, it is a pyric victory since this is the controversial bill that institutionalizes presumption of guilt.

2019 was quite a busy year, mainly given to conducting safety training and trauma management and peer support for colleagues around the country. The latter was especially the subject of urgent requests from young colleagues disturbed by their coverage of the bloody war on drugs. Three peer support sessions in Cebu, Iloilo and Bacolod cities in partnership with the Commission on Human Rights’ GoJust program.

Also in partnership with CHR, we conducted sessions on “Reporting on War on Drugs with Human Rights Lens” for journalists in Central and Southern Luzon to deepen their coverage on the brutal campaign beyond the usual police reports to highlight accountability and promote human rights.

Another major activity that year was the formal launch of the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists on November 22, 2019.

The NUJP, along with AIJC, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Philippine Press Institute, and Center for Community Journalism and Development, worked to develop the PPASJ, which is based on the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists that seeks to address the issue of impunity for attacks on media. The work involved dialogues with various stakeholders, including the security sector.

Essentially, the PPASJ seeks to safeguard press freedom in the country, where constant government inaction has helped nurture a climate of impunity for crimes against journalists and news organizations despite initiatives by media, civil society and, to some extent, government to improve the situation.

But of course, 2019 was also extremely important to us at NUJP because it marked the decade since the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre, which killed 58 persons, 32 of them colleagues, the worst incident of electoral violence in our country’s recent history and the deadliest attack on the press ever.

And so we mounted a monthlong countdown for justice as the massacre’s 10th anniversary neared and, when the court finally announced a date of promulgation, held a Concert for Justice to help raise funds to bring as many of our slain colleagues’ families to Manila to attend the handing down of the verdict.

Of course, as we had done every year since after the massacre, we joined JUSTICE NOW! at the site of the carnage a week before the actual anniversary to allow us and the families to solemnly reminisce, offer prayers, and renew our vows to stay together until justice is served. It is a tradition we hope to keep until true justice is achieved.

On the 10th anniversary of the massacre itself, we, together with other colleagues and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, gathered at Mehan Gardens to paint a press freedom mural then marched to Mendiola to reiterate our calls for justice.

When the verdict was finally read on December 20, we were there with the families and stood by them as they declared justice incomplete, not only because so many of the accused remain at large but also because, despite the acceptance of Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay as the 58th victim, the decision was only for 57 counts of murder. Thus, to this day, their and our call is #WeStillFightFor58!

As 2020 dawned, NUJP was at the forefront helping lead one of the biggest battles the Philippine media has ever waged, the fight to keep ABS-CBN on air.

It was a grueling fight, one that saw constantly growing rallies, both in the National Capital Region and the provinces, in support of the network that, in the face of Duterte’s obsessive desire to shut it down, came to stand for the press freedom and freedom of expression he and his minions sought to suppress. So huge did the rallies become that some observers said it could have led to a tipping point in the people’s discontent.

And then COVID-19 reached our shores, effectively ending the mass protests, if not the protests themselves, and giving Duterte’s henchmen the elbow room they needed to carry out his wishes.

But while government did shut down the network, it wasn’t really a victory for Duterte or his lapdogs.

In fact, despite the early lockdowns, NUJP helped spearhead the largest protest actions in the country, among these the July 11 motorcade to the Batasan Pambansa for the House franchise committee vote; the July 18 motorcades from Makati and Manila to Sergeant Esguerra; the nationwide mass actions on August 28, the last day of operations of the Regional News Group; and the daily noise barrages until November alongside the launching of the PIRMA Kapamilya people’s initiative campaign, which is ongoing.

We would like to make special mention of the support and assistance of the International Federation of Journalists, of which we are an affiliate, in this and other campaigns for press freedom.

ABS-CBN’s departure from the airwaves made millions of Filipinos more aware of the value of a free press, of the importance of the timely and accurate information many of us take for granted but which many areas in the country still cannot access. Besides, it never really stopped operating.

For all of us, though, COVID presented a new and terrifying challenge. We have all been forced to adjust, to adapt, to calibrate how we do things.

Unfortunately, a year since the first lockdown, it seems we are back where we started, no thanks to government. And even more unfortunately, most of us continue to do our work without any, or at best the barest minimum, provisions for safety from the outfits we work for.

And so, although we could not gather our members because of the pandemic, with the help of UNESCO, we continued to do what we could to address our safety and mental health concerns, holding several online safety and peer support roundtables, the last of which were held only last month.

All this as government, its thirst unslaked by its murderous war on drugs, continued its relentless assault on people’s basic civil rights and liberties, enacting the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, a law so draconian its provisions actually trample on constitutional guarantees against abuse and the very Bill of Rights itself.

Which is why we have joined the petitions filed before the Supreme Court against this law that has absolutely no place in any country that claims to be a democracy. And which is why, however the high court decides, we must continue to resist this law, not only for ourselves but for our people and nation.

And so, here we are, strong as ever – nay, stronger than before, and our membership more committed, more resolved to stay the course. I am truly very, very proud of you and it has been the greatest honor to be counted one of your own.

As I end this very eventful, maybe too eventful, stint as chair of our esteemed organization, I wish to, first of all, apologize to all of you for I relinquish this post fully aware that there remains so much to be done before we can truly declare ourselves truly free. I only wish I could have done more, so much more.

Whatever notable accomplishments we have achieved these past three years are because of the tireless work of our Secretariat led by our indefatigable Secretary General Dabet Panelo, her Deputy Raymund Villanueva, our Treasurer Jhoanna Ballaran, and our staff – Nora Salazar, Lyn Pano, Alyssa Clarin, Luis Clarin, and Dolly Recto – the other members of the Directorate – Vice Chair Marlon Ramos, Auditor Ron Lopez, Nestor Burgos Jr., Virgilio Cuizon, Justine Dizon, Gerg Cahiles, Judith Suarez, Kath Cortez, Kim Quitasol, Sonny Fernandez and Richelieu Umel – you, the members, and our partners – the IFJ, IMS, SEAJU, Internews, UNESCO, RSF, CPJ, AIJC, the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All movement, CCJD, Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, the Commission on Human Rights, PIRMA Kapamilya, the ABS CBN Rank and File Union, the Talents Association of GMA 7, the foreign embassies and missions that have extended assistance and offered us a venue for our concerns, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, BBDO Guerrero, Octopus&Whale, some creative minds from Ace Saatchi & Saatchi who wish not to be named, and all the other organizations and persons who have worked with us in the defense of press freedom and the safety of journalists.

At the same time, I leave confident that whoever becomes chair tomorrow will surely overshadow my puny efforts.

And so let me step down with a pledge: I will continue stand with you, be with you and the community of independent Filipino journalists, as we continue to wage our glorious struggle.

Maraming salamat!

Mabuhay ang NUJP!

Mabuhay ang malayang pamamahayag!


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