Pushing Back Against Online Harassment:
A GUIDE AND A CALL TO ACTION
By Atty. Chel Diokno
The Philippines is still one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. With advances in technology and the large role of social media in politics and society, attacks on journalists have evolved over the past years to include online harassment and threats—posing dangers to their digital, psychological, and even physical safety. These attacks have also spilled over from chatrooms to courtrooms, with known administration critics being charged with cyber-libel in what has been described as an effort to send a chilling message and censor the press through lawfare.
Journalists are protected from online harassment by our Constitution, laws, and jurisprudence, as well as international human rights instruments. The Bill of Rights of the Constitution protects our freedoms of speech, expression, and the press; our right to privacy; and the people’s rights to peacefully assemble and to access information on matters of public concern. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does the same, and also requires that the Philippine Government provide legal remedies to victims of human rights violations.
Aside from the protections and avenues for redress that our law provides, Facebook and Twitter—the two main social media platforms used by journalists and news outfits in the country—have tools for reporting abusive and suspicious content.
Facebook notes that the best way to report abusive content, spam, or impersonation on its platform is by using the “Report” link which appears near the content itself. Just click “Find support or report post” or “Find support or report comment” and follow the on-screen instructions. Facebook will review the report, and take appropriate action.
Twitter, on the other hand, allows you to mute, block, or report abusive users, hide replies to moderate conversations on your tweets, or mute the conversation altogether. You can also mute notifications from users with new accounts, unconfirmed emails and phone numbers, and default profile photos—which often are signs of a troll account.
If you are subjected to online threats or harassment, make sure you take screenshots and copy the URL links of posts or profiles before blocking the harasser, since past engagements will no longer appear once you use the block function.
Contrary to popular belief, the number of times content is reported does not determine whether or not it will be taken down. Whether it’s one report or a hundred, platforms check reported content for violations of community guidelines. Still, it will be useful to engage followers and like-minded netizens not just in monitoring threats, reporting, and tracking down perpetrators, but also in the broader work of safeguarding the freedom of the press.
In addition to reporting online harassment to the social media platform, it is highly recommended that you seek legal advice as soon as possible from a lawyer whom you trust. Your lawyer can help you document the incident, and assist you in reporting the matter to the authorities. Your lawyer can also explain to you the available legal remedies that you can pursue.
Responding to online harassment should not be limited to blocking, reporting, and ignoring. It is important to push back, especially as digital attacks could very easily turn into physical ones; left unchecked, they could be damaging to democracy itself. Strengthen cybersecurity in newsrooms, and encourage and enable journalists to acquire tools, training, and resources to protect themselves. Provide support for journalists pushing back through legal avenues, as well as emotional and psychological support for those experiencing harassment. Record threats, document them thoroughly, and store them securely for possible legal action.
Cases involving online threats and harassment are generally handled by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Cybercrime Division, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Cybercrime Division, and the Philippine National Police (PNP) Cybercrime Group. The first step is to gather evidence to prove harassment; ensure that the URL is visible in screenshots to establish authorship of the post, comment, or message in question. The next step is to formally make a complaint by submitting an affidavit to the cybercrime divisions of the DOJ, NBI, or PNP—after which investigators may conduct surveillance, gather more evidence, and apply for a search warrant or file formal charges.
All these, however, heavily put the burden on journalists. Addressing the roots of this problem will require accountability on a wider and more meaningful scale. Harassers—especially state actors—should be held accountable for attacks on journalists. Social media companies must take responsibility for their platforms. Citizens must rally around the press, since what is at stake is not just the media’s right to report the news but the people’s right to be informed and to know the truth. A country, after all, is only as free as its press. That is why those who are bent on destroying democracy attack the press and do everything they can to silence criticism.
The threats journalists face today may take novel forms, but at their core they are no different from the earliest attempts of the first tyrants and abusers to silence those who would speak truth to power—through the spoken word, through pen and paper, through the airwaves. In this new decade and beyond, as journalism finds new ways to tell stories and to get the facts across especially online, the call is as simple and as difficult as it was back then: insist, resist, persist.
*Atty. Diokno is a human rights lawyer and chairman of the Free Legal Assistance Group.