#OPINION | What’s next for journalism in a Marcos presidency?

by Magwayen*

*The author has opted to use a pseudonym.

“If, in a Duterte Presidency, the main issue was human rights, in a Marcos Presidency it would be truth.”

This was Rappler senior editor Chay Hofileña’s message in an article for The New Yorker, which followed the news site’s staff the day of the May 9 polls.

Two weeks and 31 million votes later, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has officially been named the Philippines’ next president.

In the short period after his presumptive win, the country witnessed a display of what the following years under the new administration would be like; and for the fight for truth, the future was not looking bright. Instead of a ready and capable leader, the country saw a coward who was afraid to face the press and a spokesperson who refused to answer “difficult” questions (or in other words, truths that did not pander to Marcos Jr.’s picture-perfect persona).

Though surprising, this type of behavior was nothing unexpected from Marcos Jr., known for his animosity towards professional and credible journalists. His distrust and little patience for them are no secret — expectedly so for the president-elect whose win was driven by his disinformation machinery.

It was a harrowing warning for journalists: in the succeeding years, they will be kept in the dark, villainized, and left struggling to find a voice drowned out by a cacophony of threats and lies started by an unsympathetic leader. Under the rule of a powerful man uncomfortable with the truth, the freedom to express it will become under threat.

Marcos Jr.’s silence after his presumptive win was nothing the country hadn’t seen before; after all, his campaign period was marked by his “media-shyness.” He constantly skipped presidential debates and evaded reporters, only showing up in one-on-one interviews with news anchors and journalists who were sympathetic toward him. Only on May 23 — two weeks after his presumptive win — did he finally face the media.

Just as he snubbed the press before, he will continue to do so during his presidency. This is simply what happens when this behavior is tolerated and rewarded by millions. The least a president, let alone a candidate, can do is show up and be truthful to the people, and yet it’s as if he can do neither.

Unfortunately, for Marcos Jr. and his team, it isn’t enough to evade reporters, as they have resorted to blocking them out too. At his “press conference” on May 26, the Marcos camp only invited three reporters — one each from Net25, SMNI, and GMA News — to the event. Two of these networks had endorsed him during his presidential run. Meanwhile, Rappler, for instance, was not informed of the briefing and was instead told that their headquarters were closed that day.

This is alarmingly reminiscent of the rare instance Marcos Jr. agreed to an ambush interview during campaign season, in which several reporters were not even aware such a thing was happening. And when he was asked about his family’s estate taxes, he walked away with no response.

Even his very spokesperson and press secretary are the same. In his first press conference, Vic Rodriguez was shown ignoring questions on how the president-elect can travel to the United States with a standing contempt order there. Trixie Cruz-Angeles also declined to answer the same question during a press briefing on May 26.

This blatant disrespect from Marcos Jr. and his team toward reporters who are simply asking relevant questions is appalling to see. What’s so threatening about journalists that they evade them at all costs? What then is the point in holding interviews and press conferences if the only answer they get is “next question” or none at all? They may have gotten away with this during the campaign period, but it is this very stubbornness that may as well doom the country and bring it down with them.

Now that he’s president-elect, the country cannot be kept in the dark on these issues, especially since these now concern the people. To be shut off from information on the head of the government is to be completely blind to the state of the administration and the country. If this goes on, it may as well be a guessing game. They cannot keep running away forever.

The most damaging part is that the silence of Marcos Jr. and his team creates a void, readily available to be filled with their fabricated myths and false information.

A large part of Marcos Jr.’s win was thanks to the role social media disinformation had played during his campaign period. Countless YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook posts depicted an idealized and glamorized portrayal of the Marcos Sr. regime and effectively painted it as a prosperous and peaceful era.

Vloggers and social media influencers helped boost this image and packaged it to be more relatable, which is why Marcos Jr. seems to only appear on their platforms instead of interviews with reporters and news outlets. Unlike journalists, content creators aren’t subjected to the same standards of conducting intense research and fact-checking. Thus, they are free to claim whatever they hear or see as the “truth” without any sources to back it up. It is this uninhibited freedom that enables them to contribute to preserving a distorted and disfigured view of the Martial Law era and the Marcos family. It is a dangerous phenomenon, but an effective one in resonating with the audience.

The public discontent and nostalgia the Marcos propaganda tapped into are one of the main reasons journalists struggle to counter the family’s well-oiled disinformation machine. It’s no longer about the information and facts being presented; it’s about the fantasy the Marcoses’ lies had created for the Filipinos. They presented an illiberal narrative, where a country’s liberal democracy had failed, giving a chance to return to a “golden age.”

Journalists are now facing a new challenge: to reach out and connect to a discontent majority while fighting against an intensified disinformation campaign and presenting their own counter-narrative. As Hofileña said, it will take “listening, patience, and humility.”

Unfortunately, this will also prove difficult under the presidency of a man who sees the press as villains.

A self-proclaimed victim of “fake news” and “fact-checkers” who have “their own agenda,” Marcos Jr. believes himself to be a target of journalists. The president-elect chooses to hold onto this belief and present it to the public because he sees reporters’ tough questions and criticisms as an attack on the glorified, reconstructed narratives his family has created. It is a delusion that is certain to put an inquiring press at risk.

Since he will be so intent on protecting the lies that effectively became the foundation of his campaign, he will continue to shift the blame onto journalists who are merely reporting the truth. Jessica Soho was an example; Marcos Jr. claimed the veteran journalist was “biased” and “anti-Marcos,” hence why he did not join her interview.

Critics and reporters will be demonized and deemed unpatriotic and unnationalistic; news outlets will be stigmatized. Public trust in the press will be further eroded as countless attempts will be made to discredit them. The opposition will be cast as enemies of the government — and for a man with millions of unquestioning followers, this is the narrative that will unfortunately prevail.

After all, our current president did it. What’s stopping him from doing the same?

Let us not forget that the six years of President Duterte’s administration were marked by his attacks on critics and dissidents. Until now, they face cyberattacks, verbal attacks, and harassment from his legions of followers. We gifted Marcos Jr. this very same power, and for this, our journalists’ lives are at stake. They will all be walking on eggshells, out of fear that they will anger a beast and make themselves its next target.

It’s not just one man; as their leader does, the lap dogs follow. Marcos Jr.’s recently-named press secretary, Trixie Cruz-Angeles, is a lawyer and pro-Duterte vlogger who regularly criticizes journalists and critics of the administration on her social media pages. Having previously served as a “social media strategist” under the Duterte administration, she has admitted to “feeding” pro-government information to Mocha Uson, who ran a blog that published propaganda and disinformation.

With Cruz-Angeles as the head of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), this is alarmingly dangerous for journalists. The agency is responsible for the supervision of state media channels, documentation of presidential events, and accreditation of journalists tasked to cover presidential functions.

With leaders and appointees like them, there is no doubt that their disdain for journalists and truthful reporting will spread and show its heinous effects on the government. Such beliefs can be planted, and Cruz-Angeles, a former Marcos critic, is proof of that. It will creep up on and infect anyone it can until it reaches the point where a culture of hatred towards the press has been birthed. And it will not end with their lambasting and verbal attacks; no — it will show in their hostile treatment towards journalists, their policies, and their laws.

On June 1, Cruz-Angeles announced that one of the PCOO’s priorities would be to push for the accreditation of vloggers to be invited to Malacañang briefings or press conferences of the president-elect. To give unqualified vloggers the platform and resources to act as reporters would be a detriment to truth telling. Countless influencers would be spreading misinterpreted details and biased information, effectively drowning out the voices of journalists.

It is absurd to see the Marcos Jr. administration willingly accommodate and provide for mere vloggers when they cannot even treat the press this way. But of course, without these influencers spreading their false narratives, the administration would crumble under the face of truth.

They are nothing without the Marcoses’ propaganda and myths, and it seems they will do anything to preserve that.

All of these point to one thing: our press freedom is in danger.

For the preservation of their lies and narratives to be successful, the voices of truth will be silenced. And as the first to report and expose these truths, our journalists will be the administration’s first target.

Their attempts to curtail our press freedom will come in many forms — content takedown, de-platforming, restrictions, red-tagging, and illegal arrests. No one is safe. Professional and student journalists alike face a common danger: a threatened administration that holds hatred, influence, and power.

However, this doesn’t mean that it is too late; after all, we still have the opportunities and capabilities to defend our press freedom. It has not been revoked nor removed — not yet. For this reason, we must do what we can to protect it.

We must not hesitate to call out and correct false information circulating online and offline. We must stand our ground and continue asking the important questions. Hold productive dialogues; do not put the blame and merely dismiss it as the fault of “the dumb voter.” This issue goes beyond the individual, and that is something we must acknowledge. Recognize that to instigate change, it will take respect, patience, and willingness to listen.

We must also initiate our own counter-narratives. Leaving it all to our journalists to fact-check and adapt to the changing media landscape would be a fatal mistake. May it be through creating art, writing, acting, filmmaking, or volunteering, we can each combat disinformation in our own ways.

However, this will also need the support of those in positions — newsroom managers, school administrators, and government officials. They have the means and capabilities to protect their employees, students, and fellow Filipinos. They must use their power for good and honest reasons.

Most important of all, remember that we have rights as citizens. When the time is needed, we must not be afraid to take advantage of them.

Remember that every journalist, reporter, and citizen’s criticism must be accepted by our leaders; that is the mark of good governance. To already crumble after a few unpleasant and uncomfortable remarks is a sign of a weak and careless administration. As citizens, we have the responsibility to make them do just that lest they forget. And we shall do it again and again.

We must never let them forget.

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