Women and Philippine Media: At the Fringes of Freedom

The Philippines has been
touted as Asia’s freest media since it bolted out of the grip of a 14-year
dictatorship in 1986 through the EDSA People Power
revolution. The restoration of democracy certainly resulted in the re-emergence
of various publications and television and radio stations, leading to the
unleashing of various perspectives. 

Today, the evolution of
technology has further cultivated the national imagination, including the rise
of cable television and the internet that caters local news and entertainment
to overseas Filipinos and overseas Filipino workers. The emergence of
weblogging has also paved
the way for re-engineering of information, while allowing for the articulation
of greater individualism.

But more than twenty years
after the historic revolution, it remains unclear how much has been gained in
terms of media’s performance and its impact to the citizens, particularly
women. The presentation of news and the production of spectacles point to the
fact that we have not yet come to terms with the ideals espoused in EDSA ---
those which are essential in engendering freedom. EDSA has not only brought
accountability to the fore but it also spoke of equality. Twenty one years
after EDSA, we once more locate women struggling from the margins in the
production, modes and distribution of representation.

For a democratic country that
is considered as literally, one of the deadliest places on earth for media
practitioners in recent years, one cannot help but ask: are we really free?[1]  Given the increasing concentration of media
ownership and the concomitant homogenisation of content, how free is free? And
with the pervasiveness of political patronage, religious pressures, and
unbridled machismo, there seems to be a need to retrace our steps, raising the
basic question: what is freedom?

Philippine Media and Democracy

By being the oldest democracy
in the region, the Philippines is expected to set the standard in effecting an
enabling environment for the media, and some may even say, to demonstrate
excellence. Despite the occasional censorship and lack of professionalism in
different platforms and production, the country’s media appears to remain ahead
of its neighbours in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s notorious Internal
Security Act as well as sedition laws has been a threat to media organisations,
including independent online media.[2]
Vietnamese censors have included the internet within their scope, leading to
the arrest of bloggers critical of the government.[3]
The glaring concentration of media ownership hounded Thaksin Shinawatra’s
regime, which was ousted by a military coup.[4]
Indonesia’s military continues to play a huge role in politics. The practice of
properly attributing information to sources remains a problem in Cambodia,
despite of a continuing rise of publications.[5]
Finally, resource issues are at the root of East Timor’s limited infrastructure
and pool of media practitioners.[6]  

As Glenda Gloria, managing
editor of Newsbreak explained,
“Without doubt, Philippine media enjoys an advantage not present among its
counterparts in the ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations]. It not
only operates in a democratic environment; it appreciates the democratic
freedom afforded them. It is this that allows Philippine media to recognize the
link between empowerment and information.” [7]

The trauma generated by the
Marcos era made freedom of expression, media freedom, and other civil liberties
on top of the agenda during the drafting of a new constitution. Section 4 of
the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution reads: “No law shall be passed
abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right
of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

It is noteworthy that
alternative presses which began to appear since the 80s were led by women
journalists such as Eugenia Apostol, Letty Magsanoc-Jimenez, Ninez
Cacho-Olivares, Jo-Ann Maglipon, Sheila Coronel, Ma.Ceres Doyo, among others.
Their writings were not just limited to hard news, but include lifestyle and
entertainment as politically relevant. As put by Maglipon, activist and
currently the editor-in-chief of the best-selling showbiz magazine, Yes!, “Is there really any difference
between political gossip and showbiz gossip anyway? Gossip is anything that
floats around that is neither confirmed nor resolved, nor in any way informed
with details or fact. The newspapers are full of stories about President Arroyo
and her officials which are neither confirmed nor resolved. Are they any

Since 1987, self-regulation
has been seriously pursued. The media is checked by industry associations such
as the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (Association of Broadcasters of
the Philippines) for broadcast media; the Philippine Press Institute for print
media and the Adboard for advertisements. Each association has its own code of
ethics and mechanisms which have been recognized even by the country’s

Government intervention in
the operation of the media is generally limited to technical function. For
example, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) assigns frequencies
and issues licenses to television and radio stations.

Ironically, on the 20th
anniversary of the EDSA People Power, the ghosts of Martial Law haunted the
nation, particularly the media, when president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared
a state of emergency and issued Presidential Proclamation 1017 (PP1017)
on the pretext that political destabilisers were out to unseat her
administration. Following her approval of PP1017 (which is substantially a
carbon copy of Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1089) that effected military rule, a
national broadsheet was raided. Three months later, although the Supreme Court
affirmed the legality of the president’s “calling out power” it found the
content of PP 1017 unconstitutional. “PP 1017’s extraneous provisions giving the President
express or implied power to direct the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) to
enforce obedience to all laws even those not related to lawless violence and to
impose standards on media or any form of prior restraint on the press, are

Market or Self Regulation?

Self-regulation has not always
resulted to responsible and transformative outputs. Instead, profitability has
increasingly become the basis for the production and communication of news and
information. This can be seen through the packaging of emerging news as

Media ownership similarly
contributes to the choices and delivery of information. Much of the major media
firms are part of business conglomerates that are vulnerable to political
pressures. A classic case is the fate of the Manila Times during the incumbency of president Joseph Estrada.
Published by Robina Gokongwei, the paper highlighted the alleged role of
Estrada in a dubious government deal.[10]
Instead of further pursuing the story, and despite her known interest in
journalism Gokongwei was forced to personally apologise to the president, and
later sell the paper to an Estrada crony. The paper, as was her family’s
interest in food, air transport, telecommunications, banking, real estate,
hotel and recreation, power generation, mining and oil exploration appeared to
be threatened.[11]    

Corruption is another form of
abuse in the exercise of self-regulation. The practice becomes rampant
particularly during election seasons. A survey of the Philippine Center for
Investigative Journalism revealed that two out of five reporters accepted money
in the course of their coverage.[12]  Media’s active role in shaping the quality
and results of elections was validated six years after, during the 2004
national elections.[13]  

Profits likewise inform
sensationalism, often at the cost of marketing female sexuality. This is
especially so in the case of tabloids, which are mostly published in the local
language and cost significantly less than the broadsheets. Headlines are
presented in bold red letters while on the margins are seductive and
scantily-clad starlets. Sagad, a more
recent publication is known for the half-naked images on its front page and
graphic details in its articles. It also features naked women in a section
dubbed as “Sagad Nude Files: Mga Larawang Hubad para sa Lahat (Nude Images for
All).” Some tabloids also reek of gender insensitive language and even
violence. A story in the October 18, 2006 issue of People’s Tonight, one of few tabloids in English, described a
victim as a “then juicy virgin.”[14]

As asserted by Hector Bryant
Macale, a writer that explored this issue, while “there may be less sex in
tabloids now, that doesn’t mean that it is on the way out. If the success and
popularity of Sagad is any
indication, there is no stopping other tabloids, especially the new ones, in
trying to outdo the others by offering more sleaze.”[15]

Censorship by Politics and Religion

Unlike news, entertainment
production -- including certain public affairs programs -- is subjected to a
screening and evaluation process by government office, the Movie and Television
Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) on the basis of “contemporary Filipino
cultural values.”  Established in 1985,
MTRCB has on several occasions caught the ire of the artistic and cultural
communities and media practitioners because of its unreasonable conservatism.
In 1993, for instance, MTRCB banned the showing of Oscar best picture Schindler’s List, one of the subplots of
the holocaust during World War II.

Often MTRCB invokes the
notion of “values” in its controversial decisions. Often, these decisions
spring from a particular vantage point of morality. Its decisions not only
arouse debates on freedom of expression, but also involve issues central to the
supposed separation of the church and the state.

Morality rather than artistry
has become the barometer of good entertainment on several instances. Among the
more recent intervention of the Church in the tasks of the MTRCB led to the banning
of Live Show, a movie which depicted
workers forced into prostitution and eventually the resignation of MTRCB head,
film scholar, Nicanor G. Tiongson.

Although the classification
body of the Catholics Bishops Conference, CINEMA, rated the film R-18, exactly
the same as the MTRCB rating, the then Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin
demanded Tiongson’s resignation after the latter refused to recall the film
from the theatres.

In his letter submitted to
Macapagal-Arroyo, Tiongson wrote, “It is ironic that the freedom of expression
that liberated us from a corrupt and incompetent government will become the
first victim of religious bigotry that now threatens our democracy.”[16]  

The Church continues to be a
formidable force in determining the configuration in political leadership and
survival; to the point where even occupants of the highest office would tread
carefully in the center aisle. While the Church would be quick to invoke their
roles as guardians of morality, its morality has been quite selective and
tragic. Its machinery for propaganda has effectively deprived a number of women
of choices, including the exercise of their reproductive rights.

Much of the Board’s decisions
which entailed the banning of films embodies the patriarchal ethos that the
Church has helped propagate. In June 2006, the Board decided to suspend I-Witness, a  documentary program which featured a 200 year
old ritual performed in weddings by a group of lukayo, short for “luka-lukang
payaso” or crazy woman clown. In the ritual, older women play with huge phallic
symbols such as a wooden penis or an eggplant. In some cases, the bride is made
to touch these objects.[17]
Since the ritual highlights elderly women, the ritual also makes a  strong statement about women, who are seen not
just bearers of life but beings who have control over their bodies.

Evelyn Katigbak explained,
“The Lukayo has an anthropological, social, and political values. It is a
ritual that has survived modern times primarily because the people, especially
the women, have been actively preserving it.” However, it was not these values
which caught the attention of the MTRCB. Instead, it was felt that the display
of phalluses point to acts of masturbation. I-Witness
was slapped with a two week suspension.

ICTs and internet: A Panacea?

The internet has posed both
as an opportunity and a challenge to people, especially women who have a thirst
for information and the penchant for communication.[18]
At the height of the controversy that exposed Macapagal-Arroyo’s alleged
rigging of the 2004 national elections, blogs of independent media such as the
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) served as a converging
platform for curious and critical minds. When mainstream media opted to
position themselves on the side of caution, the PCIJ website boldly carried the
alleged recordings of Arroyo’s telling conversation with an election official.

Applications such as e-mail and instant messaging can
likewise be empowering especially for women for whom communications seem to
matter more than for men. The quality of the internet as a platform for
communication also tends to reflect the desire for the state of borderlessness
and sometimes anonymity, allowing the (re)construction of identities. The
internet certainly has the potential towards a room of one’s own or even a
matrix of sorts. As Kevin Robbins postulated during the first few years of the
internet, ““Like the original maternal matrix,
'the silently active containing space in which psychological and bodily experience
occur', this other, technological, matrix seems to offer the space for
unconstrained, omnipotent experience.”

But this supposedly to be ‘modern
womb’ is historically dominated by men who tend to have greater access to the
technology and its peripheral production and services. At present, internet
penetration in the country is only at 11 percent, while there are no precise
indications how much of this accounts for women users. 

The growing availability of voice over internet
(VoIP) in internet kiosks especially in the provinces has been
welcomed, especially in a country known for its labor migration industry. Aside
from providing cheaper and more personal communication of families to relatives
working abroad, this phenomenon has also facilitated a disturbing response to
poverty: several local women used the internet to interact with men from the US
and Europe, with marriage and immigration in mind.  

The speed of searching and
transmitting information over the internet can also be disappointing,
considering the internet’s ability of replicating gender-insensitive
information, images and ideologies, and therefore perpetuate a range of
violence.  The proliferation of pornographic
materials and the use of information and communication technologies for
trafficking are only some of the manifestation of technology’s disempowering
results to most women.

In the early years of this millennium, internet
pornography both in the form of CD and live broadcast was usually done by
foreign nationals who likely had the necessary capital to purchase the
equipment and afford services for the business. In a 2003 documented case,
Filipino women performing states of undress and aping orgasms were paid P5,000
(USD $100) per shift, while their videos were sold over the internet at USD2.49
(around P150) per minute.[19]

Unequal power relationships were further felt during
police raids. Both foreign proprietors and local women are liable for violating
laws on obscenity. But in almost all cases, only the women are tried once a
case is filed. Foreigners, particularly those from developed countries, not
only have the capacity to post bail but also slip out of the country to evade
prosecution. As the cost of equipment and services has been declining, one can
only expect more businesses of this kind.

The .xxx controversy within
the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) only
demonstrates how ICTs are rooted in offline power relationships, emanating from
various social categories such as gender, class, ethnicity and so on. Moreover,
it has also showed a hierarchisation of values and priorities that places
women’s rights at the bottom, and children’s welfare as a paramount concern.

In 2005 the .xxx domain was
approved after years of debate and recalled immediately after conservatives
supported by United States president George W. Bush exerted immense pressure on
Although the issue has gone into a hiatus, the process provides a set of
regrettably familiar dynamics: the inadequate capacity, representation and
participation of women in ICANN’s decision-making process only validates what
has been wrongly perceived as"neutrality of technology." The immense
political pressure of a single group over a process that was supposed to be
consultative is also telling. Whether or not .xxx was implemented, both the
process and power relations at play are potentially dangerous.[21] 

In the Philippines, the
government’s response to pornography, particularly child abuse, has come in the
form of Cybercrime bills that generally deal with system
security and data ownership. The discussion of Cybercrime bills has been limited to the Committee on ICT at the
House of Representatives. As in past Congresses, it is likely that the bill
would be not approved at the House, much less the Senate. Not because of the
lack of support for bill but because of the minimal interest and awareness on
the issues involved. 

The perceived neutrality of
technology is likewise belied in the commercial promotion of gadgets and tools.
If in the past, scantily-clad women bathed as they washed sedans and race cars,
now they are present to make next generation gaming even more enticing. T3
and Speed, two of the better known gadgets magazines have employed such
technique as they feature the hottest tools in the market. Albeit the
publications are not wanting in terms of content and lay-out, their coupling of
sexuality with gadgets does not occur in a cultural vacuum. T3’s July
2006 issue, for instance, a model in black two-piece suit appears seductively
trying to control a Robosapien and on the next page, sits while leaning on both
elbows projecting a spectatorial look at the Robosapien.

In the article, the
Robosapien is referred to as “he” as in “while V2 [Robosapien version 2]
doesn’t quite have the strength to hump an Atlas stone onto a 4ft-high
pedestal, he can hold up a stubby beercan and with some deft human input, bring
it to your couch. His three-finger/ one thumb claws are even nimble enough to
scoop a coin off the floor. He can also remember a staggering 5,000 steps---to
train him, simply show him the moves by moving his arms around and he’ll
Needless to say, the gendered and sexualised metaphors reverberates throughout

Access & Participation

A meaningful engagement of
censorship and content regulation issues inevitably hinges on the question of
access and the development of agency. Access to participation, technology and
resources is key in going beyond the limits posed by the pervasive
concentration of media ownership.

Community radio has always
been seen as an appropriate and strategic for remote and unprofitable areas.
Although television has recently overtaken radio as a medium of choice,
accounting for 72 percent of the population, radio remains indispensable
especially for the poorest households. Revisiting the policies on frequency
management with various stakeholders can be a first step.    

At the moment, a distinction
has yet to be made between community and commercial radio. Despite community
radio’s orientation to development, it is required to pay the same fees and
taxes as a commercial radio. This is a cost barrier faced by women’s groups
providing service to women over the radio, especially information on rather
thorny issues such as reproductive rights. These groups include the Women’s
Media Circle, the Coalition against Trafficking of Women-Asia Pacific,
Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anakan ng mga Migranteng Manggagawang Pilipino
[Association of Families of Migrant Filipino Workers].

As media is a cross-cutting
sector whose operations and problems are located in ideologies, creative
responses to, and resistance against homogenisation begin on the level of
discourses.; from the more obvious media literacy courses to the more subtle
but sustained process of transcoding, or the cultivation of alternative yet
empowering process of representation.[23]

An informed public can better
determine and act on balanced information, quality programs and informed
opinion. As Luis Teodoro, former dean of the College of Mass Communications of
the University of the Philippines asserted, “a media literate public, would constitute
a countervailing force powerful enough to compel the mass media to comply with
their own standards and aspire for levels of excellence commensurate to their
responsibility to provide the public reliable and complete, information  [for it to] act intelligently in complex
social, political, and cultural environments.”[24]

Finally, the mode of
representation is crucial to the diversity of ideas; the liberation and
celebration of bodies; the appreciation of identities; and the assertion of
these ideas and identities in the national imaginary that claims to be open,
democratic and free.

Nina Somera

[1] More than 50 media practitioners

were killed since 1986. Of this, seven were murdered last year. Reporters

Without Borders, “Philippines-Annual Report 2006” http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=17359.

[2] Mustafa K. Anuar, “Country Report:

Malaysia” in the Media and Democracy in Asia (Singapore: Asian Media

Information and Communication Center), pp 110-112.

[3] Reporters Without Borders. “Vietnam Annual Report 2006

[4] Respected journalist Supinya

Klangnarong was slapped with a libel suit, amounting to nearly 300 million Baht

by Shin Corporation. In her article published in Bangkok Post, Klangnarong made the observation that Shin

Corporation has significantly multiplied its profits following the rise of the

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party. Thaksin owns Shin Corporation. On September 19,

2006, Thaksin was unseated by a military coup. On the same day, all radio and

television stations were seized, playing royalist tunes while cable news were

blocked. Internet service providers were later warned. Roby Alampay, “Media in

the Philippines and Thailand: States of Emergency and the Press” in PJR Reports (November 2006), p.8.

[5] Sek Barisoth, “Country report:

Cambodia” in the Media and Democracy in Asia (Singapore: Asian Media

Information and Communication Center), pp 16-30.

[6] Hugo Fernandez, “A Call for a Press

Council” in Watching the Watchdog: Media

Self-regulation in Southeast Asia, Edited by Cecille A. Balgos (Bangkok:

Southeast Asian Press Allliance and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung), 2002, pp.91-93.

[7] “Commentary: Media and Democracy in

the Philippines” in the Media and Democracy in Asia (Singapore: Asian Media

Information and Communication Center), p.168.

[8] Philippine Daily Inquirer, “It’s a

stretch from martial law to movie stars

[9] See Avigail Olarte, “Supreme Court: PP1017 Partly Constitutional

[10] Robina Gokongwei not only had the

financial resources in managing the Manila

Times. She used to be a correspondent of Philippine Collegian, the student paper of the University of the

Philippines, the country’s premiere state university.

[11] See Gloria, pp. 173-174.

[12] Ibid., p.175.

[13] See Sheila Coronel et al, Cockfight,

Horserace, Boxing Match: Why Elections are Covered as Sports (Lessons Learned

from the 2004 Campaign Coverage), (Quezon City: Philippine Center for

Investigative Journalism

[14] Hector Bryant L. Macale, “Things are

not all as they seem: The tale of the tabloids,” in PJR Reports (November 2006)

pp. 12-16. In his article, Macale featured the results of a survey made by PJR

Reports on 15 tabloids from October 16 to 20, 2006.

[15] Ibid., p.16.

[16] Nicanor G. Tiongson, “The Politics

of Film Censorship” in Philippine

Journalism Review (April-May 2003), p.41)

[17] In the central islands of the

Philippines, huge wooden penises are brought out during a procession on a Black

Saturday, which marks the death of Christ. At the end of the Lenten procession,

which includes as a life-size statue of Judas, these wooden penises would be

destroyed by women.

[18] Although not conclusive, a 2004 survey

conducted among Filipino internet users reveals that women are more likely to

use the internet for otherwise more productive purposes such as communications

and research. In the 2005 Pew Internet Study, e-mail has also been deemed the

application of choice for women who are more keen to communicate and network

with fellow women. See Jannette Torral (Ed), Philippine Internet Review: 10

Years of Internet in the Philippines (1994-2004) (2004) and Fallows, Deborah,

How Women and Men Use the Internet” (December 2005),

[19] At

present exchange rate P50 = $1

[20] Kieren

Mc Carthy, “ICANN Kills .xxx porn domain,” in The Register (December 1,


[21] See

Ciara O’Brien, “ICANN looking at porn again,” in The Register (January

9, 2007)

[22] Bailey, Tom, “The Robosapiens v2” in T3

(July 2006), p.93.

[23] Michael Ryan deploys the concept of

transcoding to describe the transformative potential of film, which unlike

other discursive practices can hardly accommodate top-down nor bottom-up models

of politics. “Material circuits…to name the real, concrete linkages that

conduct ideas, issues, meanings, as well as fears, tensions, and desires from

society into film.” “The Politics of Film: Discourse, Psychoanalysis, Ideology”

in … pp. 479-480.

[24] “Empowering the Public,” in Watching the Watchdog: Media Self-regulation

in Southeast Asia, Edited by Cecille A. Balgos (Bangkok: Southeast Asian

Press Alliance and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung), 2002, p 135.