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Perceptions of Safety and Security among Journalists in the Philippines

National Press Club of the Philippines

The Philippines is consistently ranked among the top countries unsafe for journalists and media makers. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), for instance, ranked the country as the second most unsafe location in the world for journalists [1].

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), seventy-seven journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1992, seventy-five of whom were murdered and sixty-eight of whom killed with impunity [2]. The Centre for Media Responsibility and Freedoms (CMFR) maintains a database on the killing of journalists in the Philippines since 1986. The database reports 151 work-related killings since 1986 [3] of which sixty-eight work in radio and fifty-eight work in print [4]. 57 per cent of the killings happened in the Mindanao region.

The most notable case of impunity in journalist killings in the country is the Ampatuan Massacre (or the Maguindanao Massacre) in which 58 people were killed, 32 of which were journalists, on 23 November 2009. As of 5 January 2016, 113 of the 197 accused of being involved in the massacre have been arrested but the trial is still on-going and fraught with delays [5].

In order to begin exploring this topic, from June to July 2016, interviews were conducted with journalists in the Philippines to explore how they perceive their security and safety as journalists, and their strategies to keep themselves secure.

About the respondents

  • The journalists that were interviewed were a mix of full-time employed and freelance journalists. Ten journalists employed full-time with different news agencies, one TV show host, and three freelance journalists who contribute regularly to both mainstream and independent news agencies.
  • While eleven of the journalists work in online news, and four in radio, most of the journalists have experience in print, broadcast, video and radio newsroom.
  • There is vast journalistic experience among the respondents. Six respondents have been working as journalists for ten to sixteen years, four have over twenty years of experience; while only four have less than ten years of experience.
  • Most of the respondents cover multiple geographical locations within and outside the Philippines. Twelve cover Metro Manila and the National Capital Region; six cover the Central Philippines region – The Visayas (Bacolod, Iloilo, Tacloban); and three cover Mindanao. Three of the respondents also cover countries outside of the Philippines.
  • Beats and thematic focus was also varied among the respondents. Six covered politics (elections, government, local government, and laws); another six focus on human rights (labour rights, indigenous people´s rights, women´s rights, and children’s rights); five respondents cover peace and conflict issues, specifically the Bangsamoro, and the National Democratic Front (NDF) negotiations with The Philippine government.

On the value of sources and communicating with them

All the respondents were unanimous on the importance of having first-hand, direct sources. Some mentioned about getting leads from social media to get to first-hand sources or to cover events.

They were also unanimous in saying that getting and maintaining good sources takes a lot of work and perseverance.

All respondents prefer to have direct contact: face-to-face interviews with sources. However, there are instances, when the safety of both the source and the journalists is at risk. In these cases, they opt to use phone calls and SMS. Increasingly, they are using social media (private messages on Facebook or direct messages on Twitter) to initiate contact with sources, or to set-up meetings with them.

All of the respondents use a mix of different tools to store the information that they gather from their sources. None of them uses encryption tools.

One of the challenges, according to some of the respondents, is the lack of open data available and the difficulty in getting statistics and other information from government agencies in The Philippines. Having contacts in government agencies to get information is important, but not always possible.

A respondent says (paraphrased and translated):

¨Usually our struggle is actually with government offices. But other than that, nothing serious. With official documents, sometimes we also ask other organisations if they have one. For official denial, I remembered that Noynoy Aquino administration denied us media accreditation for his inauguration. You need a great amount of patience. I’ve experienced being asked to wait for six hours for a fifteen-minute interview. You just have to be pushy and do everything that you can, and always call and ask.”

There is a specific challenge to journalists not based in urban centres in the Philippines. One respondent says (paraphrased and translated):

¨…the common ones that we get here when you’re in the periphery is that if you want to get information from official sources, you have to go to the urban centres. Sometimes, even if the event has happened here in our area, and we need to get official statements from sources, it’s the media from the urban centers that get the stories ahead of us. There’s also this norm that they only give the stories to media they know. I’m also referring to the police and to the military, where they want the sources to centralise their statement to their chief information officer, who’s usually in the center. It’s difficult for us to get that information that’s why we capitalize in our access to the grassroots communities. There are also agencies where they don’t have regional offices here in the provinces. You need time to access them, but if you’re pressed for time, we rely on colleagues based in the urban areas. If you want to get a statement from Commission of Human Rights, they don’t have offices here in the provinces, so we have to use our connections to reach them, and if you’re able to reach them, it’s difficult to earn their trust, since they don’t know us. If we try to access materials on their website, since they’re supposed to make information accessible there, they’re not there.¨

Perception of security and mitigation strategies

When asked about the threats that they face as part of their work, the journalists had varied responses:

  • Physical security was a priority. Not surprising, given that the Philippines is constantly on the list of countries where journalists are likely to get killed on the job.
  • One respondent talked about their news agency being directly hacked.
  • Some talked about being trolled, stalked online, and threatened.

Some have received security training from other organisations, so there is awareness of risk and a few mitigation tactics exist. For mitigating information security threats, most of the respondents have a basic awareness of personal and digital security tactics. They share a range of tactics for both physical and digital security.

One respondent says: (translated)

¨I try to, but it´s hard. I try to always, at least regularly change my passwords. Using different passwords for different accounts. It helps that there are different layers — like the accounts through your phone, like with email, there are several ways to verify your accounts. I´m not comfortable leaving my laptop open when I’m in public. Because your work files are there, even your personal accounts. And there have been incidents when people have been hacked, and they [hackers] post on their Facebook profiles. For me, that’s really tragic. Even if it’s not deliberate, like if your phone gets stolen. Even just losing a device, that’s such a big deal for both professional and personal reasons. Even your personal photos, right? Why will you want anyone to have access to that?

And I think we should be careful about clicking links. You get this email that you have a message from a third party site, before I would open it, but now I never open them. Well, we’re more familiar with spam, and when your friends get stolen from (through that).¨

Another one focuses on physical security tactics: (paraphrased and translated)

¨If the area is high risk, we have to have a buddy when covering. Like for example in Hacienda Luisita, we should always have a pair when covering, and we don’t stay overnight in the area. We should be on our way home before it goes dark. We also update our friends and family through texts like “we’re already here in the area” or “we arrived safely.”

When asked if their perception of risk due to their work as journalists, most of the respondents mentioned the increasing risk of online surveillance. Most of them were sure they were somehow being watched online. The online risks that they have faced or heard about include: their news agency website being hacked, being trolled online, having their accounts suspended through a mass of complaints whenever they publish anything against the current government, and being cyberbullied.

All the respondents understand that their work comes with risk. One particular respondent had an insight into information security that encapsulates the challenges faced when it comes to securing journalists: (Paraphrased and translated)

¨We have had the training to be more careful and aware. Encryption — although you need competence in that. With everything we have to deal with to get our stories out, I can´t build skills in encryption. Why would I want to develop skills to hide information when it´s my job to share information? That´s a paradox. Just think that you have to be careful with the information that you get and the information that you get out. For as long as what you do is for the common good.¨

Although, for some of them, they believe that they are not specifically in any kind of physical danger. Upon asking why, no clear explanations were given. Meaning it’s likely to be a perceived sense or feeling of security.


The 2016 interviews are useful baseline information for how journalists perceive their safety and security online. But the interviews took place more than one year ago. Since then, the political climate and situation in the Philippines have changed significantly. So has the social media landscape, behaviour and to some extent the culture in the country. It would be interesting to explore with the same respondents, perhaps even with a bigger sample size, how journalists perceive their safety and security in 2017.

When it comes to journalist safety and security, the digital aspect of their work is left out and unexplored – which is a gap in understanding the full risks that they face. From the interviews, we learned that most journalists had an awareness of digital and online risks, but haven’t made clear connections between how they communicate online vis-à-vis their physical safety as journalists. This connection needs further exploration.

As an organisation that provides digital security training, this research has yielded some insight that will be valuable in designing workshops for journalists. Specifically:

  • Ensuring that the connection between digital communication risks and physical risks are made clear and are also based on the actual experiences of journalists;
  • Making digital security as convenient as possible, given that it tends to fall by the wayside when the journalists become concerned with their stories and their work;
  • For any digital security training to focus on securing communications with sources, and securing archiving practices for journalists.