Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

When journalists write about Internet censorship in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is mentioned as a country where citizens and netizens enjoy media freedom. Indeed, compared to other countries in the region, the situation in the Philippines looks better when it comes to upholding free speech. Unlike in Thailand, there’s no Army Cyber Center in the Philippines monitoring ‘illegal’ content on social media; unlike in Vietnam, Filipino bloggers can criticize authorities without being arrested; and unlike in Laos, anti-government posts are not outrightly censored. Activists can post videos lampooning politicians, Facebook users can ‘like’ and ‘share’ photos and videos uploaded by rebel groups, and anyone can call for the extralegal removal of public officials without being censored or penalized. The constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression is widely recognized and promoted in both public and private institutions. Yet, despite these encouraging indicators of media freedom, the Internet landscape in the Philippines cannot be rated as free, but only partly free.

In summary, the Philippines’ Internet landscape is indeed more free compared to its neighbors; but the introduction of repressive laws, the continuing media killings, and the persecution of the independent media under the Duterte government are rapidly eroding the freedoms that empowered the Filipinos in the past to fight tyrants and corrupt leaders.

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New Media and Democracy in the Philippines

The Philippines made its first Internet connection only in 1994 or almost a decade after the restoration of democratic institutions in 1986. It was also the time when the government has deregulated the telecommunications sector to improve the country’s IT infrastructure. Internet access was almost nil but mobile phone connections started to increase in the late 1990s. In particular, Filipinos quickly adapted to the practice of using the SMS of mobile phones because it was a free service. For many Filipinos, the obvious benefit of using mobile phones was the availability of a faster and cheaper way of communicating with friends and relatives, especially for overseas workers. But it was the political impact of using mobile phones which subsequently became evident after Filipinos started sending SMS in large volumes to poke fun at politicians and share their views on various political issues.

Can democracy survive the onslaught of fake news and a ‘weaponized’ Internet? The brief history of the rapid rise of new media in the Philippines is a reminder that despite several challenges Filipinos are still able to make innovative use of computer programs and communication apps to defend democratic aims. Perhaps Duterte’s troll consultants are aware of this lesson which explains their aggressiveness in undermining online criticisms while intimidating independent media.

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