The easing of pandemic restrictions in March, followed by a disputed presidential campaign, further helped news organizations to recover advertising and other lost revenue during the prolonged lockdown. But concerns over press freedom have grown as new president Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the namesake and son of the late dictator, kept professional journalists at bay during his campaign.
Political ads began to make their presence felt, especially on television, in the third quarter of 2021, ahead of the October 8 deadline for candidacy statements. They increased even further in early 2022 as national and local campaigns got into full swing.
Across the population, television remains the most popular medium in the Philippines, but this year’s Digital News Report confirmed a steady growth in online news consumption, including heavy use of news on a variety of social platforms. Facebook remains the most used (73% for weekly news), but the biggest jump comes from TikTok, used by a mere 2% for news in 2020 and now by 15%. News organizations also moved to the platform, especially in time for elections. In addition to being the biggest radio and television network, GMA Network is now the country’s biggest news maker on TikTok, which it also partnered with for an election campaign series. Other brands that have attracted a loyal following are ABS-CBN, News5, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, DZRH and Rappler.
With the country awash with disinformation in the run-up to the elections, the media has joined forces with academia and civil society to check out false electoral narratives that primarily idolize Marcos and demonize his rival, Vice President Leni Robredo. Two fact-checking collaborations took the lead: TsekPH, formed during the 2019 midterm elections and relaunched with 34 partners, and FactsFirstPH, a new initiative with 18 fact-checking partners.
Yet journalists and fact-checkers continue to come under fire, a grim reality made even more salient when Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, who faces at least seven lawsuits, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Journalism in December 2021. , Marcos banned professional journalists from covering his campaign events, snubbed media-driven debates, and gave preferential treatment to friendly social media influencers and a partisan TV station that repeatedly criticized mainstream media. Journalists and fact-checkers have been vilified not only by online trolls, but also by public officials. A presidential communications official in February warned the government’s anti-communist task force that it intended to take legal action against Rappler for allegedly spreading disinformation, as well as Facebook for allowing Rappler and Vera Files to ‘abuse the immense powers’ of their designation as the third party fact checkers.
News organizations large and small were targets of what appeared to be coordinated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that crippled their websites for hours, even days. In addition to Rappler and Vera Files, ABS-CBN, GMA News, CNN Philippines, Interaksyon, PressOnePH and Mindanao GoldStar Daily were attacked; as well as alternative news sites Bulatlat and Pinoy Media Center. Months earlier, attacks against Bulatlat and another alternative site were traced back to an IP address assigned to the Philippine army. The country’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index dropped further, by nine places, to 147th out of 180 countries.
Investments by media companies have mainly been channeled into increasing their digital presence as Filipinos increasingly turn to online news. ABS-CBN Corp., for example, raised nearly $10 million in January from the sale of its shares and depositary receipts to fund digital initiatives and content production. These have kept the network afloat since the mid-2020s, when its open radio and TV stations closed after Congress refused to renew its franchise.
The ABS-CBN action preceded the government’s decision to assign its coveted frequencies to three companies, two of them owned by allies of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and current President Rodrigo Duterte. Swara Sug Media Corp., owned by Duterte’s spiritual adviser Apollo Quiboloy, wanted in the United States for sex trafficking, received the frequency previously used for digital terrestrial television from ABS-CBN. The other two frequencies on the network, including Channel 2, were granted to the Advanced Media Broadcasting System acquired only in 2021 by Manuel Villar, former president of the Senate and richest man in the country.
While most online news sites still rely on advertising, revenue from paid online e-papers grew by 25% in 2021, outperforming Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. E-magazine revenue growth reached 19.5%. About 70 titles, including major newspapers, rely heavily on PressReader to distribute their digital versions. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also sells digital subscriptions through the online shopping platform Lazada. In addition to its basic plan, Inquirer comes with a choice of any of the 10 local newspapers it has partnered with or 30 other publications including Jakarta Post of Indonesia and The Star of Malaysia.
(Yvonne T. Chua is an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines. She wrote the Philippines profile for the Digital News Report 2022.)