An international media watchdog criticized Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday for linking journalists and Manila-based news organizations to what it called “unsubstantiated allegations” of a plot to discredit and oust him.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed its concerns in a statement after the daily newspaper Manila Times published a story and a graphic Monday claiming that three news organizations – Rappler, Vera Files and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) – were involved in a plot to oust the president.
“Unsubstantiated allegations of a plot against Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte relayed by the president himself create an immediate danger for critical journalists,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s program coordinator for Asia.
“The Duterte government needs to recognize that critical journalism is a key component of a healthy democracy, not evidence of a subversive plot,” he said.
The Manila Times graphic showed purported connections linking several journalists to the alleged plot.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo earlier told a news conference that the public should believe the report because the source of the “matrix” – a graphic that names those who were allegedly involved in the plot – was Duterte himself.
“It is from the president. Believe it,” Panelo said.
Last week, Duterte threatened to “return the favor” against PCIJ after it published a report detailing the large increase in the president’s wealth.
On Monday, Panelo accused journalists of spreading fake news, saying they were involved in the recent spread of an anonymous online video that claim members of Duterte’s family were involved in the drug trade.
CPJ, which recently sent a representative to the Philippines, said several journalists it had interviewed in Manila voiced concerns “that these accusations could lead to charges against the organizations on national security grounds, potentially resulting in arrests or jail time without the possibility of bail for journalists and activists.”
Although the Philippines has long boasted of having the freest press in Southeast Asia, it has ranked low for press freedom among media watchdogs, mainly because of recent killings of journalists and the dismal record for solving those killings.
The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) has counted at least 185 media killings since 1986, when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted and democratic institutions were restored. It said less than 20 cases have resulted in convictions of hired killers, not of the masterminds.
Since Duterte began his term in mid-2016, at least 12 journalists have been killed in the country. He has also displayed open hostility, even disdain, toward reporters, openly cursing and threatening to shut down news outfits.
Government officials have accused media organizations, such as the NUJP, of being a “legal front” of the communist rebel movement, which has been waging an armed struggle for 50 years.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers, a rights group, that was mentioned as an accomplice in the purported plot to bring down Duterte said the allegation was “not worth the paper it is written on.”
“It is putrid rubbish,” the group said in a statement.
It described the Times story as a “demolition job” on groups critical of the presidency of Duterte, whose anti-narcotics campaign has been marked by thousands of killings.
The three media organizations mentioned in the Times report have extensively covered Duterte’s crackdown against drugs.