This paper presents a “trimmed” version of the “Media Co-optation Toolbox” crafted by Freedom House to explain how President Rodrigo Duterte has kept Philippine mainstream media organizations in check by employing economic/legal and extra-legal and means to demand submission or silence from journalists. The middle part of the paper discusses how pro-Duterte bloggers and supporters in social media have undermined the credibility of Philippine mainstream media organizations by producing and spreading narratives on key issues which oppose established political norms and bodies of discourse often labelled as “fake news” or alternative truths. Finally, the paper examines some of the issues surrounding the so-called “bias” of Philippine mainstream media organization against the government in general, and the Duterte administration in particular. It will also look into the Philippine mainstream media’s attempt to co-opt government through the “eclipse of influence” by media bosses and the collusion or cooperation of newsroom personnel.
The Philippine Media: A briefer
lliberal democracy and the media
Duterte’s :”trimmed” co-optation toolbox
– The toolbox ‘repairs’ the media
– Government-backed ownership takeover
– Arbitrary tax investigations/ other cases
– Verbal harassment
– Smear of proxies
Is Philippine Media illiberal?
– Duterte as Philippine media’s echo chamber
– Media co-opting the government?
– “Experts” as enemies of smear proxies
“We need to talk about Rodrigo Duterte,” bore the opening line of sociologist Nicole Curato’s essay 1 which carried the same title, a year after President Rodrigo Duterte came to power. It’s hard not to talk about the president these days, especially with a dynamic media closely following and recording Duterte’s move, mood, and mouth. Unlike his predecessors, the Davao City leader spared no honeymoon period with the immensely critical Philippine media. With verbal guns blazing, Duterte immediately launching a rapid-fire salvo of insults and expletives against the “biased” and “bayaran” (paid-hacked) media, for distorting Philippine reality in favor of their oligarch bosses.
For a long time, no Philippine president has openly talked about the media as a willing and convenient arm of the political elite, let alone the filthy rich among its ranks. But Duterte is on a league of his own. And we need to talk about him — and his strained relationship with the Philippine media. This paper will discuss how Duterte captured public opinion by pinning down some of the country’s top media outlets through a “co-optation toolbox” inspired by the model of international watchdog Freedom House to analyze how Hungarian president Viktor Orban and Serbian prime minister Aleksander Vučič utilized challenged and emasculated the Fourth Estate in their respective countries. Freedom House designed this model to describe the co-optation process in “illiberal” democracies such as Hungary and Serbia. Orban’s regime was deemed successful, with Vučič not far behind, in employing the co-optation toolbox, based on Freedom House’s Freedom and the Media 2019 report. The toolbox, according the Freedom House, is now “ready for export.” But not for the Philippines, which actually had a crude version of media co-optation under Ferdinand Marcos’s regime. Duterte, as a self-confessed Marcos admirer, went a notch further by running a “trimmed” yet equally potent, if not more dangerous model than that of the Orban-Vičič version.
The paper will cite instances where Duterte exhibited, or attempted to exhibit, the co-optation model against certain media entities in the first three years of his presidency. It will also show how Duterte successfully marshalled public support among Filipino social media users to fight the “biased” and “bayaran” (paid-hacked) mainstream media firms, based on Facebook data from a news organization with a moderate or neutral relationship with the administration. On the part of the media, the watchdog and muckraking principles of journalism will also be examined in relation to Duterte’s illiberal brand of democracy. Yet in order to understand the uneasy relationship of government and media in the Philippine setting, this paper will likewise highlight key historical moments that ushered in the growth and evolution of the country’s highly Westernized press and its role in a liberal democracy.
The Philippine Media: A briefer
Philippine media arguably began with the Spanish-era Ilustrados’ campaign for reforms, and later separation from the imperial government. These fine men of wealth and letters established the Propaganda Movement as scholars and journalists in Spain. Schumacher said most of them were creoles and mestizos from well-to-do families, underscoring the elitist roots of Philippine journalism. The cultured and educated Ilustrados weaponized the written word to expose the excesses of the colonial administrators and friars in the Philippines.
Among those who typified the overseas political struggle with their pens and persuasion were Graciano Lopez-Jaena, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Jose Rizal, Gregorio Sanciangco, Antonio Luna, and Mariano Ponce. La Solidaridad became the foremost platform of the Propaganda Movement in Spain. From Lopez-Jaena as its first owner-editor, the Sol fired satirical commentaries against the corrupt and inept Spanish regime back home. Del Pilar later raised the ante when he assumed the editorship of the paper on December 15, 1889. He drew well-crafted pieces from Rizal, Luna, and the others, who primarily responded to every insult and misrepresentation the Spaniards threw at the indios. Historian and journalist Jesus Valenzuela described the Sol as a repository of “reforms advocated by the Filipinos” and as a means to air their grievances:
It disseminated information about the Philippines. It worked against the monastic order, and defended the rights of the Islands, such as their right of representation in the Spanish Cortes. It campaigned for equality of Filipinos and Spanish soldiers, secularization of parishes, expulsion of friars, civil government, and freedom of the press… La Solidaridad sowed distrust against Mother Spain and the authorities in the islands. (Valenzuela, 1933, 93)
This was arguably one of the earliest manifestations of the Western concept of press freedom which the ilistrados learned and imbibed while living in the highly liberalized 19th century Europe. In the Philippines, the Katipunan also published its own newspaper, Kalayaaan (Liberty), under the editorship of Emilio Jacinto. It basically shared the Sol’s objectives, but it cleverly involved another player – Japan. The Katipunan made it appear that the paper was printed in Yokoyama, Japan to draw the attention of the Spanish authorities. Japan at the time was an emerging regional power, and a declining Spain had to manage the Kalayaan issue cautiously, lest it risks war with the East Asian empire. With a phantom ally in Japan, the Katipunan kept Spanish persecution of the natives at bay, until the colonial government uncovered the Kalayaan ruse. The paper eventually folded, but the passion to expose the abuses of the Spanish authorities was never lost among the ilustrado writers at the time. Luna took the cudgels and mounted La Independencia on September 3, 1898 with the Filipinos already liberated from Spain, making it the “first out-and-out nationalist paper.” Politically, it was considered as the first “Philippine newspaper” because it was founded when the country was already an independent nation. Valenzuela called La Independencia as the “first paper in which the Filipinos expressed freely their own ideas, since following their victory, Spanish censorship was abolished.” La Independencia’s political goal is well ascribed in its maiden editorial:
We advocate the independence of the Philippine islands because it is the inspiration of this country which now has come of age. When a country stands up, like a man, to protest with arms against injustice and oppression, that country shows vitality to live freely by itself. The organs of injustice and government have already been functioning for three months after an arduous battle. We are treating our prisoners of war as any other civilized nation should treat prisoners of war. (Valenzuela, 1933, 101)
Press freedom, which the ilustrados so passionately demanded and fought for against the Spanish colonizers, officially became part of Philippine law under the Malolos Constitution, ratified on January 21, 1899. It was enshrined in Title IV, Article 20, Paragraph 1: “Neither shall any Filipino be deprived:Of the right to freely express his ideas or opinions, orally or in writing, through the use of the press or other similar means.” The Americans conquered the islands thereafter. But this did not stop Filipinos from engaging in journalism. A number of newspapers continued to espouse the anti-establishment but pro-Filipino legacy of journalism introduced by the ilustrados despite American censorship. They sought to offset or negate the influence of government-sponsored newspapers and its pro-American reportage during the US occupation of the country. But the most notable of the flock was El Renacimiento.
Established on September 1, 1901, the paper was deemed a cut above the rest for its scathing reports against the interlopers. Valenzuela described it as a “militant and aggressively anti-American newspaper just as La Independencia was inveterately hostile to the Spaniards.” Its most controversial work, “Aves de Rapina” (Birds of Prey) accused then secretary of the interior Dean C. Worcester of corruption for influence-peddling in big businesses despite holding a sensitive position in the Philippine Commission. The editorial alluded to him as “men who, besides being eagles, have the characteristics of the vulture, the owl and the vampire.” But the clue to the Worcester reference was the mention of “scientist” in the piece, noting that the American official was also a zoologist.
Presenting himself on all occasions with the wrinkled brow of the scientist who consumes his life in the mysteries of the laboratory of science, when his whole scientific labor is confined of dissecting insects and importing fish eggs, as if the fish eggs of this country were less nourishing and less savory, so as to make it worth the while replacing them with species coming from other climes. (Torres, 2008)
The editorial then went on to detail Worcester’s alleged self-serving and illicit business affairs at the expense of the US government and the Filipino people:
Giving an admirable impulse to the discovery of wealthy lodes in Mindoro, in Mindanao, and in other virgin regions of the Archipelago, with the money of the people, and under the pretext of the public good, when, as a strict matter of truth, the object is to possess all the data and the key to the national wealth for his essentially personal benefit, as is shown by the acquisition of immense properties registered under he names of others.
Promoting, through secret agents and partners, the sale to the city of worthless land at fabulous prices which the city fathers dare not refuse, from fear of displeasing the one who is behind the motion, and which they do not refuse for their own good.
Patronizing concessions for hotels on filled-in-land, with the prospects of enormous profits, at the expense of the blood of the people.
Such are the characteristics of the man who is at the same time an eagle who surprises and devours, a vulture who gorges himself on the dead and putrid meats, an owl who affects a petulant omniscience and a vampire who silently sucks the blood of the victim until he leaves it bloodless.
It is these birds of prey who triumph. Their flight and their aim are never thwarted. (Torres, 2008)
Worcester sued the paper for libel and won the case against the paper’s editor Teodoro M. Kalaw, and publisher Martin Ocampo, who were both jailed and slapped $30,000 in damages. The US and the later Philippine Supreme Courts affirmed the decision on February 27, 1912 noting that “the said editorial relating to the misconduct and bad character of the plaintiff is false and without the slightest foundation in fact.” A crucial part of the decision read as follows:
That this editorial is malicious and injurious goes without saying. Almost every line thereof teems with malevolence, ill will, and wanton and reckless disregard of the rights and feelings of the plaintiff; and from the very nature and the number of the charges therein contained the editorial is necessarily very damaging to the plaintiff.
That this editorial, published as it was by the nine defendants, tends to impeach the honesty and reputation of the plaintiff and publishes his alleged defects, and thereby exposes him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule is clearly seen by a bare reading of the editorial.
It suffices to say that not a line is to be found in all the evidence in support of these malicious, defamatory and injurious charges against the plaintiff; and there was at the trial no pretense whatever by the defendants that any of them are true, nor the slightest evidence introduced to show the truth of a solitary charge; nor is there any plea of justification or that the charges are true, much less evidence to sustain a plea (Worcester v. Ocampo, Kalaw, et al., 1912).
But Governor Francis Burton Harrison pardoned Kalaw and Ocampo before they could even serve their sentence in 1914. The El Renacimiento case was the first of its nature in the country which served as an acid test to Act No. 277 or the Libel Law 2 enacted on October 24, 1901 by the Philippine Commission under William Howard Taft. On November 4, 1901, Act No. 292 3 which covered the crime of sedition, was passed. The American authorities transformed these laws as censorship tools to keep the Filipinos in check, even as Washington expressly upholds press freedom as a fundamental legal right. After the Malolos Constitution, press freedom remained a part of the law of the land with the passage of the Philippine Organic Act of 1902 which also created the Senate and the House of Representatives. It stayed as a basic right beginning with the 1935 Constitution (Article III, Section 1, Paragraph 8) when the Commonwealth government was inaugurated under President Manuel Quezon, who also initiated the founding of the Philippine Herald, the first English newspaper run by Filipinos, when he was still Senate president.
English was extensively taught under the Commonwealth period, subsequently replacing Spanish as the foremost second language of the Filipinos. This development marked the upsurge of more English-language newspapers that intentionally or inadvertently promoted American, if not Western, values and ideas among the reading public. Censorship was technically abolished under these laws. Professional journalists and press freedom received more safeguard with the enactment of Republic Act No. 53 which “exempts the publisher, editor or reporter of any publication from revealing the source of published news or information obtained in confidence” unless it involves national security. Senator Vicente Sotto, a former newspaper man, authored the law which was passed on October 5, 1946. The present nature of Philippine newspapers received much of its character from American journalism. The eight-column banner, physical make-up, the mechanics of headline writing, and the standard style of news presentation are characteristically American (Valenzuela, 1933, 177).
Save for a few hitches along the way, the Philippine press was also credited for bolstering the image of notable men in government; a few of them even became president. One of them was Ramon Magsaysay, who was projected by newsmen covering his campaign sorties as a man of the masses, not to mention the overseas mileage he received as Washington’s candidate under the tutelage of former CIA operative Edward Landsdale. His predecessor Elpidio Quirino was not as fortunate, with the press ratting on his administration’s alleged extravagance underscored by his supposed possession of a “golden arinola” (chamberpot), which did not exist in the first place. Diosdado Macapagal was projected by news reports as a success story, even gaining the monicker “poor boy from Lubao.” But the press later slammed his administration for allegedly covering up the Harry Stonehill smuggling issue. A number of top officials, even Macapagal himself, were reportedly in the American businessman’s payroll through a so-called Blue Book. Newspaper columnists questioned why Macapagal opted to deport Stonehill instead of facing trial in a Philippine court. The press also pitted Macapagal in a “clash of topnotchers” against Ferdinand Marcos for the 1965 presidential elections. Marcos, the 1939 bar topnotcher, defeated Macapagal, the 1936 bar topnotcher.
Marcos would then change the Philippine media landscape when he declared Martial Law on September 21, 1972. In his Letter of Instruction No. 1, Marcos ordered Information Minister Francisco Tatad and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile to stop the operation of privately owned media facilities and communications. The president stressed the need to keep newspapers and broadcasting outlets from conspiring with anti-government forces, particularly the communists and the opposition, at the time of “national emergency.” His letter explained it in detail:
In view of the present national emergency which has been brought about by the activities of those who are actively engaged in a criminal conspiracy to seize political and state power in the Philippines and to take over the Government by force and violence the extent of which has now assumed the proportion of an actual war against our people and their legitimate Government, and pursuant to Proclamation No. 1081 dated Sept. 21, 1972, and in my capacity as commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of the Philippines and in order to prevent the use of privately owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media of communications, for propaganda purposes against the government and its duly constituted authorities or for any purpose that tends to undermine the faith and confidence of the people in our Government and aggravate the present national emergency, you are hereby ordered forthwith to take over and control or cause the taking over and control of all such newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media of communications, wherever they are, for the duration of the present national emergency, or until otherwise ordered by me or my duly designated representative. In carrying out the foregoing order you are hereby also directed to see to it that reasonable means are employed by you and your men and that injury to persons and property must be carefully avoided (Marcos, 1972).
On September 23, 1972, the military arrested media and opposition leaders critical of the Marcos administration. They were interrogated for their alleged complicity with the so-called enemies of the state, particularly left-leaning organizations and Communist rebel groups like the New People’s Army. More than a year after, Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 36 which cancelled the franchises and permits of all media facilities allegedly involved in overthrowing the government. It also established the Mass Media Council whose sole power is to grant authority to newspapers, radio and TV companies before they could operate. With Martial Law, publications allowed to operate were limited to those controlled by persons identified with or close to the Marcos administration. Among them were the Philippine Daily Express of Roberto Benedicto, Times Journal of Gov. Benjamin Romualdez, Bulletin Today of Hans Menzi, and Evening Post of the Tuveras (Ofreneo, 1984, 136). Marcos would later explain before high-ranking officials of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, his decision for closing a number of media outfits, particularly those critical of his administration:
The weapon of media has been used to undermine the people’s faith in the government, to destroy society by spreading rumors and speculations that will rock the foundation of any organized society. This is the reason for what you know see, for preventing media from further undermining the faith of the people in our society. This is the reason, I repeat, for taking over some radio-television stations. This is a preventive measure. (Marcos, 1972, 14)
Four months later, the president ordered to penalize “rumor-mongering” or the dissemination of false news and information and gossip which undermines the stability of government” through Presidential Decree No. 90. Marcos also lashed at the money-making schemes of some newsmen, including those whom he perceived as enemies. In a “White Paper” published by the Bulletin Today, Evening Post and Business Day on October 6, 1977, Marcos through the Philippine Council for Print Media Special Committee on Ethics led by Kerima Polotan Tuvera called out these journalists for selling their profession in exchange for a number of “blandishments,” which “include free passes, wining and dining, pocket money given during press conferences, regular “envelopes,” monthly retainers, stocks and bonds, dollars, airplane tickets, expensive gifts (including cars), money-making projects (such as the preparation of anniversary brochures in exchange for handsome allowances and per diems), jobs for relatives, unlimited access to airports, seaports, and Customs (thus facilitating the lucrative entry of highly dutiable items)” (Ofreneo, 1984, 143). From September 21, 1972 until the lifting of Martial Law on January 17, 1981, Marcos came up with 12 Presidential Decrees related to the media.
But Marcos’ shackling of the press did not end there. On December 2, 1982, he ordered the military to seize the WE Forum magazine for its alleged involvement to “overthrow the government through black propaganda, agitation, and advocacy of violence.” Interestingly, the paper which has been publishing opposition-laced commentaries as well as anti-imperialist stories since December 1976, was only padlocked six years after. What really triggered the clampdown, according to some sources, was a series of articles by Bonifacio Gillego (who is identified with the US-based Movement for a Free Philippines) placing the authenticity of the Marcos war medals and therefore the latter’s much publicized war exploits in grave doubts (Ofreneo, 1984, 150). Marcos’ dismantling Martial Law emboldened a group of independent news organizations to continue the struggle, following the WE Forum incident. Collectively known as the “mosquito press,” for their biting criticisms on the regime’s abuses, these independent media players gained more public support after the assassination of former senator Benigno “Ninoy” on August 21, 1983. Less than three years after, Marcos was ousted and the country’s democratic apparatus was restored in the 1986 EDSA People Power. The press was also liberated from years of state-sponsored repression.
President Corazon Aquino immediately repealed what she perceived as Marcos’ anti-media and anti-expression laws. But Cory herself was not fond of the media. On October 1987, she filed a libel suit against journalist Luis Beltran, who wrote in his column that the lady president “hid under her bed” while renegade soldiers shelled Malacañang during a coup attempt in August. Beltran and his publisher Max Soliven, a close friend of Ninoy, were convicted of libel but before they could serve their sentence, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision on July 12, 1993.
The next biggest challenge for local newsmen would later come with President Joseph Estrada’s P101 million libel suit against The Manila Times. The paper’s February 16, 1999 report said Erap brokered a P17-billion power contract between an Argentine firm and the National Power Corporation. Times publisher Robina Gokongwei-Pe issued a front page apology and Estrada withdrew the complaint. But the issue forced the paper’s editors to resign. Estrada then trained his guns on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, with businessmen close to the president pulling their ad placements from the paper. The Palace press office also barred the Inquirer reporter from their media events for the paper’s biased reporting on Estrada. In the same year, the Manila Times was sold to Estrada’s political ally, former Manila congressman Mark Jimenez. The Times, Inquirer, and other media outlets extensively covered Estrada’s impeachment trial and eventual ouster on January 20, 2001.
Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the presidency thereafter. She was initially perceived as media-friendly and accommodating chief executive. But the press had to do its job, especially at the height of the cheating scandal in the 2004 presidential elections. Media firms racked up stories about Arroyo’s controversial phone call to former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcilliano while the vote-counting was ongoing. The media later called this the “Hello, Garci?” tapes. Amid issues surrounding her legitimacy in office, Arroyo issued Presidential Proclamation 1017 which placed the country in a state of emergency on February 24, 2006. She also released media guidelines against the publication of “subversive” content. A day after, police raided the Daily Tribune, a renowned anti-Arroyo paper, confiscating copies of news reports and photos deemed as “destabilization materials.” The Supreme Court declared the seizure illegal and called it “plain censorship.” Under Arroyo, the single most deadly event for journalists happened in the infamous Maguindanao Massacre on November 23, 2009. Thirty-two newsmen and photojournalists were among the 58 victims of the mass killing after accompanying the relatives of gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudaddatu, who were about to file his certificate of candidacy against Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr. Their bodies were buried in a roadside in Ampatuan town using backhoes. To this day, the court has yet to render judgment on the multiple murder case filed against the Ampatuans and their accomplices. Arroyo’s successor Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had a relatively easier time with the media, save for a few brickbats from some journalists who criticize his administration’s “student council” style of governance. Another factor was the hefty reputation of her sister Kris as the top multi-media talent of broadcast giant ABS-CBN.
1. lliberal democracy and the media
Fareed Zakaria put “illiberal democracy” on the global political map in a 1997 article which raised actually raised more questions than answers to its exact meaning. 4 He simply averred its definition to a rash of case studies opposite the form and/or substance of “liberal democracy.” The usual suspects lined up: Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, Carlo’s Menem’s Argentina, Alberto Fujimori’s Peru, Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, Abdala Bucarem’s Ecuador, Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines, among others. Zakaria may have missed a few more names on democracy’s “bad boys club” but there is no denying these leaders subverted and circumvented laws and institutions to shove personal interest ahead of their political mandate. This is not just plain rhetoric. Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms (Zakaria, 1997).
Zakaria sees Western-style democracy 5 as liberal, predicated on an uncompromising regard for human rights and individual freedom. There is no quarrel with that. But liberal democracy as a condition of ordered rule is not just about parliamentary procedures hinged on free and fair elections, legislative channels, separation of powers, redress of grievances, and the rule of law. Its substance is as vital as its structure. The “basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property” under the tenets of what Zakaria called “constitutional liberalism” is a far longer row to hoe among transitioning or “hybrid regimes” and “flawed democracies” like the Philippines, based on The Economist Democracy Index in 2018. As Zakaria puts it 20 years ago, “Democracy does not necessarily bring about constitutional liberalism.” Dictators and a few straggling totalitarian regimes still persist, but increasingly they are anachronisms in a world of global markets, information, and media. There are no lone respectable alternatives to democracy; it is part of the fashionable attire of modernity. Thus the problem of governance in the 21st century will likely be problems within democracy (Zakaria, 1997, 42). But for John Street, the core tenet of liberal democracy is that since there is no uniformity of approach to how we live a good life, the definition of good life is therefore better left for the citizens to determine through voting and government should in turn respect the aggregate of choices made by the citizens through election. Liberal democracy does not require citizens to vote on all public issues as this is left for their representatives who are better equipped with skills and aptitude in the art of governance. Also, this spares the people the stress of elections on every public issue and business of running their political affairs (Street, 2001). Francis Fukuyama, who called liberal democracy as “the end of history” 6 (or the final form of government after the Cold War), admitted political myopia with the recent surge of duly-elected right-wing or populist posturing leaders across the world. “Twenty five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward,” he said in a phone interview with the Washington Post 7 in 2017.
If anything, Zakaria and Fukuyama were both right that Western-style democracy’s illiberalism lies in its proclivity for imperialism. The justifications for imperialism varied from nation to nation, from a crude belief in the legitimacy of force, particularly when applied to non-Europeans, to the White Man’s Burden and Europe’s Christianizing mission, to the desire to give people of color access to the culture of Rabelais and Moliere. But whatever the particular ideological basis, every “developed” country believed in the acceptability of higher civilizations ruling lower ones – including, incidentally, the United States with regard to the Philippines. This led to a drive for pure territorial aggrandizement in the latter half of the century and played no small role in causing the Great War. 8 Hyper-nationalism and war-mongering are likewise rife among democratic states not grounded on constitutional liberalism, Zakaria adds.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban defined illiberal democracy further in a 2018 speech. He stressed that “Christian democracy” need not always espouse a liberal character, calling it “one trap – a single intellectual trap – which we must avoid.” Orban further submitted:
Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues – say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favour of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept. 9
Citing Orban as a case study, former Canadian politician and liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff couched illiberalism as “democracy vs. democracy” in an interview last April with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The Hungarian prime minister would often assert that his election was democratically mandated by the people’s will whenever critics would brand his as “authoritarian.” Ignatieff agreed with Orban, but what the Hungarian leader only underscored was the procedural aspect of democracy which is chiefly hinged by elections as a political exercise . At the moment, Orban’s Hungary clearly lacked the “essence” of democracy anchored on upholding civil liberties, as Ignatieff observed:
He (Orban) uses democracy to crush democracy. He gets power and then he neutralizes the media.He neutralizes the courts, he locks up dissenters, he shuts off the universities. He’s been using democratic means to shut off democracy and that is the single most dangerous thing in the 21st century that is happening right now.If the press starts shutting down or if the press is unable to function freely that’s a bad sign that pretty soon democracy itself will be in danger. 10
Illiberalism can also be in good company with populism, buoyed by the election of a number of right-wing political leaders across the world. Populism, after all, is an outlook that emphatically claims to be democratic and that relies for its legitimacy on elections as expressions of the popular will. Yet when populists come to power, they tend to infringe upon the rule of law, the independence of the courts and the media, and the rights of individuals and minorities, as has been the case in Hungary. Moreover, these illiberal aspects of populism had begun to surface not just in countries lacking a liberal tradition but even in longstanding Western democracies (Plattner, 2019,10).
Warts and all, democracy remains a prerequisite to a free press. Liberal democracies, in particular, are expected to uphold press freedom as a civic right not only by journalists, but also by the audience they serve. Reports, editors, and TV anchors exercise this right to hold government and other stakeholders of public life accountable for their actions. In the grand scheme of things, truth and transparency become every well-meaning journalists’ rallying point. In the liberal theory of the press, private newspaper proprietorship prevents a state monopoly of the means of communication. Accurate and full information about politics is essential if polyarchic competition is to control politicians. Polyarchy is threatened when a ruling elite can control the flow of information about its action. Private owners want to make profit, so they provide newspapers which appeal to every section of the political spectrum, wherever they can accumulate readers (Dunleavy and O’Leary, 1987, 38). Yet the audience, where the once-silent majority used to retreat, does not see it that way lately. In fact, the messenger and receptor of good or bad news are not seeing eye-to-eye as they used to. There is an ongoing misunderstanding, perhaps a looming mistrust from the public with how media dispenses the truth nowadays through its multi-faceted paradigms of power. But just how liberal (or radical) can the media go?
From the traditional liberal pluralist standpoint, media is deemed to reflect rather than shape society. Media systems are open to a sufficiently wide range of voices, ideas, and opinions across society to legitimate public media’s role on behalf of society. This vision has its origins in the hard-fought liberal claim of freedom of expression. In order to serve society, the media must have a high degree of autonomy. Within a libertarian perspective, such autonomy is defined against “interference” by states whereas other liberal traditions incorporate role for the state as guarantor of communications against private interests (Hardy, 2010). Liberal functionalism, on the other hand, sees the media as a contributor to the “maintenance and reproduction of society.” To Hardy, both public and privately owned media in liberal societies carry out a wide variety of roles, cheer-leading the established order, alarming the citizens about flaws in that order, providing a civic forum for political debate, acting as a battleground among contesting elites. Media also convey messages from the people “below” to those in power “above” and thus have the role of “moral amplification” in systems of representative democracy (Hardy, 2010, 40).
The radical functionalist school of thought centers on the five filters of the Propaganda Model devised by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. It primarily calls out the elite domination of the media and the marginalization of dissent. It examines the dynamics of media operations in relation to its owners, reliance on advertising for profit, news sources such as government and other agents of power, negative responses to its reportage and conduct called “flak” and anti-communist (anti-Muslim, anti-Semitist, or racist) orientation as a political control mechanism. For Herman and Chomsky, the media’s unflattering ties with the powers-that-be compromises its watchdog role in the society. Leaders of the media claim that their news choices rest on unbiased professional and objective criteria… If, however, the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to “manage” public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard view of how the system works is seriously at odds with reality (Chomsky and Herman, 2008). Critics view the Propaganda Model as deterministic for limiting the media’s function to just reinforcing social inequality. It falls short of explaining the limitations set on the filters themselves. Media owners, advertisers, and government for one, cannot always throw their weight in the newsroom by commanding or dictating upon the “flow of news” without arousing suspicion and public backlash.
David Edwards and David Cromwell laid the groundwork for a more contemporary approach to radical functionalism, arguing that both the corporate mass media and the liberal media firms constitute a propaganda system for elite interest. This is built upon three major biases inherent in “neutral” professional journalism, such as reliance on official sources, news hooks, and carrot and stick pressures from advertisers. By news hooks, Edwards and Cromwell pertain to dramatic events, official announcement, or a publication of a report which justifies the coverage of a story, thereby favoring establishment interests and news management. The carrot and stick pressure meanwhile suggests businesses leading political parties herding corporate journalists away from social issues and towards others. Liberal revisionism, on the other hand, puts more emphasis on the autonomy of media professional to operate without undue political and economic stress from above. The radical pluralist approach meanwhile, bounds this autonomy to the structures of power regarded as “countervailing influences” such as state censorship, high entry costs, media concentration, mass market pressures, corporate ownership, advertising influence, consumer inequalities, rise of public relations, news routines and values, unequal sources, and dominant discourse. But for Nigerian scholar Ola Olateju, media freedom is anachronism in a liberal democracy. Its muted impracticality lies in the cornerstones of liberalism like competition, profit, and individualism which “compel the media to firstly be, a business venture and secondly, an instrument for the sustenance of the dominant social paradigm by the ruling elites” (Olateju, 2010).
Ramon Tuazon, former president of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators Foundation and associate director of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication, echoes Wolf’s correlation between wealth bolstered by liberal economic policies and media ownership, which is also evident in the Philippines. Free enterprise allows extensive access to resources for newsroom development in terms of technology and personnel. To further boost its capital outlays, big media players enlist in the stock market. For Tuazon, this policy of “let the marketplace determine the kind of media” or “let the media sort itself out” which amounts to a hands-off policy has perhaps been the single factor that has contributed to the elite orientation of media, the control of media by those who have economic and political power, and the predominance of entertainment and trivia. Data from Reporters Without Borders and Vera Files support this observation, branding as “high risk” the ownership concentration of multi-media outfits in the hands of a few people under a conglomerate set-up. The ownership concentration indicator was measured by adding up the market shares of the top media companies, notably broadcast giants ABS-CBN, GMA, and TV 5. It found out the following: “ABS-CBN Corporation and GMA Network Incorporated are without a doubt the front runners of the media market. They together gather a market share of 79.44 percent. The top 8 companies operating cross-media (which means in at least two media sectors) get almost all of the cake (96.46 percent). Even if advertising budgets was not available for all media, the trend shows that the Big Two also benefit from selling advertising space, with most money coming from TV (Nielsen, Ad Spending). Business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan is involved in all media sectors through his MediaQuest Holdings Incorporated that holds TV5 Network Incorporated (TV, radio, online), Nation Broadcasting Corporation (radio, TV) and Hastings Holdings (print). However, based on 2014 data, Pangilinan’s media companies are unable to keep pace with the major players financially. TV5 Network Incorporated is operating at a loss ($-82.43 million). His telecommunication companies however balance the loss as PLDT and Smart Communications have revenues of $3652 million, and a profit of around $569 million.” 11
2. Duterte’s ‘trimmed” co-optation toolbox
This study drew a more compact or “trimmed” version of the Freedom House Media Co-optation Toolkit to better explain Duterte’s combative demeanor toward certain media organizations, notably online news portal Rappler, print leader Philippine Daily Inquirer, and broadcast giant ABS-CBN. This will also explain how Duterte has kept the Philippine media “at bay” without deliberately breaking media laws protected by the constitutional rights of free expression, speech, and of the press. The Freedom House Media Co-optation Toolkit (Box 1) to “achieving media dominance” is divided into two segments aimed at “squelching critical outl ets” and “bolstering loyal outlets.” Each segment is subdivided into “tools” — economic, legal and extra-legal with contrasting indicators aimed at punishing the regime’s enemies among media outlets on the one hand, and rewarding its supporters on the other.
But for this study, the researcher focused on “squelching critical outlets” using a “trimmed” matrix of indicators to cover the case studies (Box 2). The “selective enforcement of laws” cannot be applied to Duterte since there are no clear-cut cases where the president set aside legal actions against other media organizations that have supposedly violated the law in the same manner with how he has viewed the Inquirer, Rappler, and ABS-CBN. The president may prefer other media companies like the Manila Times or the Philippine Star but the charge of selectivity or prejudice in favor of these outlets has yet to be unarguably proven at the moment. The “abuse of regulatory and licensing practices” is likewise inapplicable to the administration since it has yet to actually veto legislation on the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN on personal or whimsical grounds. The indicator on “permitting impunity for threats against journalists” is integrated with the “smears by proxies’ through troll farms or social media supporters which Duterte later admitted after winning the elections.
To prove how Duterte actually employed the toolbox model, this study cited cases involving the administration’s perceived mainstream media adversaries, notably online news portal Rappler, print leader Philippine Daily Inquirer, and broadcast giant ABS-CBN. Duterte’s success in capturing the news narrative from the mainstream media was remotely gauged through the consistently high interaction rate generated by pro-administration personalities in social media. Most of these interactions (comments and reactions) were noticeably in favor, or in defense, of the administration. The interaction rate and other pertinent data was accessed using the content discovery and social monitoring platform Crowdtangle. The main case studies were the following: for Rappler, the arrest of its president and CEO Maria Ressa on February 15, 2019; for the Inquirer on its sale to Duterte ally Ramon Ang on July 17, 2017; and for ABS-CBN on the issue of its franchise renewal which Duterte vowed to block, owing to the network’s failure to air his TV ads back in the 2016 elections.
3. The toolbox ‘repairs’ the media
The distortion of parliamentary democracy by big media corporations is often seen through the prism of media barons. Analysts and critics picture them as proto-monarchs in the age of democracy, information bosses who enjoy “power without responsibility” to the point where their media propaganda and string-pulling make them influential political players capable of making and unmaking government (Munhamn, 2010). Media bosses are political kingmakers. Like other businessmen trained in the grammar and philosophy of rent-seeking, they invest on political relationships with the powers-that-be by financing their campaigns or projects. Big media firms are not much interested in governmental power for mischievous personal ends. Their chief concern is to secure existing investments and to consolidate their flanks by winning bigger and better deals. That is why, if they consider it to be in their interest, they will deal with any government and enter willingly into its arrangements, even when they fall far short of the standards of monitorydemocracy (Keane, 2013). Duterte knew this from the get-go, despite being a rookie in national politics in 2016. The media for one created and propagated his “Dirty Harry” image as Davao City mayor. He was good material for journalists to pick with his crackling sound bites and simple-man attitude. But provincial Duterte was in no mood to humor Imperial Manila’s media bosses, who are directly or indirectly connected or collaborating with his political enemies and election adversaries. This can be gleaned from the media co-optation toolkit, as well as the economic/legal and extra-legal measures, he employed against ABS-CBN, Inquirer and Rapper when he assumed the presidency.
A. Government-backed ownership takeover
Born after the 1986 EDSA People Power, the Inquirer slowly earned its reputation as a crusading paper, criticizing government over certain excesses or wrongdoings. It does not balk against public officials who commit abuse of power or authority, in the same way that most of its senior editors and writers battled Marcos and his mail-fisted tactics during the Martial Law years. Duterte as a self-confessed Marcos admirer was a given target, from his defense of the infamous “War on Drugs” to issues on the West Philippine Sea, and his political alliance with the Marcoses, the Inquirer always has a story or two, giving the other side of the picture. The drug war, more popularly known as “Oplan Tokhang” 12 continues to be hounded by alleged extra-judicial killings (EJK); the West Philippine Sea had Duterte’s affinity with China as an issue, and the Marcoses for reviving, their political careers.
The Inquirer mounted a running tally of drug war victims on the first few months of Duterte’s bloody anti-narcotics campaign. But Inquirer associate editor John Nery clarified the tally, which was already removed from the publication’s website, was not a “kill list.” It was a “listing of the names and other particulars of people killed” in the drug war. 13 From July to September 2016, the Inquirer recorded 1,027 drug-related deaths, including 273 unidentified persons. The Philippine National Police (PNP) said some of the drug suspects were classified as “nanlaban” or were killed after engaging the arresting or pursuing officers in a gun-fight.
“It’s very difficult to see the difference between a thousand deaths and two thousand deaths and it becomes just a mere statistic. So, the idea for the kill list was to identify as much as possible the people who are killed in both police operations and vigilante-style operations,” Nery said in a Senate probe back in 2016.
Since Duterte assumed power in 2016, the Inquirer published at least 36 editorial related to the war on drugs and its relation to extra-judicial killings, which would later include the deaths of minors such as Kian Delos Santos, Carl Angelo Arnaiz, and Reynaldo “Kulot” De Guzman, among others. Most of these were critical pieces on Duterte’s centerpiece anti-crime program. One editorial 14 recalled how “Oplan Tokhang” was used by rogue cops to kidnap and kill Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo inside the main police headquarters in Camp Crame on October 2017. Oplan Tokhang was then suspended and anti-drug units under the PNP were disbanded. The Inquirer blasted former PNP chief Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa for calling as “police whims” the wave of unexplained killings done by the police force in the first and second phase of the “tokhang” operations, which Duterte described as “collateral damage,” to wit:
“Police whims” is a strange explanation for the violent conduct of the first stages of Oplan Tokhang. Dela Rosa himself testified in the Senate that thousands of drug personalities had been killed in police operations (Kipo), while thousands more were killed in mysterious or unknown circumstances (the label the police use is DUI, for deaths under investigation). He justified police action that led to the Kipo as done under threat, because the suspects fought back. (“Nanlaban,” the Filipino term for that, which the police themselves use in describing the reported encounters, has also become an all-too-familiar word.)So if the suspects fought back, in the majority of Kipo cases, what police whims is he talking about?
The case of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, who was recorded on camera being dragged by plainclothes policemen to what turned out to be his place of execution, shook the country because it offered incontrovertible proof of police cruelty.
And yet the police have defended the actions of their men who grabbed Kian, even describing the young student as a drug runner. Is this determined circling of the wagons a police whim?
The truth is: The PNP has not come clean about its dirty policies and its dirty cops. No less than the President thundered that as much as 40 percent of the police was corrupt, or in the control of drug lords and operators.
What has the PNP done since the President said that a year ago to bring these corrupt cops to justice, to root out the causes that lead to corruption within, to discipline the rest of the force?
Unless this rot is cured, the “true spirit” of tokhang may grow strong again, but the “flesh” of the PNP will remain weak. (Inquirer, January 2018)
Another editorial 15 stressed the extra-judicial killing angle by parsing through a Social Weather Station (SWS) survey which showed 68 percent of Filipinos saying the police are involved in the illegal drug trade and 66 percent believing they orchestrated the EJKs of alleged drug suspects despite repeated government denial of any state-sponsored killings under the pretext of the war on drugs. The most striking statistic was 78 percent of 1,400 surveyed adults fear they could be victims of EJK, a five-percent increase from the June 2017 figure of 73 percent. The Inquirer also took Duterte to task for claiming the number of drug users in the country reached 7 to 8 million, way further than the 1.8 million figure of the Dangerous Drugs Board in 2016 and twice the president’s 3 to 4 million estimate. PNP chief Oscar Albayalde admitted he was not privy to the president’s drug-war data which may have come, he said, from “unlimited sources.” It said:
In other words, the President was making up numbers, in a bid to intensify his war. After declaring, on Feb. 20, that the campaign will be “harsher in the days to come,” he was asked if that meant a “bloodier” war. “I think so,” Mr. Duterte replied. He was the President, he said, and “I will not allow my country to be destroyed by drugs. I don’t want my country to end up as a failed state… it behooves upon me to see to it that my country is safe.”
But how safe is a country that has seen tens of thousands of deaths of its own citizens, and millions more in the grip of anxiety that they would suffer the same bloody fate, not in the hands of criminals, but in the hands of the police themselves?
As (SWS president Mahar) Mangahas pointed out, “The collateral damage of the deadly war on illegal drugs includes the people’s loss of trust in the police.” (Inquirer, March 2019)
But a few days after the “war on drugs” commenced upon his orders, Duterte hit the Inquirer in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) for publishing the photo of a dead drug suspect depicting Michaelangelo’s famous “Pieta” which originally portrayed a grieving Mary holding the body of Jesus Christ. The photo, taken by award-winning lensman Raffy Lerman, riled the president for putting the PNP in a bad light, although the Inquirer did not say the police actually gunned down the “Pieta” suspect named Michael Siaron.
“Eh, tapos nandiyan ka nakabulagta and you are portrayed in a broadsheet na parang Mother Mary cradling the dead cadaver of Jesus. Eh ‘yan yang mga ‘yan magda-dramayan tayo dito,” 16 Duterte said, a day after the photo was published.
A year later, Malacañang officials would claim that Sairon was killed by drug syndicates. Former Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella defended the PNP, which took the blame for the killing: “The relentless attribution of such killings to police operations was both premature and unfair to law abiding enforcement officers who risk life and limb to stop the proliferation of illegal drugs in our society.” 17 The Inquirer would take further tirades from the president and his allies, branding the paper as a peddler of lies or “fake news” against the government.
On July 17 of the same year, the Inquirer owners surprised the Philippine media industry by announcing the sale of their majority stocks to billionaire Ramon Ang of the San Miguel group. It was no secret that Ang was a Duterte supporter and the president liked him. But the Prieto family which owned 85 percent of the Inquirer group for 25 years said it was a “strategic business decision” to “maximize growth opportunities” amid talks that the paper’s management wilted under government pressure. Ang, who has been in talks with the Prietos for the acquisition deal since 2014, assured the paper he would “continue to uphold the highest journalistic standards and make a difference in the society it serves,” denying accusations that he was a Trojan Horse sent by the administration to turn the Inquirer into a Duterte mouthpiece.
Inquirer employees were both shocked and saddened by the turn of events. Some couldn’t help but worry that Ang’s entry into the company may compromise its editorial independence, given the power play that entailed the acquisition deal. One employee said: “We had a number of meetings where we were told to be brave, to soldier on. Never did we think we’d be sold off to a Duterte campaign donor at that. Just imagine our disbelief.” 18 Malacanang distanced itself from Ang’s venture. But Inquirer employees, composed of some of the most grizzled newsmen in the country, knew the political concession with one of Duterte’s top supporters was already settled beyond the public eye. The power of elites always thrives on secrecy, silence, and invisibility (Keane, 2013, 41). Keane calls this “mediacracy” which “delves critically into a hidden world not normally covered by journalists, or spoken about by politicians or seen naked with public eyes. It is a new form of political oligarchy, top-down power that is heavily unedited, especially through the press, radio, television, a new method of governing through invisible webs of backchannel contacts and closed information circuits (Keane, 2013, 174). But media bosses only step into the newsroom when their business interests are compromised.
Take the case of Manny V. Pangilinan, who has stakes in power and water utilities, mining, logistics, and telco industries. But MVP (as he is known in business circles) also has controlling stakes in Cignal TV, TV 5, the Philippine Star, and Business World, aside from owning 15 percent of the Inquirer. He and his top executive do not meddle on media operations during “neutral” news days or when there are no stories or issues that could directly or indirectly distort their corporate reputation. Yet when controversies drag his business interests into the mud, Pangilinan makes sure his company’s rejoinder or demurrer will be heard but not without going through the proper vetting of his media managers, just like any other reaction stories. However, the angle or slant to give the media boss a more favorable coverage is another matter. 19
Vergel Santos, a veteran editor, journalist, and CMFR board member, partly subscribes to this observation by recalling a conversation he had with ABS-CBN owner Geny Lopez when they re-opened the family-owned Manila Chronicle after Marcos was deposed: The older Lopez told him: “Run the paper as you like. I will not get in the way,’ he told me. “All I ask is that if you have bad news about me or my family or our businesses, print our side in it.’ In other words, he asked for no more than any other news subject deserves and each time his word was tested it proved good.” 20
Ang previously sought to acquire the majority shares of the Guzom family in GMA 7 but talks collapsed in 2015. He was also rumored to have a stake in Nine Media, which carries the CNN Philippines brand. But unlike Pangilinan or the Lopezes, Ang’s takeover of a perceived Duterte enemy speaks volumes, given his actual or apparent closeness to some Palace officials, and the president himself. The amiability between Duterte and Ang was underscored by the president’s own admission back in December 2016 that his new-found billionaire friend pitched in “not a lot, but not too little” in his campaign. Ang however was not included in the president’s Statement of Campaign Expenditures (SOCE). San Miguel Corporation, which Ang manages as president and chief operating officer, also helped in the Duterte administration’s anti-drug campaign by donating P1 billion for the construction of drug rehabilitation facilities. Short of expressing gratitude, the Duterte administration awarded a number of government infrastructure project to San Miguel Corporation, where Ang is president and chief operating officer. One of these was the $15 billion Bulacan international airport which had San Miguel winning the Swiss challenge 21 of the Department of Transportation as the only qualified bidder and developer. Ang is also proposing to build an elevated ramp along EDSA with dedicated lanes for the government’s bus rapid transit system. The project costs P3 billion but Ang said he is willing to foot the bill to help the government address Metro Manila’s traffic woes. With the foregoing, it is viewed that Ang as owner may exercise internal or self censorship to keep the paper’s hostility towards the government in check and stay in the good graces of the administration. This however remains to be seen, as the transfer of ownership is yet to be finalized with the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC), which is mandated by law to review acquisitions and mergers valued over P1 billion. 22 Ang however refused to disclose the amount of the brokered deal with the Prietos. In essence, Duterte’s political sleight of hand, is well evident in the Ang takeover. For one, there is no evidence that Malacanang actually ordered the Inquirer acquisition with Ang as intercessor, but the political affinity between Duterte and Ang is undeniable. And to keep the political capital which the president’s friendship accorded him, Ang is expected to pacify the Inquirer. Yet that won’t be easy, given the bridge of “anti-Marcos, anti-government abuse” sentiment linking the opposition and majority of the Inquirer’s leaders since 1986. It becomes more telling against a president, who openly admires the old Marcos and subscribes to Marcosian tactics like alleged summary executions, various human rights violations, martial law declaration (in Mindanao), and media suppression, among others. That Ang is a former righthand man of a known Marcos crony like Danding Cojuangco is enough fodder to burn the political roast on the Duterte government’s unholy alliance with the enablers and gainers of the Martial Law years. Curiously enough, this narrative is now being protected by the shield of public opinion in favor of the president.
B. Arbitrary tax investigations/ other cases
Rappler stands in the middle of a unique and vexing ownership issue. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the online news portal violated the Constitution, the Anti-Dummy Law and other related corporate codes by belatedly registering as “donation” the Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) it issued to Omidyar Network sans the SEC’s approval. This suggestively gave the foreign entity owned by American billionaire entrepreneur and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to have a controlling stake in a media company which ought to be 100 percent Filipino-owned. Article XVI, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution provides: “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens.” The insurer Rappler Holdings Corporation admitted owning 98.84 percent of Rappler. But the SEC ruled revoke Rappler’s certificate of incorporation:
The Foreign Equity Restriction is very clear. Anything less than One Hundred Percent (100%) Filipino control is a violation. Conversely, anything more than Zero percent (0%) foreign control is a violation.It does not matter what capacity or device gives the foreigner control, as stockholder or holder or otherwise, there must be none. It does not matter if control is only available in certain occasions, there must be no occasion. 23
Omidyar Network described the SEC decision as an “unfortunate interpretation of Filipino law that reduces press freedom and independent news coverage in the Philippines.” It argued that PDRs do not provide the holder any ownership of shares in the underlying entities,” while stressing the SEC did not flag the PDRs when it was first issued in 2015. Omidyar also insisted Rappler did not violate the Constitution:
In accordance with the Constitution and laws of the Philippines, Omidyar Network does not own any shares in either Rappler Holdings Corporation or Rappler Inc., nor does it have any voting rights, management responsibilities or any other form of control in either company, nor any editorial input in Rappler.Rappler Inc., which operates an independent, social news network, is wholly owned and controlled by Filipino citizens and entities that are wholly owned and controlled by Filipino citizens. 24
The Court of Appeals upheld the SEC position that Rappler erred by belatedly registering the PDR donations made by Omidyar Network and another foreign investor, North Base Media. But it held the view that the revocation was too much, and putting the media firm out of business should have been the “last resort” since the SEC procedures, based on law, allows corporations “reasonable time” to correct acts of non-compliance. The appellate court also stressed that the PDR donations made by foreign investors to Rappler did not affect its standing as a Filipino-owned enterprise as the “negative foreign control” clause which supposedly gives Omidyar and North Base “voting power” over company policies and issues was never exercised at all before the PDR donation was made. In a media forum in London, Ressa dismissed claims that she was an Omidyar lackey but admitted to receiving a multi-million dollar investment from the global media mogul. “Let’s take a look at the full range of investments. There’s a (inaudible) of about four and a half million dollars that went into Rappler. Only four and a half million dollars. Only. And we’ve been able, that seven years of doing hard hitting investigative reporting … Of that, probably less than five percent came from Omidyar,” 25 she said.
Compounding Rappler’s legal troubles were four tax-related suits which the government slapped on the online media platform, in relation to the Omidyar PDRs, which the Bureau of Internal Revenue believed had generated taxable income that Rappler Holdings Corporation failed to declare. Three of these charges were lodged before the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA). Rappler president and CEO Maria Ressa pleaded not guilty on the charges: one count of tax evasion and three counts of alleged violation of Section 255 of the Tax Code or failure to supply correct information in the Income Tax Return (ITR) for 2015, and Value Added Tax (VAT) returns for the third and fourth quarters of 2015. 26
Rappler also faces a fifth tax case at the Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC) for not declaring P294,258.58 of taxable income in the second quarter of 2015. But since the amount involved was below the P1 million minimum requirement for cases at the CTA, the justice department filed the case at the Pasig RTC Branch 265. Ressa posted a P60,000 bail on December 3, 2018 to avoid arrest.
The online media platform was also charged for violating the Anti-Dummy Law and the Securities Code as an off-shoot of the PDRs gaffe which allegedly involved foreign entities in the Rappler management. Six of the seven Rappler board members posted a P216,000 bail each. Four of them were arraigned and pleaded not guilty before the Pasig RTC Branch 265 on April 10 this year. The case was later transferred to Branch 159 after Judge Rowena San Pedro inhibited, citing her friendship with Ressa.
Ressa was later arrested on February this year, following a cyber libel complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng from a story that implicated him to the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was facing impeachment at the time. The arrest was live-streamed by Rappler. The story, published in May 2012, claimed Corona used a vehicle owned by Keng, who had alleged links with illegal drugs and human trafficking syndicates. Keng reportedly requested Rappler to take down the malicious story against him, but the media firm refused to and did just minor revisions on February 2014. Keng charged Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. on October 2017 but the National Bureau of Investigation dismissed the complaint on February 2018, saying the one-year prescription period for libel had lapsed in 2013. But the justice department reviewed the complaint after finding out the article can still be accessed on the internet and is now covered by the Anti-Cybercrime Law enacted on September 2012.Insisting the law cannot be applied retroactively, Rappler filed a motion to quash, which the court junked. Ressa and Santos were arraigned on May 14 this year.
But Rappler is not alone in the government’s legal leash. The Inquirer is also embroiled in several court battles, notably the Mile Long case involving the government and the paper’s owners since 2009. Duterte pounced on this issue, accusing the Prieto and Rufino families’ Sunvar Realty Development Corporation of cheating the government for the non-payment of taxes amounting to P1.8 billion. On the same day the Inquirer sale to Ang was announced, the president threatened to turn the 6.2-hectare Mile Long property to socialized housing units. “I will recover the property for the Filipinos. Everybody who has a tax obligation must start to talk now. Within six months time, I will go after them. I will get back. Inquirer, you have to let go of that property. It is not yours,” the president said in a news conference on April 27, 2017.
“‘Yung mga crusaders na mga newspaper, bakit sila corrupt rin? Answer me. That Mile Long. Who owns it? Rufino. Who is Rufino? He is married to Prieto… I assure you, after all of these things here, I will start to recover what is government’s property, including that Inquirer. The loudest, one of the loudest of it all. Crusader kuno, ‘yun pala crony rin.” 27The Manila Times said the president’s pronouncements came a few days after one of its columnists, former ambassador and press secretary Rigoberto Tiglao wrote about Mile Long’s unpaid obligations. 28 He also claimed that the Prietos also owed the government P.15 billion in taxes for the other company it owned, Dunkin Donuts. All told, he said the unpaid taxes would amount to “nearly P3 billion, putting them in the league of Chinese-Filipino tycoons notorious for being tax evaders.” Tiglao, a known Duterte supporter, also exclaimed: “No wonder President Duterte himself angrily said in a recent speech that he will investigate the case, which was reported to him as having been a ‘sweetheart deal’ when it was leased by a state firm to the Rufino/Prietos’ firm Sunvar Realty Development Corp.” Duterte followed up that stern warning with a harsher remark in July: “These newspaper owners, who do they think they are? The way they editorialize people in government saying they are thieves. You have hostaged a government property for so long a time and collected the rentals there. That is swindling,” the president said.
On July 19, the Court of Appeals affirmed its January decision junking the Makati RTC Branch 59’s injunction against the evection order on the Mile Long tenants for the lack of jurisdiction on the case. The appellate court also remanded the proceedings to Branch 141 which originally heard the case. Nine days later, Solicitor General Jose Calida demanded Sunvar to vacate the property while hitting the Prietos for using the Inquirer to “shield your shenanigans.” The president’s took the cudgels anew in an August 2 event, telling the Prietos that the will sue them for “economic sabotage” if the family continues to occupy the Mile Long property with its 273 tenants. On August 15, Calida personally served the Notice to Vacate to the Mile Long tenants, alongside the CA resolution authorizing the Makati RTC Branch 141 to implement the vacate order. The following day, Sunvar vacated the property with the Prietos, sans fireworks from the Inquirer, staying silent on the matter.
The government pinned the Prietos anew in 2018 after the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) filed a P1-billion tax evasion complaint before the Department of Justice against the family-owned Golden Donuts, Incorporated (GDI), the local franchisee of Dunkin Donuts. The BIR discovered that GDI have an outstanding tax deficiency amounting to P1,118,331,640.79 while under-declaring sales by 36 percent back in 2007. A Business World report summarized GDI’s tax deficiencies as followed: P840.82 million in income tax, P270.42 million in value added tax (VAT) and P7 million in expanded withholding tax (EWT). 29 GDI denied the charge, saying it has already settled its tax liability in 2012. Paolo Prieto, the president of Inquirer.net was recently charged with tax evasion, along with GMA Network Inc. chairman and CEO Felipe Gozun over INQ7, a former joint venture of the two companies in the early 2000s. The BIR said the venture failed to pay the corresponding tax liability of P23,479,467.13, inclusive of increments or penalties, in 2006, the same year it was disbanded.
ABS-CBN was practically in the same boat, but it did not wait for Duterte to unleash more vitriol on the broadcast giant, opting to settle its P152.44 million tax deficiency in 2009, as part of a compromise agreement with the BIR. The Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) approved the stipulations in a February 27 resolution this year, saying the BIR has “accepted the amount equivalent to 40 percent of the basic tax assessed for deficiency income tax, value-added tax and documentary stamp tax and the amount equivalent to 100 percent of the basic tax assessed for deficiency expanded withholding tax, compensation withholding tax, and final withholding tax.” 30 The network entered into another compromise deal with the BIR in August to patch up the P30.952 million tax liability of its subsidiary company ABS-CBN Film Productions, Inc. The (CTA) approved the compromise which allowed ABS-CBN to pay only P16.105 million from the original amount the BIR previously charged to the network.
Media firms at the receiving end of these legal suits would naturally hit back and question the motive of the government. But the Duterte administration can either ignore the political noise or invoke its role as agents of the public good, mandated to go after individuals or entities which commit major infractions against the state and its laws. What is political blackmail for media hardliners is simply political will for the government. These cases become more potent, not in the legal docket, but in the court of public opinion as it primarily targets the media’s credibility. It cannot be denied that a media company’s main political capital is its credibility, which translates to trust (or the lack of it) as determined or framed by its audience. An eroded credibility is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Just like what he did to the opposition, Duterte had successfully painted Rappler, Inquirer, and ABS-CBN as hypocritical organizations which have long deceived the public by projecting themselves as purveyors of truth and justice, but were actually no different from the crooks and corruptors in government, basing on their cases of tax evasion and other similar issues. To stop the government’s credibility attacks, media firms are forced either to kow-tow or conform to the words, whims and wishes of the sitting power. But that cannot be said of Rappler, which continues to engage the government, both in the court of law and that of public opinion.
C. Verbal harassment
Among media platforms, TV is still the most influential despite the migration of more news content to the internet. In the Philippines, broadcast giant ABS-CBN continues to dominate the ratings, and had since carved a niche as a major political player, especially during elections. Politicians spend millions of pesos to buy airtime for a 30-second ad. The rate card can go higher when ads are placed between prime time programs.
ABS-CBN reportedly charges its political clients P900,000 for a 30-second ad in non-primetime shows and P1.4 million for primetime shows. It is still unclear how much Duterte actually spent on TV ads alone. The Inquirer, ABS-CBN’s print counterpart in terms of reach and clout, also made millions from political ads in the 2016 election. Based on its October 2016 rate card, a full page black and white ad costs P183,600 and P330,480 for colored ads placed from Monday to Saturday. The ad placement amount is more expensive on Sundays (P211,140 for black and white, and P380,052 for colored). Data from the PCIJ showed that Duterte spent a total of P146,351,131 for political ads, and appeared in 1,533 of these spots alone, before the 2016 elections. 31 This ads issue was Duterte’s beef with ABS-CBN. He claimed the broadcast giant did not air his TV ads worth P2.8 million but showed black propaganda materials paid by his political enemy, senator Antonio Trillanese. The P2.8 million he paid was only added to his net worth months after he assumed office.
From hereon, Duterte would lash-out at at ABS-CBN for giving him the short end of the bargain. He would curse the Lopez family, accuse them of political double-dealing and various legal transgressions. Duterte had also repeatedly called out the network for allegedly dishing out biased and defamatory reports or commentaries against his administration. But the president’s most serious threat to the Lopez crown jewel was the non-renewal of its franchise, which is set to expire in 2020. Backstopped by a supermajority in both Houses of Congress. Duterte can practically end ABS-CBN’s 65-year corporate existence. Media firms are run like public utilities, which require franchise renewals from Congress, and ultimately presidential approval. This practically puts media companies at the mercy of politicians, who can implicitly or explicitly ask favors like quelling negative news or publicity against them, and propping up their image, among others.
With the portent of losing its franchise — let alone its role as political kingmaker — on the horizon, ABS-CBN had since pulled its punches in the newsroom. It even went as far as dangling out political airtime to some of the president’s men, like then-senatorial candidate Bong Go, whose life story was featured in the long-time drama anthology “Maalaala Mo Kaya.” This granted the president’s personal assistant free political advertisement under the guise of TV entertainment. But Duterte was far from being satisfied, if not appeased.
The PCIJ has been monitoring Duterte’s often unsavory remarks against the media since he took office in 2016. “In about two dozen times in his 34 months in office, he has openly expressed his displeasure and disaffection, and in rancorous prose called journalists names and foisted threats both veiled and naked against certain media agencies, 32” the PCIJ noted. Just this May, the media investigative body and watchdog released a timeline of Duterte’s verbal insults on the media, particularly against ABS-CBN, Rappler and the Inquirer.
Except for a clear swipe at the Inquirer for the Pieta banner photo, Duterte lashed at the media in general terms in his first year in office, portraying them as paid hacks and extortionists (Box 3) who deserved to die for taking advantage of other people. Some of these journalists, Duterte said, would threaten to “expose” the alleged wrongdoings of a politician, businessman or an ordinary citizen, if they refuse to hand out grease money (“padulas”) or accept other nefarious concessions. These character assassinations are most prevalent in the provinces that politicians would order a hit on media personnel who besmirch their reputation, with actual or imagined stories of misdemeanor. Duterte himself was accused of killing Davao radioman Jun Pala for repeatedly criticizing his policies as mayor. Retired police officer Arthur Lascanas, a former Duterte henchman, revealed that the president even paid P4 million to silence Pala in 2003. But Duterte dismissed this as hogwash.
A few weeks before he took oath as president, Duterte went on a nightly press conference in Davao where he would occasionally put a certain newsman on the spot for asking “stupid” questions. One of them was an Inquirer correspondent who asked him about his health. Visibly irked, the incoming president shot back, but mistakenly aimed it at the other Inquirer reporter in the venue by asking about the vagina of the latter’s wife. “Very impertinent question. ‘How is your health? I’m fine. Where is your medical report?’ Aba p*********,” Duterte added. The Inquirer reporter denied asking Duterte about his health.
Some Davao-based journalists said the president has a long history of sarcasm, even in front of the media. At one point during the press conference, Duterte joked about his “bad” health condition to ridicule the media: “May cancer ako. Oo, may sakit ako. Nagkaroon ako ng appendicitis. Then, iyong throat ko nag-ano (sumasakit). Then, I found out that stage four iyong cancer ko. Sinasabi ko na sa inyo. Iyong lungs ko wala nang pumapasok na hangin. Iyong ano (penis) ko, ayaw na talaga.”
In 2017 (Box 4), the president began calling out the media’s supposed bias against his administration. At one point, he even branded the Inquirer and ABS-CBN as trash and its owners as thieves. Journalists making slanted reports and criticizing his policies, particularly the “war on drugs” were framed as paid hacks (“bayaran”) peddling lies and fake news. This was also the year when the president began uncovering Rappler’s supposed “American” identity with the Omidyar PDR issue. Duterte also lashed at the three media companies for using press freedom to cover up their alleged against the government and the public.
Duterte intensified the “fake news” charge the following year (Box 5). He also accused Rappler of conspiring with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), given its alleged American connections to back his order to ban all its reporters from covering all Malacañang events.The president also did not mince words against the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, saying he will personally reject it. Duterte further scored the broadcast giant for causing the financial woes of the Development Bank of the Philippines after the Lopez family allegedly pressured the lending firm to condone its loan.
The president hit the media’s elitist background in the run-up to the 2019 elections (Box 6), saying the well-heeled and well-educated newsmen and their bosses did not want him to be president because he did not came from the “ruling elite in this country.” He went as far as personally berating reporters whose “armpits smell,” and questioning them how they managed to buy a car or go to a high-end facial clinic despite being poor (“pulubi”). Duterte also hit veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas, who was also implicated in the so-called “Oust-Duterte” matrix purportedly plotted by opposition personalities, along with several media organizations like Rappler, PCIJ, and VERA Files. 33 Tordesillas, who is an editor of VERA Files, received a mouthful from the president, calling her a “prostitute” and cancer-stricken.
Duterte’s insult-laced tirades can be seen as a means to justify the administration’s legal offensive against the Inquirer, Rappler, and ABS-CBN. His anger simply reinforces his disgust for wrongdoing, a narrative that has kept him in power for decades as Davao’s crime-busting mayor and neighborhood strongman, who is well-loved and highly accepted by opposing sides of the social spectrum. Media firms on the receiving end of his wrath consider Duterte’s pronouncements as verbal harassment. But this is not the case with his legion of supporters, who believe these erring media firms deserve Duterte’s cussing for duping the people and condoning the incompetence of the previous administration. The DDS (Diehard Duterte Supporters), the president’s most rabid followers, gives Duterte the moral license to “cuss for a cause.” In return, the president inspires, if not emboldens them, to protect the administration’s political base by attacking the opposition and their alleged media accomplices on Facebook.
D. Smear of proxies
In a press conference after his 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte admitted to operating troll armies to boost his presidential campaign. But the president made one thing clear. He only did so during the elections and closed down its operations after winning the election. That goes without saying he did not spend a single peso from the public coffers to fund his troll armies.
“I spent P10 million? Me? Maybe in the election. In the elections, more than that… And they were all during the campaign. Pero ngayon, hindi ko na kailangan [But now, I do not need it]. I do not need to defend myself from attacks. I’ve stated my peace during my inauguration and during the campaign. I am not anymore eligible for reelection,” he said. Duterte then name-dropped Mocha Uson, a former entertainer and sex guru, who became one of his staunchest supporters during the election. The daughter of a Pangasinan judge killed in a 2002 ambush, Uson felt Duterte was the only presidential candidate who can give justice to her father, as well as other victims of criminality and corruption in the country. As a gesture of gratitude which he stopped short of saying, the president appointed Uson as assistant secretary for social media at the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO). But her relationship with the media was always rocky, if not sour, given her repeated criticisms against newsmen for spreading malicious stories or “fake news” against the president. Uson’s most potent weapon against the “bayaran” and “bias” media or “press-titutes” is her Mocha Uson Blog on Facebook with more than five million followers feeding on her daily posts, mostly to promote or defend the administration and its allies.
She even scored several exclusive interviews with the president in Malcañang during the time Duterte refused to talk to the media. In one of her conversations with the president, Uson urged her followers to boycott the media and just subscribe to her Facebook blog where the “good news” about the administration’s programs are being broadcasted regularly, unlike the negative reports that TV stations and newspapers dish out daily, allegedly to discredit the president and his men. Uson thus drew the ire of most media organizations for her black propaganda against them. The media even branded her as “fake news queen,” with Rappler releasing an article in 2017 (which it updated this year) to prove its point. 34 Based on the report, Uson posted 1,937 links from 85 websites between July 1, 2016 to October 5, 2017. One of these websites is “trendingnewsportal.net.ph/tnp.ph” where Uson got the most number of link shares or posts at 555, followed by “verifiedph.blogspot.com” (187), “kingdomingo.blogspot.com” (182), “philippinenewsnetwork” (120), and “pinoytrending.altervista.org” (96), among others. Some of these websites are now inaccessible. Rappler also took a jab at Uson in response to the president’s accusation that the online media platform is a “fake news” site: “The President knows who produces fake news in the Philippines, and it certainly is not Rappler. He doesn’t have to look far from where he sits in Malacañang.” Just this year, Facebook took down 200 pages and accounts organized by the president’s social media manager Nic Gabunaga for “coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram in the Philippines, misleading others about who they were and what they were doing.” The social media company’s internal investigation revealed that these pages and accounts under Gabunaga had gathered 3.6 million followers, while spending around $59,000 (estimated at P3 million) for ads from January 2014 to March 2019. “These fake accounts pushed political messaging that promoted their candidate or attacked political opponents. The fake accounts behaved as if they were real persons, and majority of the time, those who followed the fake accounts or saw the comments of these fake accounts believed that they were real” said Facebook cybersecurity policy head Nathaniel Gleicher.
VERA Files also listed a couple of Uson’s social media gaffes, which turn out to be the root of several “fake news” or disinformation items on the internet 35 (Box 7). It also compiled other “fake news” items which Uson shared from other sources, but were lated debunked by media organizations and other websites (Box 8). The PCOO assistant secretary has since denied accusations of using her blog to peddle lies and disinformation in social media. She also insisted that her blog followers are real people supporting the president and not part of any troll farm which some media organizations claim. In a 2018 interview, former presidential spokesman Harry Roque waxed philosophical, saying the existence of fake news is a necessary evil to know the truth. “Talaga naman pong matagal ko nang adbokasiya na protektahan itong malayang pananalita, malayang pamamahayag. Mayroon mang fake news… sabi nila sa isang kaso – kung walang fake news, hindi natin malalaman kung ano iyong true news. Hindi natin malalaman kung ano’ng kasinungalingan, hindi rin natin malalaman kung ano’ng katotohanan. So, let there be a free marketplace of ideas,” he said. The cabinet official went further, stressing that declaring “fake news” as illegal carries a “heavy presumption of unconstitutionality” during a Senate hearing in 2018. Roque did not mention Uson in these occasions, but her power to ride on the president’s load of political influence is undeniable.Another Duterte supporter, RJ Nieto of the “Thinking Pinoy” blog site, underscored Uson’s influence among netizens in a 2016 article which compared the engagement or total number likes, comments, and shares of some “independent politics-themed Facebook pages” like the Mocha Uson Blog with several mainstream media organizations in the country. Analyzing data from Facebook Page Insights between August 23 to 30, Nieto noted Mocha Uson Blog generated 1.5 million engagements and surprisingly ranked third behind TV Patrol (7.814 million), ABS-CBN News and GMA News (2 million each). Uson’s blog even out-engaged other mainstream media outlets like CNN Philippines (1.1 million), Inquirer (390,300), and TV5 (338,800). But numbers from “engagement per post” (EPP), 36 Nieto added, were more telling as Uson’s blog ranked second behind TV Patrol (63,528 EPP) with an average of 15,152 EPP in the said period (August 23 to 30). Nieto said the EPP is “the measure of whether or not a page’s content is interesting enough for its audience.” His observation rings true up to this day, based on data analytics from Crowdtangle. For this study, the researcher picked the “interaction rate 37” and “growth of followers 38” as indicators to support the Nieto observation that individuals supporting the Duterte administration have gained enormous social media traction and mileage than the country’s leading media organizations since the president assumed power on June 30, 2016. The data packets covered analytics from a number of mainstream media outlets (ABS-CBN, GMA, News5, Inquirer, Philippine Star, and Rappler) and some of the top social media pages supporting the president (Mocha Uson Blog, Thinking Pinoy, MindaVote, Maharlika, and For the Motherland of Sass Rogando Sasot.
The first data packet from the president’s inauguration until December 31, 2016 (Box 9) showed Thinking Pinoy nearly touching the 25 percent interaction rate ceiling towards the end of September, with posts on the Senate probe about the Davao Death Squad and Edgar Matobato. It peaked anew in October with almost a 15 percent rate with posts on Duterte’s controversial “Hitler” and “holocaust” analogy with drug suspects. Maharlika and Sasot followed suit with posts criticizing the media’s coverage of the president. Uson was not far behind in the count as the pro-Duterte bloggers practically left mainstream media outlets that virtually flat-lined in the interaction race for the rest of Duterte’s first six months. ABS-CBN posted the highest growth rate (17.63 percent) in the same period but this is expected, given its bigger community of followers (12.94 million) and array of resources. GMA came in second (20.48 percent) but Uson’s blog was the statistical winner, adding 866 thousand followers in its page, the highest among the group with a 22.95 percentage growth rate. The pro-Duterte bloggers stayed ahead in 2017.
In what could be a testament to their burgeoning depth of influence as the president’s top defenders, a Sasot selfie hinting of returning to the country after spending years in the Neatherlands drew the most number of interactions for the first quarter of the year alone. It tallied 34,000 reactions, more than 1,600 comments, and 254 shares. Most of the comments were in praise of Sasot and her much anticipated meeting with Nieto and Uson to form the so-called “Big Three” of the pro-Duterte social media community. Thinking Pinoy’s highest interaction came from a cross-promotion of Sasot, portraying her as an OFW who spoke the truth behind the government’s drug war at the Human Rights International Forum in Switzerland. The video clip garnered 4.6 million views, 119 thousand reactions, more than 6,900 comments and 104 thousand shares. Maharlika, meanwhile carved her presence with a video post dispelling the lies of EDSA People Power and defending Marcos, two issues closely associated with the mainstream media narrative extolling the overthrow of the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy beginning with the Cory Aquino administration. The video, credited to “DefendDuterte,” generated 5.1 million views, 91,000 reactions, more than 8,300 comments and 170,000 shares. The numbers in Uson’s blog were a far cry from her colleagues, but it remained high compared to mainstream media outlets. She grabbed public attention in March after calling Vice President Leni Robredo “bobo” or stupid for allegedly spreading misinformation about the so-called “palit-ulot” scheme which put the government drug war in a bad light before the international community. The encapsulated post from her radio program back then, logged in 3 million views, 141,000 reactions, more than 26,000 comments, and 111,000 shares. Mainstream media outlets continued to trail in 2018, with their numbers practically unchanged and hardly denting the engagement and following of the pro-Duterte bloggers. The interaction rate of Nieto, Uson, and Maharlika significantly decreased in 2019. But their numbers still overshadow mainstream media outlets, underscoring the multiplier effect of the president’s influence, which pro-Duterte bloggers continue to articulate by reinforcing his narrative of change against criminality and corruption in the minds of the public. More importantly, they shield the president’s image against media criticism by taking the political discourse away from the conventional vehicles of the press (like TV, radio, and newspaper) where the public voice has long been muted or ignored. By doing so, they encourage netizens to voice out their sentiments in a universally accessible platform like social media, and in effect, retake control of public opinion from the hands of corporate media bosses and their political associates, especially the pronounced enemies of the president. This allows the president to enjoy the shield of public opinion, not to mention, instil among his followers the horde or “kuyog” mentality which serves as a formidable weapon to cow or silence anti-Duterte commentators. Malacañang has time and again distanced itself from the views of pro-Duterte bloggers, saying their words against the enemies of the president fall under freedom of expression. Sociologist Nicole Curato observed:
Since 2016, Duterte’s angry populist rhetoric has pitted himself and the masses against the traditional guardians of truth and knowledge, accusing them of various conspiracies that deal harm to Filipinos. In the 2019 elections, state-sponsored propaganda, as reinforced by digital disinformation, continued to attack media and scientific institutions by accusing them of media bias and ties to foreign funders. Journalists are often insinuated as working conspiratorially with opposition candidates to undermine the Duterte regime. The clear example of this is the state’s insinuation of an Oust Duterte Plot, which implicated news agencies such as Vera Files, the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, and Rappler as conspiring with the political opposition and lawyer unions to discredit Duterte. The Oust Duterte Plot revelation came in the wake of the leak of an anonymous video by a man aliased ‘Bikoy’— an alleged whistleblower on the Duterte family’s involvement in the drug trade. News organizations were quick to defend themselves against the allegations, citing point-by-point falsehoods on details of the alleged plot. Opposition influencers meanwhile took it upon themselves to discredit Bikoy’s claims and resurface issues of undisclosed ties to foreign funding and questionable loyalties. The ‘Bikoy’ controversy was eventually used by Duterte supporters and administration to fan the flames of the conspiracy narrative and undermine trust of journalists. (Curato, 2019)
Mainstream media grilled Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo for coming up with a more detailed matrix which showed several news organizations, civil society groups, and even a TV host and an Olympic medalist being tied to the web of conspiracy to bring down the president. Panelo failed to explain why some personalities were named in the ouster matrix, which was first published by Dante Ang, the owner of the Manila Times and a special envoy of the president. Ang himself bylined the story, citing several anonymous sources from the Palace.
Just recently, MindaVote administrator Carlos Munda took the Inquirer to task for belittling the opinion of Duterte supporters who criticized a cheering performance by a group of students from the University of the Philippines-Visayas on October 19. The routine was a powerful commentary about local and national issues. But what appeared to be the clincher for pro-Duterte supporters was the line “Kill this President” accompanied by the expression “charot” (which connotes a joke or a punch line in gay lingo). Members of the cheering group called the “Skimmers” were instantly bashed on social media. Some of them personally received threats and hate messages, according to several news reports. In an October 26 editorial 39, the Inquirer said:
A firestorm of angry tweets, posts and blogs, much of it coming from the social media troops of Duterte followers, followed close on the heels of the video of the Skimmers’ routine, which quickly became viral upon its posting. In a particularly chilling move, the identities of the leaders and members of the Skimmers were posted on some pro-Duterte Facebook pages, which, given the “culture of impunity” that the cheerers decried, certainly put them in danger. Thankfully, the posts have since been taken down after being reported…
The President’s rabid partisans ought to be reminded of that, and also of a Filipino saying: “Ang pikon talo”—the thin-skinned is always the loser. Given their leader’s proclivity for insults, crude language, crass manners and downright dangerous rhetoric, it’s the height of hypocrisy for them to now foam at the mouth in reaction to what is clearly a satirical performance. If expressing the wish to kill somebody is reprehensible, even if plainly said as a joke, why should this moral injunction apply to students and everybody else—but not to this President, whose words happen to be the most powerful in the land?
The paper also accused Uson of fueling the firestorm when she posted a clip of the Skimmers’ routine on her Facebook page to entice her millions of followers to engage in the lynch mob and even red-tag the students “along with its University Student Council” for defending the group. The Inquirer alluded to the “troll army’s campaign of harassment directed at the Skimmers” when it noted how Panelo brushed off the issue during a Palace briefing, saying it was just natural for the president’s supporters to react against shades thrown at the chief executive. In a Facebook live 40 the same day the Inquirer editorial was published, Munda hit the paper for curtailing the Duterte supporters’ freedom of expression:
Tayo ba mga Duterte supporters pwede ba tayo magsalita? Kasi ako I get the feeling na base sa mga inilalabas ng mga diyaryo na ito saka mga radyo na ito, mga TV na ito, mga media corporations na ito, aba parang sila lang ang may karapatang magsalita, sila lang ang matalino? Na tayo wala tayong mga pera, wala tayong mga utak? Ano’ng tingin niyo? Don’t you get that feeling? Na parang minamaliit tayo lagi….
Ang nakakabuwiset lang dito ay itong Inquirer na ito, who is supposed to be the protector of the freedom of speech, being one of the pillars supposed to be ng media dito sa ating bansa to belittle and disparage the opinions, the legitimate voice of Duterte supporters simply because you do not agree with it, is the height of arrogance. Napaka-bastos niyo naman.
Hindi niyo ba naisip na kaya massive yung negative response ay dahil popular itong presidenteng ito. Common sense na lang. Broaden your minds. Think of the fact na hindi lang kayo ang puwedeng magsalita. I’m sure napapansin niyo ‘yan. Mababa na ang sales ng mga diyaryo niyo, Kaya nga nababalita na isasara niyo na ‘yang inyong print edition. Wala na kayong relevance. Wala nang pumapansin sa inyo.
Hindi kami bayad. We don’t need to be paid just to hate you…. Maski di kami bayad mumurahin kayo ng mga tao kasi ang yayabang niyo!
If anything, the Inquirer editorial unmasked the paper’s animosity with the administration and its supporters despite the impending change of ownership under pro-Duterte businessman Ramon Ang. But be that as it may, social media has since closed the gap with traditional or mainstream media in terms of shaping or directing public opinion. The once muted voices sitting in front of TV newscasts or reading the papers are now talking, ranting, and dissenting behind keypads or webcams to make their views heard. This social media democracy which Duterte supporters subscribe makes the marketplace of opinions more viable against the mainstream media arrogance. As for Munda, the Inquirer editorial was only symptomatic of the mainstream media’s insecurity after seeing its grip to political power loosened by Duterte’s revelations against their corporate bosses. He explained further:
Ang isa sa powers ng media is that it speaks truth to power. Ibig sabihin kapag merong makapangyarihan, ang media, yung tinatawag nila dating Fourth Estate, sila ang titindig para sa mga mamamayan, at kukuwestiyunin at tatanungin at babatikusin ang may kapangyarihan. Ang problema ngayon, sila na ang naging powerful. So ngayon at binabatikos sila ng mga ordinaryong citizens, sila naman ang pumapalag. Kumikisi-kisi ‘yan, hindi kasi sila sanay, sanay sila, sila lang ang tagaturo…
Ngayon na they’re being called to account, for their stupidity, for their bias, for their laziness, for their ignorance. Hindi nila matiis ‘yun, Hinahamon natin kahit sino diyan sa media na ‘yan, mag-debate tayo, tingnan natin, ano ba talaga ang malayang pamamahayag?
‘Yung binabayaran ka ng isang media corporation para ilabas ang opinyon o maglabas ng balita na ang bottomline lang ang inyong accounting books ang importante, o ‘yung mga ordinaryong citizen na nagsasabi ng kanilang opinyon?
Cabañes and Ong more aptly call Uson and her colleagues as “disinformation architects” who “engage in moral justifications that their work is not actually “trolling” or “fake news”. The pro-Duterte bloggers in fact are easily enraged by accusations that they engage in “trolling” or troll-like behaviour in social media, even instilling the same denial mindset to their followers and personalizing the response (e.g. “Hindi kami troll, totoong tao kam na nagmamalasakit sa bayan!”/ “Kapag ba ayaw sa mga dilawan, troll agad?”/ “Ang mga totoong troll ay yung mga kakampi ng taeng dilawan!”). What is common among these moral justifications about trolling is how they are grounded in an ethics of irony, where values and “truths” become relative and self-centered; the disinformation architect denies responsibility or commitment to the broader public by narrating a personal project of self- empowerment instead. (Cabañes and Ong, 2018).
The so-called keyboard warriors in social media are just one-third of Duterte’s smear proxies. Government officials like Panelo, Foreign Affairs secretary Teddy Locsin, and Senator Bong Go are just some of the most vocal Duterte defenders who would engage the mainstream media for what they perceive as misleading or misconstrued stories or commentaries against the president. Panelo at one point threatened to sue the Inquirer.net for reporting that he allegedly “recommended” and “endorsed” the early release of his former client, ex-Calauan, Laguna mayor Antonio Sanchez from the New Bilibid Prison by virtue of the rape-slay convict’s supposed good conduct. The Palace official said he only “referred” the request letter of the Sanchez family for the jailed mayor’s early release to the Bureau of Pardons and Parole. Panelo also pressed the libel charges against Rappler for saying he met the Sanchez family in Malacañang, making it appear that he was close to the former mayor’s kin, which he denied. Inquirer.net apologized to Panelo while Rappler remained adamant, telling the Palace official to stop “shooting the messenger” and just “answer questions about his possible conflicts of interest.”
Several journalists identified with the Duterte camp are now challenging their former colleagues and affiliations in the mainstream media. Among them are former press secretary Rigoberto Tiglao and special envoy to China Ramon Tulfo, who are writing columns for the Dante Ang-owned Manila Times.
In an October 19 column, Tiglao wrote how the Inquirer has fallen “in very hard times.” According to his sources, the paper lost P320 million from taxes in 2017. The following year, the losses ballooned to P400 million after the paper sold its Makati property for P140 million. Subscriptions began nose-diving, which Tiglao attributed to the readers’ disgust over the “pro-communist and anti-Duterte bias of its articles and columns.” Most of these readers were Duterte supporters, according to an SWS survey in September. “Did PDI’s (Inquirer) management naively expect that they won’t be turned off and continue to shelve out P7,200 yearly for a paper that demonizes a president they support?,” Tiglao asked. He then dissed the paper’s owners and personnel for milking the “anti-Marcos and pro-Yellow sentiment of the A class in the past three decades” even if these so-called “Yellow myths have been debunked one by one, and the A class had shed its pro-Yellow sentiments.” Tiglao’s piece was a backhanded move to discredit the paper, consequently underscoring the fact that its affinity with the opposition comes at a high price.
Tulfo for his part, expressed sadness at the Inquirer’s financial woes, 41 saying its “anti-Duterte bias” which has “turned off majority of its readers” was partly to blame for its unenviable state. His column was suspended for a month after criticizing the paper’s bias against Duterte, while surmising that the Inquirer could be taking the side of Mar Roxas. “I thought to myself, any newspaper had every right to favor a candidate it deems best suited for a particular office. But when I realized that the Inquirer had become a partisan of the Yellow cult, I had to say my piece and this got me into a head-on collision with the paper’s owners and editors,” Tulfo recounted.
4. Is Philippine media illiberal?
In the liberal media tradition, journalists are trained to spot irregularities in government and report them in the name of public interest. The liberal media puts premium on image-building to project the mantle of righteousness built upon tolerance and humanism, consistent with the liberalist hallmarks of autonomy, equality and individual rights. In Western-style democracies, it is the president who is the default walking articulator of these liberal ideals. But once the president ditches the invitation to be the liberal-gabbing poster boy for the media to extol as its own, the repercussions could go as far as driving a wedge between the messenger and its most valuable local source. Journalists are trained to spot irregularities in the field that may hamper or jeopardize the ideals of liberal democracy form where it owes its existence. And Duterte is one irregularity, if not a kink in the plane, that is too hard to ignore.
Duterte as Philippine media’s echo chamber
Since he assumed power in 2016, the mainstream media has been at the crosshairs of Duterte’s histrionics for their perceived bias against his unorthodox, if not irreverent style of leadership and political fellowship. That provincial authenticity, plodded by frequent cursing and misogynistic remarks surprised newsmen who were used to covering presidents displaying the usual air of statesmanship and communicative prudence. But Duterte refused to be framed in that liberalist hatch case. Reports and commentaries questioning and accosting the president’s crass behavior filled the papers and the airwaves. All of them, whether in the forms of a news article or an editorial, sought to censure Duterte for refusing to fit the narrative created by a liberal media for a dignified office such as the presidency. Joseph Estrada, who was deposed in 2001, was also pilloried in the media for what he deemed as a massive vilification campaign against him. Yet Erap had none of Duterte’s venom.
Curiously, the “presidential” convention which Duterte deconstructed, had its roots in the language of Western democratic ideals that equates the presidency to an “executive,” more likely a company CEO. Incidentally or intentionally, the mainstream media has since addressed the president as “chief executive” in relation to its power and authority in managing the affairs of the state through a public enterprise called the government. As such, this gives the impression that a president must behave like a buttoned-up, mild-mannered CEO, which Duterte is the complete opposite. The Philippine media in particular was not ready to accept a maverick, cat-calling former mayor as president. As a primary source of stories, Duterte was expected by the mainstream media to “act presidentially” in reference to his predecessors. The president, however, sees himself more as a task-master than a role-player to the office he occupies. This is where the great disconnect lies.
Admittedly or not, journalists can never peel themselves away from their human biases. Tempering personal preferences may be difficult, given the inconsistency of human emotion. Stories are written or framed to promote or downgrade a particular perspective before the reading or viewing public. A good example would be Duterte’s speeches. The president as a primary source would go on his usual cursing spree. The journalist can highlight the president’s foul mouth as a suggestive rebuke to the so-called authenticity of his character. But doing so, he risks missing the more pertinent policy pronouncements or revocations buried under those avalanche of hyperboles and cuss words. Lapping up a story from Duterte’s colorful attacks on several opposition members is always a good copy to arose public interest, generate print sales, and pull TV ratings up. The firewall of objectivity may keep a curse-enduring journalist from burning bridges with an important source like the president, regardless if he or she can extinguish the fire of personal dislike. It is important to look closely at the way journalists work and at the constraints their practice reveal. Of course they differ according to the place each actor occupies in the ‘journalistic field’; and of course there are the dominated and dominant in the field, the external signs of which – salary level, but also social circle of ‘connivance’ – vary, all of which has implications for their work (Munhamn, 2010, 15). Producers, editors, and media managers exercise gate-keeping by reigning on the field reporters’ story angles. But theirs is an uncomfortable chain of command mired in its own personal politics of preferences and corporate behest. Gate-keepers primarily separate the chaff from the grain or the profitable stories from the non-sellers. How do they decide which to print or air? In reality, there is no iron-clad rule or criteria to justify editorial discretion. Most of the time, the choices are dictated by the competition, either for presence or relevance. Packaging the news may often engender confirmation bias where media outfits would judiciously select information that would prop up their stories and mechanically discard those that would contradict them. Munhamn expound on the economic dimension of this newsroom phenomenon through the “Minot principle” where “unprofitable or unmarketable opinions are set aside” in the story assembly.
Schiffer elaborates more on gate-keeping as a type of bias charge, describing it as an “accusation that one side’s issue received more coverage than the other side’s equally newsworthy issue, or that one side’s issue received more or less coverage than it deserved,” given that both sides want to actually discuss the issue by homing in on a particular standpoint. Unlike the gate-keeping charge, this applies to issues of which both sides desire public discussion, and accordingly they both make active attempts to communicate their side of it. Giving coverage to “one side of an issue” means including any type of persuasive consideration – arguments, talking points, facts, or frames – that fit the preferred narrative of that side. They consist most commonly of direct quotes or paraphrase, wherein the complaint is something like “more Democratic were quoted than Republican” (Schiffer, 2018) or in Filipino context, it is “more DDS than Dilawan” and vice-versa. The reporters (as first-line gatekeepers) and editors (as second-line gatekeepers) can actually “load” the news angle with bias. A good example of this is an Inquirer story 42 about Uson’s appointment as PCOO assistant secretary. With a seemingly misogynistic tone, the report described Uson in the lead sentence as a “former bold starlet and entertainer” after the sarcastic opening line: “In what could be further proof that change has indeed come under the Duterte administration.” It said that Uson’s appointment was met with “disgust, outrage, and mockery from several sectors,” but the report did not quote any of them. Instead, it picked a post from an alternative Twitter account of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (@AltTeamAFP) as a sort of “smoking gun” to burn the Uson appointment, citing her reputation as disseminator of “fake news” which is a “threat to national security.”
The “shape of the news day” can also be determined by gate-keepers outside the newsroom. These are press room cartels which thrive through the tacit collusion or consensus of reporters from different media outfits. Generally, they can schedule the publication of certain stories through self-determined embargoes which stymie producer-editor’s power to determine the order of news items to run at a given day. Press room cartels as an extension of the reporters’ respective news desks are prone to group think. This finds credence in the unwritten rule that forbids reporters from seeking stories outside coverage hours or “scoops” without enlisting the consent of the group. Just like any other cartel, parity must be observed at all times, so as not to put others in “trouble” from demanding news desks and media bosses. Cartel members who fail to “sniff” a colleague’s scoop are often ordered to atone for their deficiency by coming up with their own “exclusive” stories, or face re-assigned or dismissal. As a rule, news items are only delayed or stalled if it compromises national security or the safety of the people in the story.
Munhamn captured the picture of a press room cartel in relation to its chief source of stories — the people in government. Journalists and politicians drink and dine together… They think about similar things and talk to the same people, often in tight circles of friends, sources, advisers, colleagues, and former colleagues. When they do not already know each other they make approaches, for favors, usually under the cover of discretion and silence. Sweetheart deals are stuck. Dissenting voices are excommunicated, pushed out through the revolving doors. Misfits and potential troublemakers are encouraged to understand that there are penalties, such as social and professional ostracism, for wandering too far from the cozy fold, off message (Munhamn, 2010). Journalists, who cozy up to politicians, bureaucrats, and executives to score exclusive stories, most likely end up moonlighting for their erstwhile “reliable” or “anonymous” sources as political operators and spin doctors while still capitalizing on their media connections. In local media parlance, they serve as “tabo” or source of slanted packets of information repackaged as news releases to promote a certain agenda.
Government officials as primary sources do not always complete a story. Fixation to the government’s talking heads often reeks of journalistic laziness which yield the impression of partisan bias. Accordingly, top officials with the power to set the policy agenda are also able to set the parameters of political coverage for the allegedly independent press. This reliance on the power sphere privileges actors with “political power and spin capacity.” Other voices are mostly shut out, even if they carry crucial alternative perspective that could aid citizen or official decision-making (Schiffer, 2018).
Sure, bickering politicians who support or detest a certain policy will often get more face time. Political proximity to the state apparatus where policies and events are framed and debated is valuable leads for journalists to follow and expound. But choosing other talking heads to harvest a third-party outlook, an outside-looking-in, would render more latitude to the story’s influencing and informing powers. It gives the audience an unexplored view of the issue, which can either temper or redirect a highly polarizing debate between protectors of the status quo and their detractors.
Media co-opting the government?
The tragedy that often befalls a career journalist’s “rent of ability” ends in the “eclipse of interests,” which figuratively connects the newsroom and the government through media firms and its owners.A Venn diagram with four variations represents this model. Figure 1 shows the normal mediation variant which connect the small circle (the newsroom) and the big circle (the government) through an overlapping portion depicted by the media firms and their corporate bosses. The media firms acts as an intermediary between the government and the newsroom. The portion it occupies in the Venn diagram also suggests the extent of its influence on the government and the newsroom. Normally, well-meaning media firms prefer to balance public interest and the mandate of its news personnel. But other media firms, which seek to gain more concession from government are likely to push beyond the normal extent of its influence. They capitalize on government concern against “bad publicity” (which news reports may come up with), through “joint partnerships.” It could be in the form of cooperations or campaigns for a certain cause which both the government and the media firm have a stake to develop or maintain. Previous examples of these are the Pasig River rehabilitation, periodic national elections, SEA Games hosting in 1991 and 2005, massive outreach programs for Yolanda calamity victims in 2013, and the Papal visit in 2015. Media bosses, in partnership with the government will naturally avoid bad publicity which can prove counter-productive to both sides. In Figure 2, the overlapping portion representing media firms evidently widens as it eats up the newsroom’s space, allowing less mediation of interests and consequently reducing the editorial independence of the news organization. Conversely, media firms expand their clout through tacit collusion, likely under the same partnership framework. Figure 3 portrays the total dependence or complicity of media firms to the government and vice versa, relegating the newsroom to the margins of the circle of interest, with minimized or diminished authority to question public policies or actions. Government officials, for its part, can instruct media bosses how to recoup an unfavorable news item outside of legal means (like filing libel charges) through back channeling, which lead to news personnel issuing corrections, retractions, apologies or just plainly silencing itself. Newsrooms left out in the complicity loop between the media firm and the government can be deemed more “independent,” at first glance. But unless it severs ties with the media firm that sustains it, the newsroom cannot actually claim to gain more independence. At best, the newsroom becomes a rubber stamp or an extension of the government’s propaganda machinery. Figure 4 shows the complete opposite, where media firms cast government influence aside and assumes total control of the newsroom, either by empowering or directing the news personnel to act as rubber stamp for its own interests. Media firms can even order its news personnel to attack or discredit government. In sum, newsrooms run by media firms cannot enjoy total journalistic independence. Media firms, on the other hand, cannot thrive without positively or negatively dealing with the government.
Total political control of media firms even in an illiberal democracy is unlikely. In the Philippines, none of the established multi-media organizations in the country are owned by a party or a partisan group or leader. But most of the time, the political and business elite dine in the same table of power. Some family members run in politics and leave the management of the media firm to their other kin. The Duavits, one of the three families that own GMA Network, for example, are a known political clan in Rizal province. Gilberto Duavit, Jr., the founding chairman of GMA network, was a two-term congressman. One of his sons, Michael, is a current lawmaker representing the first district of Rizal just like his father. Another son, Gilberto, Jr. is vice chairman of GMA marketing and productions and a member of the company’s board of trustees.
The Lopezes, which own ABS-CBN, trace their political pedigree to the Spanish-era sugar barons of Iloilo. The family patriarch, Don Benito, was a former Iloilo governor. Don Benito’s youngest son Fernando became vice president of the Philippines, while his eldest Eugenio, Sr. founded ABS-CBN. Eugenio, Sr.’s son Geny (Eugenio, Jr.) was imprisoned under the martial law years as part of a government crackdown against media firms — like the Lopez-owned Manila Chronicle — critical of the Marcos regime. Geny’s daughter Gina became environment secretary while one of his sons Gabby (Eugenio III) was chairman emeritus of ABS-CBN.
Former House Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte, Jr. had shares in Philippine Star and Pilipino Star Ngayon. He is the father of Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte and the uncle of Quezon City congressman Kit Belmonte. One of the retired lawmaker’s son Miguel is now the president of Philippine Star. Dante Ang, who owns Manila Times, handed the management reins to his son Klink after being appointed special envoy to China by President Duterte. Manila Standard and its sister company People’s Journal are owned by the Romualdez family, which include former first lady Imelda Marcos, senator Imee Marcos, and Leyte congressman Martin Romualdez — all allies of the president. The family of Antonio Cabangon Chua, who was appointed ambassador to Laos by former president Gloria Arroyo, owns the ALC Group of Companies which manages CNN Philippines, Business Mirror, Philippine Graphic, and DWIZ 882.
DWIZ 882 currently airs “Karambola,” a morning radio commentary program anchored by known Duterte supporters Mocha Uson, RJ Nieto (Thinking Pinoy), Trixie Angeles, Conrad Banal, Jonathan Dela Cruz, and the late Jojo Robles. TV5’s Radyo Singko balances the DDS-Dilawan equation with its own morning radio program “Boljak” which features Duterte supporter Bruce Rivera and oppositionfollower Jess Falcis. Going further, the Duterte administration recruited TV5 anchor Martin Andanar as secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO). Former TV5 reporters Mia Reyes and Jun Loyola, who both reported on the Duterte campaign in the 2016 presidential elections, were appointed PCOO undersecretary and assistant secretaries, respectively. Another former TV5 reporter JV Arcena was appointed head of the PCOO Office of Global Media Affairs while former Radyo Singko executive producer Rachel Queenie Rodulfo is also a PCOO assistant secretary.
The Noynoy Aquino administration picked former ABS-CBN anchor Ricky Carandang as secretary of the defunct Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office. ABS-CBN had also supported the political careers of its former and current anchors like Noli de Castro (vice president and senator), Loren Legarda (senator and congresswoman) and Ted Failon (congressman), among others. Another high-profile anchor Korina Sanchez is married to former senator and presidential aspirant Mar Roxas.
TV5 is reportedly more acceptable to the current administration with some of its officials originating from the MVP-controlled network as mentioned above. Its sister company Philippine Star is also seen to enjoy the same presidential preference. In several instances, Duterte was pictured reading the paper as a response to critics questioning his whereabouts and state of health. Manila Standard and People’s Journal, despite the Romualdez connection to the Duterte administration, are considered moderate supporters of the man in Malacanang. But the same cannot be said of the Daily Tribune and the Manila Times which sport a hardline pro-Duterte posture by a simple reading of the papers’ opinion pages. It routinely defends government’s policies and lambasts the opposition, particularly Vice President Leni Robredo. The Manila Times was also caught in a maelstrom by publishing the so-called “Oust-Duterte” matrix, accompanied by a banner story written by Dante Ang himself. The matrix named a few journalists and media firms known for criticizing the president, among them the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PICJ), Vera Files, and Rappler, among others.
Former UP College of Mass Communications dean and Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) board member Luis Teodoro stressed that in the final analysis, its the editors and journalists themsevles who shape the news “in accordance with what they assume will be acceptable to owners and advertisers.” Journalist internalization of owner views has always been a major problem in the corporate media. It is a reality that, despite the billions of bytes the media disseminate daily, has created a situation in which the mass of media audiences is only partly informed about the issues that concern them — or worse, are misinformed about them. Independence, truth-telling and relevance have always been the primary values in journalism that when diligently observed can provide the media audience the information and analysis it needs to understand the world. Being true to these ethical standards is particularly challenging today, when a troubled and troubling regime is demonstrating daily the need for news media exactitude, accuracy and fairness. 43
Veteran journalist Inday Espina Varona’s experience was the complete opposite. She recounted how then Manila Times owner Mark Jimenez “killed” several front page-potential stories which were critical of the Estrada administration. Jimenez, for one, refused to rub his friend Erap the wrong way and draw Malacanang’s ire. “It’s a given that many owners of national dailies are involved in big business or politics or both. They have interests to protect. Or they have patrons they need to humor and rivals and enemies to demolish. We may all memorize the code of ethics in journalism and swear fealty to objectivity and fairness but reality is a different story, 44” Varona said. Quoting American writer Upton Sinclair, Lippman ventilates Varona’s vignette by sounding off the “Brass Check” as a piece of every journalist’s shame – “you who take the fair body of truth and sell it in the market place, who betray the virgin hopes of mankind into the loathsome brothel of Big Business.”
Media’s selection bias sometimes leads to a redaction dilemma. Whether to report a story or not already falls within the territory of operational messaging. Sometimes it serves as a tactical maneuver to contain or discharge political pressure. Just recently a number of U.S. lawmakers released resolutions calling on the Philippine government to end its persecution of opposition leaders like detained Sen. Leila de Lima, who was charged for her alleged involvement in drug trafficking. They also urged the Duterte administration to drop the supposed trump up charges and release De Lima, as well as junk tax evasion and cyber libel cases against Rapper president and CEO Maria Ressa, an American citizen and a staunch presidential critic. Some media outlets thought giving airtime or column inches to the U.S. lawmakers would make them platforms or conduits of foreign interference to a domestic issue. Others though decided to let it fly in the open as a means of “exposing” or “magnifying” such interference for the public to judge. Either way, it’s a double-edged sword that can draw positive and negative feedback to a media firm’s gate-keeping. The same editorial quandary could practically apply to most issues pending publication. In general, “democracy” does not exist in the newsroom. At the most, it is suggestive. Like the military, media outfits follow a chain of command, which curiously observe both meritocracy and nepotism, organization and disorder, propaganda and news.
“Experts” as enemies of smear proxies
Tapping subject-matter experts has enabled media organizations to bolster content and discussion in their news programs. It’s one way of valuing a thinking or pandering audience on one hand, and recognizing the limits of the newsroom personnel’s explanatory and research capabilities. But these subject-matter experts are now being pitted against disinformation architects on the internet. Suffice it to say, they take the cudgels for journalists (who are barred from editorializing or expressing opinion in their stories), as columnists with the license to speak up on issues that fall within the ambit of their expertise, whether in politics, economics, business, or the natural sciences. Most of them come from the academe or institutions tied to their expertise. Like social media bloggers and influencers, they are not tied to the strict “impartiality” and “no editorializing” rules of everyday journalism or newsroom work. But they are still bound by accountability as professionals in their respective fields, which often extends to their moonlighting as subject-matter experts in the media.
News content would naturally demand its presence to mediate opposing views. As a fulcrum in the see-saw of opinion, “experts” are expected to weigh the pros and cons of a particular action within the scope of their expertise. But journalists who push the limits of inquiry would sometimes relieve them of their neutrality by asking questions that would amount to making a stand. The guarded punditry suddenly devolves into an incessant value-driven commentary, thereby exposing the expert’s person to public scrutiny. A tainted expert as a judge in the court of public opinion will not warrant choices in the gallery. He will decree stands that ought to be taken in light of a journalist’s discretion for selecting talking heads that would best fit the tenor or theme of a story. Commenting and commentating are different animals in the wilderness of journalism, after all.
These experts would soon find themselves moonlighting in the press, discarding their previous media handlers to directly engage the audience. Sharing their expertise, they become what Adrienne Russel termed as “knowledge journalists,” a distinct type of public intellectual who writes journalistically, yet abandons attempts at neutrality and instead acts as an explainer of complex subject, and sometimes champions specific policy positions or causes. They tend to privilege expert and political logic over media logic, meaning that they do not play by the perceived rules of journalists but rather dive into opinionated political debates head on, as political actors do. Their writing is often characterized by a merging of public and private selves, a back-and-forth between detached analysis and stories of personal journey, epiphanies, and so on, because they focus on analysis and synthesis, they are less dependent on sources and therefore have more freedom to challenge the status quo (Russel, 2016). Neutrality, after all, has no place in armchair politics.
Munhamn warned against embedding “expert opinion” in news-making. To her, the levels of expertise of a subject-matter commentator vary. Political scientists and economists for example, are often called to comment on issues about politics and the economy. But social scientists cannot be jack-of-all-trades. They either know something about an issue or they don’t. The study of politics, for one, has different sub-fields developed by so-called area experts. International relations experts among political scientists can give two cents about public policy. After all, there may be some intersecting lines of thought between the two sub-fields. But an area expert, who would dabble on an issue or case study outside of his specialization, may only end up babbling rather than explaining, hence misleading the audience. When someone who is not a mathematician intervenes to give an opinion about mathematics, or when someone who is not recognized as a historian gives an opinion about historians – and is listened to. This is what Munhamn calls “heteronomy” or in more analogous terms “when someone who is not a mathematician intervenes to give an opinion about mathematics, or when someone who is not recognized as a historian gives an opinion about historians – and is listened to” (Munhamn, 2010). A good number of journalists are guilty of this, for opting to generalize rather than particularize in their choice of expert commentators. Just because the topic is about the U.S. elections, picking any political analyst would be fine. It does more justice to a story if the expert at least knows the nuances of the American Electoral College system.
Expert opinions can actually be tailor-made to suit the views of the greater majority or that of the network bosses and their state acquaintances. While resident experts are duty-bound to break down a variety of issues to warm up the media firm’s agenda, it can expose him to heteronomy. Given his intellectual limitations to some topics, he can just play it safe and opinionate in general terms. No doubt, in the media business resident experts are expendable. Yet unlike the professional journalists, a resident expert can simply cut ties with a media firm and return to free-lance commentating while retaining the political capital they earned as third-party contractors of public opinion. Experts in the newsroom are also expected to “bring down” highfalutin issues by making it more comprehensible to the ordinary audience. Over the years, media outfits have undervalued the ability of its audience to grasp “hard” topics with deep scholarly roots. Cerebral themes bordering on legalese, big data and high-end explananda such as federalism, charter change, inflation, are often presented in the media as “simplified” reports so as not to alienate the unlettered multitude among the audience.
The media may have succeeded in “informing” the masses, but this function is replete with arrogant determinism. Media outfits that do “easy” stories to keep the unschooled, ignorant masses sitting in the gallery are actually doing more harm than good. This elitist mindset actually pre-judges the masses as incapable of upgrading their intellectual faculties, thus reducing the media’s duty as a voice of practical learning outside the classroom to mere lip service. Journalists need to stop treating readers as clients receiving professional service in order to obtain information, or simply as spectators seeking good stories; they should instead consider them as actors, ‘people who have a stake in the news, who want to see the possibilities behind often troubling developments, who want to participate in solving shared problems under a conversational model (Munhamn, 2010, 34).
Hungarian journalist Eszter Zalan recently came up with an instructive blueprint of illiberal democracy in Europe while critiquing President Viktor Orban. Like the Hungarian strongman, most illiberal leaders find joy in creating enemies which “could be activists from non-governmental human rights organisations supported by foreign funds, faceless eurocrats or migrants, all trying to force their way of thinking on your people. Orban’s government took on NGOs funded by Norway before they made a deal with Oslo, equated the Soviet-diktats from Moscow to Brussels’s interference and, last year demonized migrants.” 45
Discrediting opposition and Western critics is also par for the course, according to Zalan “because of the many hypocrisies you can exploit. First of all, your predecessors weren’t saints either, they probably bent the rules their way, even if they did not rewrite them, like you did. Highlight those missteps.” Squeeze the resources of the opposition by, making sure, for example, that advertising billboards are in the hands of your friends, and other creative techniques. Most importantly “create a link between your internal opposition and your Western critics. That way you can create the impression that foreign forces are meddling in your country’s affairs and that the opposition are actually traitors. Make sure you create a sense that the country is under attack, even from within” (Munhamn, 2010).
And Duterte is guilty as charged by Zalan’s standards. For three years, the once dubbed “bastard child” of Philippine democracy has made enemies by discrediting the political opposition, the Catholic Church, as well as human rights and leftist groups which had vocally criticized his controversial anti-crime, national security, and economic policies. But in the theatre of Duterte’s tireless tirades, the Philippine mainstream media plays a unique role, with the president seeing them as conduits of powerful political interests. Months ago, he lashed out at the PCIJ for allegedly publishing malicious content about his family’s supposed unexplained wealth. This coincided with a series of short videos called “Ang Totoong Narcolist,” implicating his children and aide to the illegal drugs trade.
The two-pronged clap-back at the First Family made headlines. In defense, Duterte again accused the media of intentionally amplifying negative sentiments against him. The president’s fare shake rhetoric may have outlived its novelty. To him, there are only three kinds of journalists in the country. According to an Inquirer editorial, the first kind are “the crusaders, telling the truth, baring it all before the public.” The second type are the “mouthpieces of vested interests… the publicists.” The third are the “lowlifes.” These lowlifes move about accepting money from all kinds of people and in return “(keep) shut their mouth. They are paid; they ask for more, and if there is nothing coming their way, they talk more. They destroy people and family, and they die.” Such journalists are nothing more than extortionists. Duterte lumps most journalists in this lowlife category. 46 Is the president just letting off steam from what he perceived as an unfair media treatment? On the other hand, is the Philippine mainstream media as guilty as Duterte in creating enemies and discrediting its own opposition, which include the president himself?
Keane noted some journalists’ inclination for mounting moral crusades. They perform this watchdog role by exposing corruption in the backrooms of power, fuelled by the belief that the most dangerous issues in a democracy are those hidden from the public eye. But in doing so, they risk engaging in “attack journalism” or muckraking. The muckrakers took on profiteering, deception, low standards of public health and safety. They complained about child-labor, prostitution, and alcohol. They called for the renewal of urban life – for an end to slums in the cities (Keane, 2013). Muckrakers among journalists refuse to take no for an answer, believing that their job is “to uncover things that were previously hidden, to report things as they are, to slam the foolish, to give the liars and thieves a hard time. They are sure that the function of journalism is to produce neither pressure nor harm nor ‘objectivity’ nor ‘balance.’ Its purpose, rather, is to point cameras at wounds, to find words to confront injustice, to let victims of power speak in their own voices” (Munhamn, 2010).
Here, one thing is sure. Journalists do not always find it appealing to report the good news because it assumes the principle of “regularity” or “normalcy” in society and government. It’s the government’s job to do good. It’s society’s job to promote good. Outside of it is minefield of controversy or anomaly that must be exposed. The media views this propensity for negativity as an offering of precaution, a public appeal for vigilance against the social and political aberrations that could hurt their individual rights and freedom. To know justice, one should be exposed to injustice. To know safety, one must be acquainted with danger. This corresponds with, and is perhaps caused by, the fact that humans are hardwired to pay more attention to negative stimuli in our environment than positive stimuli. That our primary source of social and political information devotes more attention to negative phenomena worsens the asymmetry (Schiffer, 2018).
Negativity borne out of muckraking is most effective when dramatized. By dramatizing, it paints a picture of the human condition that regular press releases or bombastic political speeches lack. Poverty porn, candid shouting matches, and illicit video scandals are just some of the “visual effects” muckraker use to keep public attention hooked to its choice of issues. Citing political scientist Shanto Iyengar, Schiffer noted the media’s proclivity for “episodic news” which breaks down issues by “serializing” them like TV dramas. Through a series of studies, he showed that, when television news is framed episodically, viewers tend to attribute responsibility for social problems such as poverty, terrorism, and crime to individual citizens rather than to system-level actors such as political leaders. The bias toward individual attribution results in a “pro-establishment” tilt to political views. Ideally, citizens evaluate officeholder performance retrospectively, rewarding them for keeping their promises and for positive policy outcomes while punishing them for failures. However, as news fails to give citizens the contextual information necessary to see the connections between policy output and social outcomes, political actors are insulated from accountability. Meanwhile, news viewers blame “the lazy poor people” or “deviant criminals” for social ills. (Schiffer, 2018, 71). The same logic can be applied to netizens who comment on negative news stories about the president. They don’t blame Duterte for the bad press that his pronouncements generate. Instead, they call out the media for “exposing” the president, accusing them of regurgitating stories – bad or good – about landmark issues like the drug war and the West Philippine Sea dispute. The distrust stems not just from “fake news” but from Duterte’s ability to reposition reality by stressing that the media has no business telling him how to run the country. He attacks the principle that government should listen to the media as agents of public sentiment and that politicians, no matter what their intentions are, cannot be totally trusted by the people. In recent decades, an accumulation of survey evidence suggests that citizens in many established democracies, although they strongly identify with democratic ideals, have grown more distrustful of politicians, doubtful about governing institutions and disillusioned with leaders in the public sector. The patterns of public disaffection with official “politics” have much to do with the practice of muckraking under conditions of communicative abundance (Keane, 2010).
To Duterte’s news-consuming supporters, the primetime news or the morning paper is what Lippman calls the “printed diary of the hometown.” They expect news about a hero-figure like Duterte to be aspirational. Negative stories about the president dampen this mental framework. Duterte supporters know not all of them can sit in Malacanang. But they hang on to the “vague feeling that they are part of the life that they read about,” that Duterte as president is fulfilling their own political yearnings and the media has no right whatsoever to spoil it, even if newsmen invoke the call of duty. Taking the cue from Lippman’s “pictures in our heads” argument, John Nerone said people had to always satisfy “personal and cognitive needs.” Human beings want to think in terms of simple stories with sharply drawn characters, so they reduce complex realities to stereotypes and heroes. It is simply human nature to distort the world in grasping it. The media intensify the distortion. First, the people who work in the media will have distorted understandings of the world, for all the same reasons that ordinary people do. Then, media operators will intentionally distort the world further to make it conform to what they think people are capable of or interested in understanding (Norone, 2015).
Journalists, however, are still duty-bound to remind the president of his miscues not as guardians of morality, but as paragons of regularity, expecting public officials to do and say the right things. Ideally, veteran news men will craft stories as public memos addressed to the electorate, which has the greater power to inhibit politicians from misconduct and punish them for doing so through their votes and other legal or extra-legal means. But be as it may, Duterte as president is powerful enough to “dictate” the news. He is in fact, his own “publicity man.” Yet it follows that the picture which the publicity man makes for the reporter is the one he wishes the public to see. He is censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers, and to the whole truth responsible only as it accords with the employers’ conception of his own interest. The development of the publicity man is a clear sign that the facts of modern life do not spontaneously take a shape in which they can be known. They must be given shape by somebody, and since in the daily routine reporters cannot give a shape to facts, and since there is little disinterested organization of intelligence, the need for some formulation is being met by the interested parties (Lippman, 1965). From a shooting spree analogy, Duterte is a “moving target.” He “moves” by constantly jumping from one issue to another, changing the dynamics of the discussion and eventually losing the media in the crowd of his pronouncements. Duterte’s ability to gaslight the media through verbal and non-verbal devices makes it hard for muckrakers among newsmen to decisively pin him down.
Media firms are traditionally anti-establishment. But this is only so because, in the final analysis, they aim to be the establishment itself, if not part of it, just like their owners who practically share the same bloodline as their political counterparts. Press freedom, after all, is liberty caged in the halls of law and politics – two things illiberal leaders like Duterte and his ilk enjoy turning as ammunitions for their weapon of choice: public attention. Today, the Philippine mainstream media is challenged, but it is not crushed. It is opposed, but it is never obliterated. Just like in the past, it has the right to be curious, to ask questions, to ventilate issues, and ultimately to enlighten the public. All that falls in the realm of mediation. It’s high time for the media to re-engage itself in the politics of moderation.
Anthony Andrew G. Divinagracia
The author is an instructor in the Department of Political Science of the University of Santo Tomas and a senior producer, editor and writer of News5, the news and information arm of TV5 and One News Cignal TV.
Duterte banner image: Crystal Eye Studio / Shutterstock.com
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- The essay appeared in “A Duterte Reader” Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency (first published in 2017) with Nicole Curato as editor. ↩
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- Fareed Zakaria. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76. No. 6 (Nov-Dec, 1997): 22-43. ↩
- akaria basically defines democracy as a process for selecting government and the accumulation and use of power; constitutional liberalism on the other hand is about government goals, rule of law, private property rights, separated powers, free speech and assembly, and limitation of power. ↩
- Fukuyama once said that the “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” These alternatives were fascism and communism. ↩
- Tharoor, Ishaan. “The man who declared the ‘end of history’ fears for democracy’s future.” The Washington Post, February 9, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/02/09/the-man-who-declared-the-end-of-history-fears-for-democracys-future/ ↩
- Francis Fukuyama. “The End of History?” The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18. ↩
- Viktor Orban. “Speech at the 29th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp.” miniszterelnok.hu accessed July 28, 2018. http://www.miniszterelnok.hu/prime-minister-viktor-orbans-speech-at-the-29th-balvanyos-summer-open-university-and-student-camp/ ↩
- Michael Ignatieff. “Liberal vs. Illiberal Democracies.” Youtube video, posted by Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, April 22, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8b62rK4WthE ↩
- “Indicators of Risks to Media Pluralism” in Media Ownership Monitor Philippines, Vera Files and Reporters Without Borders, last modified January 31, 2017 https://philippines.mom-rsf.org/en/ ↩
- “Tokhang” came from two Visayan words “toktok” (knock) and “hangyo” (plead) according to former PNP chief Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa. In later interviews, Dela Rosa would clarify that the “war on drugs” was under “Oplan Double Barrel” where police elements actually engaged confirmed drug personalities in a number of raids and buy-bust operations. ↩
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- “Steep loss of trust,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 03, 2019. https://opinion.inquirer.net/119896/steep-loss-of-trust ↩
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- Pasion, Patty. “Inquirer employees surprised, worried about Ramon Ang buyout,” Rappler, July 18, 2017. https://www.rappler.com/nation/175954-inquirer-employees-reaction-ramon-ang-buyout ↩
- This information came from media managers in the MVP group whom the author has consulted, in relation to newsroom performance and independence. ↩
- Brazil, Eric. “Eugenio Lopez, Philippine mogul,” San Francisco Gate, July 2, 1999. https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Eugenio-Lopez-Philippine-mogul-3077706.php ↩
- The Swiss Challenge is a government bidding process which reviews unsolicited project proposals from the private sector. It is the prescribed bidding process under Section 4A of the Republic Act 6957 or the Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) Law. ↩
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- VERA Files, along with Rappler were chosen by Facebook as fact-checking partners on April 2018, to fight the proliferation of “fake news” in the Philippines. It continues to fact-check various independent Facebook blogs connected with or supporting the administration. ↩
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- EPP is equal to the total number engagements divided by the total number of posts. ↩
- According to Crowdtangle, the interaction rate is the number of interactions (e.g. reactions, comments, shares), accounting for weights (e.g. if you give shares 3x the weight, they get 3x the interactions), divided by the account size (followers/page likes) at the time of posting. ↩
- Growth of followers is the percentage of followers that a page has gained for a particular period of time, in relation to the size of its interaction community or number of followers that it hosts. ↩
- “Look who’s talking—or reacting,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 26, 2019. https://opinion.inquirer.net/124834/look-whos-talking-or-reacting ↩
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- Zalan, Eszter. “How to build an illiberal democracy in the EU,” EU Observer, January 8, 2016. https://euobserver.com/political/131723 ↩
- “‘Kill journalism’,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 3, 2019. https://opinion.inquirer.net/121117/kill-journalism ↩