Freedom of Expression Challenges and the Risk of “Lawfare” Discussed at Journalists’ Roundtable

Internews and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) co-organized an online roundtable discussion May 4-6 to commemorate World Press Freedom Day 2021. The roundtable brought together representatives from key partners and institutions from the media and legal sectors, including Rappler and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, who served as keynote speakers. The participants discussed common goals in advancing freedom of expression and challenges in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of journalists and lawyers as they perform their critical roles.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) discussed the increasing risk of “lawfare” – defined as the misuse of legal systems and principles to restrict free expression and press freedom – faced by media and journalists. NUJP recorded 51 cases of intimidation and 37 libel cases from June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2021.

A key takeaway from the roundtable discussion is the need to have a multi-sectoral response focusing on unity, understanding and asserting fundamental human rights, and proactively working on how to prevent threats and attacks, in addition to pushing back against them when they occur.

Participants expressed a keen interest for sustained collaboration and collective action between the two sectors and recommended exploring the feasibility of more regular coordination and partnerships between law practitioners and media practitioners.

Internews is set to build on the success of the roundtable and support the emergence of a “community of practice” on journalist safety and lawfare.

“The trend of shifting from physical attacks to legal attacks against media freedom is difficult to resist, because lawfare against media embraces the appearance of legality, and often indeed formally complies with the letter if not the spirit of the law,” said Greg Kehailia, Internews Country Director. “It is exhausting to oppose lawfare […] because lawfare uses law to attack people often deeply committed to the rule of law, including journalists and lawyers. Lawfare is particularly perfidious, because it poses as abiding by the rule oflaw, while it in fact undermines it by enforcing instead a rule bylaw.”

Fifty-four people attended the roundtable representing the largest local and national media organizations, law firms, human rights defenders, journalists’ and lawyers’ groups in the country. Participants were from Metro Manila, the provinces of Rizal, Cavite, and Laguna in Southern Luzon, Pampanga and La Union in Central and Northern Luzon, and as far as Cebu and Negros Occidental in Central and Western Visayas.