Duterte’s predatory cyberwar against press freedom

Artwork by Dee Ayroso
For the past months, the websites of Bulatlat, Altermidya, Kodao Productions and Northern Dispatch have been subjected to a series of distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks, a type of cyberattack aimed at making our content inaccessible to our subscribers.

Qurium Media Foundation, host of Bulatlat, Altermidya and Karapatan websites, effectively mitigated what it dubbed as “brief but frequent” incidents of digital attacks. Qurium’s investigation later revealed that the IP address which did a vulnerability scan on Bulatlat website is hosted by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Digging deeper, the Sweden-based media NGO found that the same ICT infrastructure is linked to the Philippine Army, particularly its intelligence unit.

Before releasing its forensic report, Qurium reached out to DOST through the publicly available email address for supposedly handling abuses. The email bounced and our host could not find any other channel to report the incident.

After the cyberattacks were published, officials of the DOST and the Philippine Army, and even Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque promised to conduct an investigation.

In an interview with ANC last July 1, DOST Undersecretary Rowena Cristina Guevara confirmed that the said IP address is within the DOST’s infrastructure. She said that they have asked the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to conduct “proper and clinical investigation into the alleged incidents of cyberattacks.”

The next day, Qurium sent an email to Guevara, expressing willingness to provide the IP logs needed to conduct a “clinical investigation.” Guevara acknowledged receipt of the email, adding that she forwarded it to the DICT.

As of July 5, Qurium has not received any request from either the DOST or the DICT for a copy of the IP logs. Without such information, it is impossible to do a thorough investigation.

As aggrieved parties, Bulatlat and our host Qurium Media Foundation have the right to ask the following questions:

1) What is the usage policy of the DOST for government agencies using their IP space?
2) What agency is leasing the IP address 202.90.137{.}42?
3) Who is acepcionecjr@army.mil.ph?

Without providing these details, DOST, as Qurium tacitly puts it, has become the “visible face of the cyberwar games of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”

We also take exception to Guevara’s statement that any investigation should not involve the public. Guevara should be reminded that based on forensic evidence we have so far, cyberattacks on our websites are launched using taxpayers’ money. It is therefore imperative that ICT operations, especially if found violative of our right to publish, be made transparent, and those behind these be held accountable.

These attacks underscore once again how far the Duterte administration can go in silencing the press. The recent cyberattacks are not isolated from other forms of assault on the Philippine media. These are part of Duterte’s arsenal of weapons as a “predator of press freedom,” an apt description from the Reporters Without Borders.

Moreover, this is another aspect of the Philippine military’s digital warfare, which, like the well-oiled troll army, also intends to bury or undermine the truth. It is not mere coincidence that the issues published by the alternative media during the attacks pertain to human rights abuses and failed pandemic response. Such “ugly truths” seem to be inconvenient to those in power.

Unfortunately for the cyberattackers, we are here to stay and assert our right to publish the truth. Tyranny wins when deception and disinformation prevail, and we will never allow that to happen. We draw strength and inspiration from our colleagues, rights advocates and the Filipino people who persist in shedding light amid the darkness in our land. (DAA/(https://www.bulatlat.org)

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