Blocked by the government and shadow-banned by Facebook, Bulatlat managed to stay afloat thanks to the support of readers and donors
The Philippines was placed 132th out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, the country’s best ranking in the last six years. However, as this year’s Digital News Report documents, journalists and newsrooms in the country are still suffering red-tagging, targeted harassment and the use of spurious lawsuits to silence them.
These obstacles sound familiar to journalists at Bulatlat, a news site that has survived court orders, platform pressures and government censorship thanks to the support of donors and readers.
On World Press Freedom day this year, Bulatlat’s Facebook page was restricted and shadow-banned by Meta over alleged violations of the website’s community standards.
Meta also deleted a post on an interview published by Bulatlat with the late Benito Tiamzon, a former leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
According to Facebook community standards, the platform “does not allow organisations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence to have a presence on Facebook.” Bulatlat appealed against the removal of this post, but they have not heard from Facebook’s Oversight Board yet.
“That a quote from a dead communist could be classified as dangerous is mind-boggling,” the news outlet said in a tweet.
For smaller newsrooms in the Philippines, not being discovered on Facebook is a death knell. Since the incident, Bulatlat suffered a 70% decrease in traffic, editors say.
The red-tagging of journalists (being branded as a communist or terrorist) is a persistent problem for press freedom in the Philippines. Bulatlat has found itself in the eye of the storm constantly. Since its journalists report from the perspective of the victims of human rights violations, they’ve been consistently red-tagged, says Managing Editor Janess Ann J Ellao, who says that “to be red-tagged is a death threat.”
Why Bulatlat was founded
According to its website, Bulatlat was established in 2001 as a response to the “blatant corruption by those who claimed to work for the interests of the Filipino people.” Ellao defines the news site’s purpose by saying: “We belong to the progressive tradition of the Philippines press.”
Bulatlat has less than half a dozen full-time employees. The number varies depending on the funding available. Around 15 more people work for the outlet, including interns, contributors and activists interested in working on specific stories. Operations are largely funded through fellowships and grants. They raise money to meet their newsroom costs by seeking donations through this campaign.
On average, the news site garners about two million page views every month, according to Managing Editor Ellao.
Bulatlat is very active in the media community of the Philippines, says Jonathan de Santos, Chairperson of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), who explains that they constantly raise issues of press freedom and stand by news publications struggling to survive.
“Many of our stories are about social justice,” Ellao says. “That often puts us on the wrong side of the government.”
A block from Duterte
In the final months of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential term, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. ‘requested’ the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to block access to 27 websites, including news sites Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly. The NTC followed this request without questioning it.
The order, dictated in June 2022, alleged that the organisations were affiliated with the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said that no evidence was offered to prove this claim.
In the same month, news site Rappler was ordered to shut down on charges of violating rules on foreign ownership for news media in the country.
The order to block Bulatlat was issued a few days before the new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took power. “This is just a matter of revenge for the Duterte government,” De Santos says.
Sara Duterte, the former President’s daughter, ran as the Vice President on Marcos Jr’s ticket. Observers say that one of the key reasons behind these decisions was to favour her.
Within two days of the order, both news sites were blocked. At the beginning Bulatlat’s readers couldn’t access the website if they were in the country unless they used VPNs. But Bulatlat’s web host Qurium Media Foundation set up a mirror site so readers in the Philippines could access any new stories they published.
This strategy, used before by other news sites in countries like Venezuela, was useful. But it didn’t prevent Bulatlat from losing half its readership very quickly. One year later, the publication is still fighting a court battle against that order.
A local court ruled that the authorities were prohibited from blocking Bulatlat until a final judgement was reached, but it asked the outlet to post a P100,000 bond (around $1,800).
That’s when Bulatlat asked its audience for help. They managed to get 5,000 individuals to contribute P20 each ($0.40) and reached their target. So they posted the bond and restored their site, but the case is ongoing.
Bulatlat got pro bono services from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL). However, other legal costs were covered by the news website, including filing and mailing costs. The fight to keep Bulatlat open was time-consuming and prevented its journalists from focusing on what they do best, Ellao said.
Journalists under attack
Both Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly have been subjected to several waves of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) cyber attacks since 2018. Through these kinds of attacks, hackers overload servers and crash them.
According to a Sweden-based digital forensics nonprofit Qurium Media, a 2021 cyber attack was linked to the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology and the military.
Although the current government appears to be a bit more tolerant towards criticism, they have not lifted the blocking order against Bulatlat. Journalist Associations have now started an “Unblock The Truth” campaign and are petitioning the Marcos government to allow free expression.
“Anyone who talks about human rights violations and justice is branded a communist. That is a legacy that continues,” says Danilo Arao, who teaches journalism at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP CMC) in Diliman, Quezon City.
The current Marcos Jr administration hasn’t put an end to this trend. The NUJP has documented 60 violations against journalists from June 2022 (when Marcos Jr took power) to April 2023. These include the killings of two journalists: Rey Blanco and Percy Lapid, a popular broadcaster who had criticised government officials.
“Don’t think that only the smaller news sites such as Bulatlat get targeted by the government,” says De Santos of NUJP. “Mainstream media have no choice but to toe the line.”
Published in Reuters Institute
Published on August 11, 2023
Link: The year-long fight of a Filipino news site against red-tagging and state censorship | Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (ox.ac.uk)