The Philippines’ press freedom ranking fell by two notches, placing 138th out of 180 countries ranked by Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) or Reporters Without Borders, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said on Thursday.

In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, RSF reported that the Philippines possesses “state troll armies [that] use the weapon of disinformation on social media,” like Russia, India and Vietnam.

It also said that Filipino journalists have been attacked by pro-government activists, with the group noting similar incidents in Bangladesh and India.

In its summary of the situation of journalism in the country, RSF noted how the Duterte administration targeted the Philippine Daily Inquirer [and] waged a “grotesque judicial harassment campaign” against the online news platform Rappler and its executive editor and chief executive officer (CEO) Maria Ressa, and the “threats and intimidation” faced by ABS-CBN network.

All three media organizations have been the subject of tirades by Duterte.

“The persecution of the media has been accompanied by online harassment campaigns orchestrated by pro-Duterte troll armies, which also launched cyberattacks on alternative news website and the site of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in order to block them,” RSF said in its report.

The watchdog accordingly classified the Philippines as having a bad environment for journalism.

CHR spokesman Jacqueline Ann de Guia echoed the report of RSF, saying the report sends a firm message that the current political climate exacerbates the danger and fears over the erosion of democratic and press freedom during these uncertain times.

“We urge the government to provide legal protection to the members of the press while they perform their duty as the fourth estate, and to expedite the investigation of media-related killings and attacks, “ de Guia said.

“Such hostile treatment to journalists echoes the censorship and human rights violations that beset our nation during the martial law rule, in which we say: “Never Again,”” she added.

The CHR raised concerns on the wave of persecutions directed toward journalists and media institutions, as a recurring theme in the current administration’s actions and pronouncements.

It also expressed alarm over the Cybercrime Prevention Law and the Anti-Terrorism Act that accordingly further threaten freedoms of speech and expression, particularly in articulating political sentiments or dissent.

“This is an overt way of silencing criticisms toward government actions, or the lack thereof, in matters affecting public interest,” de Guia said.

Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr., however, maintained that the administration had no hand in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to revoke Rappler’s incorporation documents and Congress’ refusal to grant ABS-CBN a franchise.

“We also dispute that these two issues should not have led to the decline in our ranking,” Roque said.