January 26, 2018

Connecting the dots

The revocation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registration of online news site Rappler is being passed off as a simple case of an independent government agency implementing the Constitutional ban on foreign ownership of a media organization.  It has nothing to do with media freedom. It has no implications to other media outfits. And most important of all, the Duterte administration claims it has nothing to do with it.

The facts and circumstances surrounding the SEC decision, however, are in glaring contravention to such a benign argumentation. Duterte wants to shut down Rappler because he cannot stand its criticism of his regime.

Firstly, President Rodrigo Duterte had repeatedly threatened Rappler, along with ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, for being unfairly critical of his administration, imputing various motives.  In the case of Rappler, that it is “fully owned by Americans” and is part of a CIA plot to bring him down. Duterte has not been able to disguise his utter contempt for these three media organizations and his intention of going after them to stop what he considers scurrilous, slanted if not fabricated, reportage meant to undermine his presidency.

Secondly, it was Duterte-appointed Solicitor General Calida who got the SEC to conduct its investigation against Rappler.  In record time, the SEC handed down its decision cancelling Rappler’s corporate registration on the basis of a legal technicality without giving Rappler the opportunity to correct its ownership structure as it had done for other business entities similarly situated.

Thirdly, it is hypocritical of the Duterte administration to utilize the Constitutional ban on foreign media ownership to silence Rappler while it pushes for Charter Change that will do the exact opposite – allow 100% ownership of public utilities, mass media and educational institutions by removing the remaining protectionist provisions in the 1987 Charter.

As pointed out by many legal experts, the Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) held by Rappler's foreign investors (Omidyar Network and North Base Media) does not vest them with ownership over Rappler or Rappler Holdings. In fact, PDRs are resorted to by companies seeking substantial foreign investment in order to precisely skirt such strict prohibitions against foreign ownership. 

Duterte poses as the one who is aggrieved in all this.  That his administration is merely defending itself from unfair criticism by an intemperate and elitist media outfit with a hidden agenda, that of toppling him. But in truth the Duterte regime is using the instrumentalities of the state to shut down, one by one, those media outlets it considers to be inherently biased against his regime.

Some say there is nothing wrong with this.  That the state, helmed by Duterte, is justified in defending itself from irresponsible media and other kinds of destabilizers.

Unfortunately for Duterte, the Philippine Constitution states: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances.” Duterte is wrong in saying press freedom is a “privilege”. It is a right on the level of freedom of speech and expression, that the state can only curtail in cases of libel or proven use for seditious purposes.

Therefore, this SEC ruling, no matter how Duterte denies shaping or influencing it, is itself unconstitutional. There can be no justification for government closing down a media outlet, no matter under what alibi, just because the President doesn’t like what it publishes.

In truth, the Duterte regime is not without less obviously tyrannical means to counter Rappler. Duterte and his minions, including his social media horde, have blasted Rappler non-stop for publishing supposed “fake news” (while expertly churning out fabrications packaged as news themselves). He has also use paid hacks masquerading as veteran journalists to mount a more sophisticated smear campaign against Rappler.

If a substantial number of people can be convinced then they will stop reading Rappler, its advertising and other revenue will go down alongside its declining credibility, and Rappler will find itself struggling to survive. Libel cases can always be resorted to and in fact the National Bureau of Investigation is handling a current cyberlibel case against Rappler.

The SEC decision on Rappler steps up the Duterte regime’s attempts to gag mass media. It is intended to have a demonstration effect on the rest of the mass media organizations from owners to editors to reporters. Meanwhile the regime perseveres in going after its staunchest critics through a squeeze on franchises, corporate takeovers by businessmen allied with the President, and always, the resort to harassment suits, while turning a blind eye to the unflagging killings of media practicioners.

Recently, Duterte was positively frothing in the mouth when he was asked by Rappler reporter Pia Ranada regarding his hand in the SEC decision. Apparently whatever satisfaction he derived from it was drowned out by the Rappler expose on his right hand man, Bong Go, “intervening” in a P15.5-B project to acquire the Command Management System (CMS) to be installed in brand new Philippine Navy warships.

It is not as if the story has no basis. A note tacked on to an alleged white paper favoring a certain CMS supplier that was forwarded by Defense Secretary Lorenzana to Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mercado cites Bong Go as the source.  This was denied by Go then also later denied by Lorenzana who said he was mistaken about the paper’s source. But there are plenty of suspicious facts and circumstances, enough to raise serious doubts about Malacañang’s intervention in the project.

This is the proverbial “whiff of corruption” that Duterte promised he would not tolerate. Instead of initiating an investigation, checking the paper trail for this document, finding out who from the Presidential Management Staff met with the Navy official in charge of the project and what was discussed, Duterte mysteriously fired Vice Admiral Mercado for “insubordination”, exonerates Go with a non sequitur comment that Go is already a billionaire (ergo he can’t be corrupt) and then goes ballistic in denouncing Rappler for throwing “shit” at his regime.

Or perhaps Duterte is so incensed he could not control his rant against Rappler and Ranada because this is the sort of “whiff of corruption” that could generate disgruntlement in the military.  Well this time, Duterte can blame no one but himself. #

Published in Business World
23 January 2018